"You can learn new things at any time in your life if you're willing to be a beginner. If you actually learn to like being a beginner, the whole world opens up to you."
Since before I can remember, I have been an athlete. Anything that didn’t involve hitting a ball with a stick was fair game; if I was moving, I was happy. But one thing I knew I would never, ever want to do was mountain bike. My logic was simple: why would I ever intentionally plummet down a trail with rocks, roots, trees, bridges, and cliffs waiting to kill me? Why would I ever want to jostle my body over debris when I could ride on smooth roads on my beloved triathlon bike while wearing obscenely tight lycra instead?
Thirty-four years into my thirty-five years of life, I finally figured out the answer to those questions: because even with all the bruises, cuts, scars, and crashes, mountain biking is really fun.
Now don’t get me wrong—for the majority of my first summer learning how to ride, I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. I openly wondered why anyone enjoyed it and left every ride asthmatic, bruised, and defeated, even when I had small victories. But it had been over a decade since I took on a sport so unfamiliar to me, and I appreciated the immense challenge of learning something completely outside of my wheelhouse.
Friends and strangers, hear me now: if I can learn to mountain bike, let alone grow to love mountain biking, ANYONE can. I am living proof it can be done (with a few battle wounds along the way, but they are great conversation starters). Simply put, there is no better place to learn to mountain bike than the Adirondacks. Between the variety of options and locations with stunning scenery all around, this is the place to be, and Wilmington must be at the top of your list of places to ride.
If you’re interested in learning to mountain bike, I am here to suggest beginner-friendly trails throughout the mountain biking paradise that is Wilmington, NY. Learning to mountain bike is WAY more fun when you learn on trails that suit your ability levels rather than getting dragged by your best friends onto something like...oh, I don’t know...the Rock Garden in the Flume Trails for your first ever day of riding (“Try mountain biking,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said). Every trail mentioned below has been built and maintained by the Barkeaters Trail Alliance (BETA), a member-supported, non-profit organization “connecting and enhancing our [Adirondack] communities through a diverse, sustainable and interconnected trail system.”
BETA’s maps show you the direction in which you should ride each trail, and they have an easy trail marking system used to define the difficulty of each trail:
green = easy
blue = intermediate
black = advanced
red (often called a “double-black”) = expert
Don’t have a mountain bike? Rent one from Placid Planet or High Peaks Cyclery, make sure your noggin’ is properly protected by a good helmet (not one that has been collecting dust for years; these things have a shelf life), grab a map and enough hydration for the time you’ll be out there, and you will be on your way with these beginner-friendly spots!
The Wilmington Bike Park
Not only is this the coolest mountain biking space in Wilmington, but the story behind it is even better. This park was truly an “all hands on deck” effort, including the work of pro-racer and pro-course builder Kyle Ebbett, BETA, and two kids, Charlie Wilson and Henry Loher (soon to be joined by Charlie’s little sister, Ella). Wilson and Loher wanted to get into racing, designed a kids’ race for the Wilmington Mountain Bike Festival, and used the money to dream big. The culmination of their ongoing collective ideas and efforts is the Wilmington Bike Park, commonly referred to as “the pump park.”
This park has all sorts of “features,” aka man-made concoctions of dirt, rocks, roots, and/or wood for you to bike through, over, and around to help you practice specific skills. Riders of all ability levels can spend a whole day just playing on the pump track, berms, jumps, teeter-totter, and other additional features designed for fun while improving along the way. The beauty of being a beginner at the Wilmington Bike Park is that you can practice at your own pace without the stress of keeping up or worrying about being in someone’s way.
Trying something over and over again to get more comfortable with a certain skill is called “sessioning” in mountain biking, and it is one of the best ways to learn and improve skills. The bike park is a sessioning party! Uncomfortable with going over a rock? Session it. Not confident with berms? Session it. Need to learn how to “pump”? (Not an essential skill, but holy moly is it fun…) Session it. Worried about riding over narrow boards? Session it. Your commitment will pay off! If you get a skill down in the bike park, your chances for success on the trails are that much stronger.
Even advanced riders can gain from sessioning skills at the bike park, so it is truly a perfect area to go when you have a range of riding abilities in your group. Plus, you will likely see children who were essentially born on a mountain bike clearing jumps and ripping through the park like a pro, all while wearing a dinosaur or unicorn helmet. How can you say no to that?
It is a tie. On the one hand, clearing what I referred to as the “balance beam of doom”—a feature with wood, rocks, a tree stump, and skinny wooden planks—was my first true victory in overcoming a challenge beyond my skillset. But on the other hand, a little boy wearing a dinosaur helmet trying to teach me how to jump while simultaneously explaining that ice is colder than water deserves being mentioned here, too.
Beginner clinics and guided rides at the Wilmington MTB Festival
The Wilmington Mountain Bike Festival takes place every Labor Day weekend, and its central location is at the Wilmington Bike Park. The festival includes skills clinics and guided rides for all levels, including absolute beginners. The last festival took place in 2019, but that year’s schedule provides a glimpse into all the fun that awaits riders this year!
Never ridden a mountain bike in your life? The Wilmington MTB Festival is perfect for you.
