Asheville’s best flow trail is hidden under three feet of tall grass and briars. That’s what I decide as I ride Alexander Mountain Bike Park, pedaling through patches of thick brush that lead to a few hundred yards of butter-smooth trail before succumbing to more grass and thorns. It’s frustrating, slow-paced riding because of the conditions, but I can tell that there’s gold beneath all this overgrowth. Alexander’s trail system was built almost two decades ago, before “flow trails” became buzz words in the mountain bike world, but Alexander’s trails were built with flow in mind, using the contours of the ridgeline to create a sweeping, roller-coaster ride unlike anything else near Asheville.
“It’s so much fun, but nobody comes up here to ride it,” says Jeff Keener, the former president of the Pisgah Area SORBA (Southern Off Road Bicycle Association). It’s curious that Alexander receives almost no attention, but the truth is, most mountain bikers are so enamored with the 20 miles of singletrack at Bent Creek Experimental Forest, on the west side of town, that they never bother exploring the area’s other trail systems.
Alexander’s singletrack winds through a stand of woods between the French Broad River and the Buncombe County Landfill. Keener spearheaded two work days on Alexander over the winter to whip the system into shape and hopefully lure bikers to check it out. But judging by the overgrown nature of the trails in early June, I’d say not many bikers have pedaled Alexander recently.
“It was riding beautifully earlier this year,” Keener says. “Some really fast, twisty sections, but it’s going to be hard to maintain it if nobody rides it.”
That’s the great irony of Asheville’s mountain biking scene: while some areas like Bent Creek get “loved to death,” other systems go almost completely unridden. The trail work at Alexander is part of SORBA’s larger effort to develop and maintain trails closer to Asheville and relieve some of the user pressure on Bent Creek, which is one of the most popular trail systems in Western North Carolina, according to Keener.
And Alexander isn't the only hidden gem nearby. There are a handful of trail systems surrounding Asheville that offer high-quality mountain biking without the crowds. Here are four trail systems worth checking out.
- Distance from downtown Asheville: 4 miles
- Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
You'll find this city-run park known for its incredibly difficult and hilly disc golf course just a few miles northwest of Asheville. But the park also boasts 5 miles of fast, wooded trails. Of all the systems on this list, Richmond Hill gets the most attention simply because of its proximity to downtown; you can pedal to the park from the center of Asheville if you’re looking to add mileage. But I ride here weekly and rarely see another biker.
Comprised of four interconnected loops and a few connector trails, this system offers legitimate singletrack built with mountain bikers in mind. The trails follow the curves of a few ridges that rise directly from the French Broad River. It’s a cross-country system, but there’s little elevation gain with only a few steep, short climbs in the whole park (which is a nice change for Western North Carolina). The trails are tight and twisty, but not terribly technical, with only the occasional root garden (also a nice change for Western North Carolina). New signage was erected this year, making it tough to get lost.
- Distance from Asheville: 13 miles
- Difficulty: Intermediate
Alexander has a lot going against it. There’s an initial climb that isn’t particularly welcoming, and its location on the edge of the Buncombe Country Landfill occasionally offers its own unique odiferous challenge. But as I mentioned, the biggest problem with Alexander is that nobody rides it, making it hard to maintain. Pisgah Area SORBA organized two work days over the winter to clear brush and blown-down trees and correct some drainage issues. But the Southern Appalachians are a temperate rain forest, and without regular traffic, the trails get overgrown fast. Until this system gets regular maintenance and traffic, consider it a fall/winter/early-spring ride. Still, if you hit Alexander when it’s in good shape, you’ll be treated with the best flow system near Asheville.
The system is comprised of two circuits, the 1.7-mile Central Loop and the 2.9-mile West Loop. Most people ride the Central Loop first and connect to the West Loop by crossing over a gravel road that divides the two trails. The ride starts with a steep climb right out of the parking lot that eventually wiggles its way to the top of a low ridge, offering views of the French Broad River below. Then, you ride through stands of tall pines and the occasional open grassy meadow on singletrack. The West Loop is the most fun. Ride it counterclockwise and you’ll be treated with a half-mile downhill through an open pine forest.
- Distance from Asheville: 18 miles
- Difficulty: Intermediate to Advanced
With its classic singletrack riding, it's a wonder Kitsuma isn't more popular. But while Pisgah Ranger District in the Pisgah National Forest offers hundreds of miles of trails extending along the ridges between Brevard and Asheville, Kitsuma is set off by itself in the other direction on a parcel of the national forest bordered by Interstate 40 just east of Black Mountain.
You’ll hear the traffic as you tackle its infamous switchback climb, which heads up directly from the trailhead parking lot, but muscle to the top of that ridge and you’ve got a 3-mile downhill in front of you. What used to be a white-knuckle, technical descent has been reworked into a series of berms and grade reversals with only the small, occasional drop or rock or root garden to slow you down. You could argue that Kitsuma has one of the best pure downhills in Pisgah.
Turn the trail into a 10-mile loop by hopping on Old 70 in the Old Fort Picnic Area at the bottom of the descent and climbing a mellow road grade back to your car. The fact that half of this mountain bike ride is on a road (most of which is closed to traffic) turns a lot of people off, but I say the singletrack is so quality, it’s worth pedaling pavement.
- Distance from Asheville: 20 miles
- Difficulty: Advanced
Big Ivy, Coleman Boundary…the parcel of Pisgah National Forest between Barnardsville and the Blue Ridge Parkway goes by a couple of different names and is cherished by a variety of user groups. Wilderness advocates are in awe of the forest, equestrians enjoy the easy access and climbers are discovering the massive boulders that hide between established trails. Still, traffic in the area is incredibly light compared to other sections of Pisgah.
A gravel road cuts through the heart of the forest, climbing nearly 9 miles from the lower parking lot to a grassy ridgeline road. A handful of steep, point-to-point singletrack trails drop through the hardwoods, crossing the gravel road on their way down the slope. It’s a long climb that gains almost 2,000 feet, but it offers downhillers the perfect shuttle opportunity. Those looking for a climb before the big descent have all they can pedal as well
The jewels of Big Ivy are Bear Pen Trail and Walker Creek Trail, which you can combine into a 3.5-mile downhill that blends some mellow flow with incredibly steep and rocky patches, dropping 1,700 feet in the process. That kind of big-mountain, uninterrupted downhill is hard to find in the Southern Appalachians.
The status of the trails in Big Ivy are always in flux. Most of them are typically open to bikers, but the character of the trails can change depending on the severity of recent storms and volunteer maintenance from enthusiastic mountain bikers. You might find a beautiful B-line tabletop one week, only to return a couple of weeks later to see it has been removed. Regardless, the sheer elevation drop and technical terrain make Big Ivy worthy of a trip for advanced mountain bikers.