When I first started out, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. A decade of road biking did very little in teaching me how to get up off the saddle, shift my weight, find my balance over and around rocks, and, well, intentionally hit things with my tires (the exact opposite of road cycling). After signing up for a beginner’s clinic, my skills and confidence went from nothing to something. There was still plenty to learn, but now I knew how to “hinge,” when to “shift my weight back or forward,” “load my tires,” “separate from the bike” on turns—all things I had never heard of. Suddenly, rocks and roots no longer freaked me out. My teeth no longer chattered out of my head. I learned “sideways curvy scary things” were called berms. Climbs and descents became fun. This doesn’t mean I was good, but after only one in-depth instructional outing, mountain biking started to make sense. If you have ever thought about trying mountain biking for even a moment, the Wilmington MTB Festival is the perfect place to begin.
While I would normally say seeing the abundance of kids on bikes and striders having a blast was my favorite part, I think meeting my now-fiancé at the pump park during the 2019 festival takes the cake. Swoon.
This trail can be reached directly from the bike park. Bike towards the yellow gate past the playground and turn left. That trail will bring you to a road. Turn left on the pavement and veer right at the end of the road. You will see the entrance sign for Noreen at a wooden bridge on your left.
Noreen is a tremendous trail for beginners—uphill on the way out, downhill on the way back. While ascending and descending, the trail is straight enough to give great visualization of the what’s ahead without worrying about technical turns. The trails are nice and smooth (well, “smooth” according to typical Adirondack terrain standards). It provides options for a short out-and-back ride or connecting to the Three Sisters Trail, more commonly referred to as the Quaker Mountain trail.
My first and only experience with startling a deer napping on the trail during a fast downhill. While I did not ask, I’m willing to bet the deer handled this moment better than I did.
If you reach this trail via Noreen, you have two options: turn right to climb another 0.3 miles to the top of the Quaker Trail before enjoying the ride back down, or turn left to skip the extra climb and get into the downhill fun.
Like Noreen, this trail is great for getting comfortable with ascending and descending on its relatively smooth trails. There are bends and turns that are comfortable to descend as well as those that are tight enough to make you practice skills without being tight enough to be excessively technical. Quaker has downhill options for both jumps and rollers as well as biking to the side of them and enjoying flat terrain—the choice is yours.
If you add the climb up Quaker (I strongly recommend it!), simply descend down Quaker back towards Noreen. Here, you can either make that left onto Noreen and work your way back to the pump park or you can enjoy the full descent down Quaker to the bottom!
I have a number of favorite descents in the Adirondacks, but this remains one of my top picks. It’s just fun. Period. But keep in mind, the only way to get back is to climb back up Quaker. While it is, again, one of the smoothest ascents you will find in the Whiteface Region, it is also one of the most deceptive. Smooth trails in the Adirondacks lead you to assume they are “easy.” Smooth as it may be, Quaker is definitely a climb. There isn’t necessarily a steep section; it is just consistent (although there are some short breaks here and there).
Being a part of an Adirondack women’s mountain bike night and enjoying a group clinic on how to roll over a boulder that was tall (and therefore scary) to many less-experienced riders. It was amazing to see the group’s encouragement allow a number of women to successfully try something they hadn’t been comfortable previously attempting on their own.
The Hardy Road Trails
Once you reach the bottom of Quaker Mountain, it is rider’s choice: turn back up for the climb back to the pump park, or make a right onto Hardy Road to the Hardy Road trails. If you only want to ride the Hardy Road Trails, simply park your car at the available lots on Hardy Road by the trailheads. There are so many options in these trails, your whole day can be spent here alone.
The Hardy Road Trail system is by far my favorite place to bring fellow mountain bikers simply due to its variation. While best known for its scenic and challenging All-In trail, the Hardy Road Trails offer plenty of beginner friendly options.
No matter what kind of day I have planned, my first trail of choice at Hardy is always Coniferous. Short and sweet, flat as a pancake, and an easy way to get your bearings. The Lost Farm Trail is just as lovely. While it spills you out onto a black-diamond trail (All-In) to come back, this particular lower section comes after the black-diamond scary stuff and is entirely manageable, offering a great opportunity to try something beyond your comfort zone.
Another option to challenge yourself is trying the blue-labeled Make-Believe Trail. This was my first attempt at a blue trail once I started learning how to ride, and it is the perfect trail for taking that next step (and pedal) forward. Make-Believe connects you with the green-labeled Double Time trail to bring you back to the road.
I have endless beloved memories on these trails, but getting proposed to at the top of All-In easily tops them all.
Whether you are a total beginner, early in the process of learning to ride, or getting hooked, the trails in Wilmington are everything you could ever want or need as someone starting out. There is a serious learning curve in mountain biking, so be patient. It does come together. Naturally, you are going to be earning an appetite while out on the trails. Treat your tastebuds to the deli at The Little Supermarket (conveniently located directly next to the pump park), grab a bite and a pint at Pourman's Taphouse, cool off with a frozen root beer float at the A&W, or watch fly-fishermen as you savor the flavors at the Hungry Trout. Don't forget to stop at Adirondack Chocolates for dessert!