Welcome to the Best MTB Festival in the Midwest

With over 100 miles of community-built trail, there’s plenty to celebrate at this annual gathering of singletrack obsessed Hoosiers 

I desperately try to hold Sally Marchand Collins’ wheel as the 4’10” firecracker rockets down Aynes Loop in Brown County State Park. Her tiny pistons are a blur as she bombs through the bermed corners, kicking back loose dust from the dry singletrack. I try to use my much more sizeable mass to catch up on the downhills, but she’s descending like the professional skills coach she is.

Yes, we have our fair share of singletrack in Indiana, and while my beloved state doesn’t have the elevation of Colorado or the slickrock of Moab, we manage to make the most of the terrain we do have. That’s especially true of Brown County State Park, an IMBA Epic Ride Center and one of the crown jewels of Hoosier singletrack. Brown County might not be well known outside of the Great Lakes or the Rust Belt, but it’s quickly apparent why riders hailing from across the Midwest flock to the park about an hour south of Indianapolis every October.

Sally’s long been considered the undisputed queen of Hoosier mountain biking, so perhaps it’s fitting that we’re riding together a couple of days before the Brown County Epic, the biggest holiday of the year for many Midwestern riders and the largest mountain bike festival in the area. Rising from the ashes of the long-running Brown County Breakdown, the Epic is also the main fundraiser for the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association; HMBA volunteers build and maintain not only the BCSP trails but also nearly all the singletrack in the state.

No one compares lap times or mentions Strava unless it’s as the punchline to a joke

So what makes the Epic so… epic? It’s more than just the amazing trails, it’s a celebration of community. The camaraderie, beer and bluegrass music flow freely over the course of the weekend, all surrounded by the arbor canopy that’s exploded into autumnal color.

For Scott Irons, who may have logged more miles on these trails than any living rider, it’s all about “riding with so many friends at the same time. The chill, non-competitive atmosphere. Seeing my odometer click over 100 miles (at the end of the ride). All of the families out there riding together. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind event in a one-of-a-kind place.”

Eavesdropping on conversations around the campsite, no one compares lap times or mentions Strava unless it’s as the punchline to a joke. It just reinforces the fact that the Epic isn’t race or a contest to see who’s the fastest or technically skilled rider, it’s a class reunion for several hundred friends you only get to see once a year.

Riders enjoy seemingly endless miles of twisting, wooded trail during the Brown County Epic | Photo courtesy of HMBA

But that comes with one small drawback: When the plague of two-wheeled locusts descends on the park each October, the gridlock on the trails at the beginning of the ride can cause a bit of consternation. Thankfully riders generally take everything in stride, their innate Midwestern politeness keeping things in check.

Friday is typically reserved for shakedown rides and setting up camp. On Saturday, more than a dozen vendors like Trek, Specialized and Giant are on hand with their demo fleets, while SRAM is on site for free repairs. (While the help is free, be sure to chip in some cash and beer. The money in the tip jar goes to World Bicycle Relief, while the beer is a thank-you gift for the helpful wrench who just saved your weekend.) On the big day, Sunday, riders can log 100 miles in the saddle, riding from the state park into nearby Yellowwood State Forest and Hoosier National Forest.

Off the bike, participants can also enjoy live music Friday and Saturday, free craft beer from local breweries, barbecue Saturday evening and plenty of swag.

Riders relax at an old cabin

Pedaling many of the park’s trails feels like being launched onto a dirt roller coaster, with the fast, flowing singletrack leading into deceptively technical trails like Bobcat Bowl or Schooner Trace. Only the tight switchbacks keeping you from tumbling down the steep ravines below.

Want proof that these trails are truly technical, by more than just Indiana standards? Champion trials rider Jeff Lenosky, who attempts to “ride the unrideable” in his popular Trail Boss video series, came to Brown County to take on Schooner Trace for an episode. It took him three separate visits to finally clean this beast of a trail. (Watch the Schooner Trace episode of Trail Boss here.)

“Each trail that we’ve built in Brown County State Park has its own experience.”

From Aynes, Sally and I hit the Hesitation Point climb. As we pedal upward into the more technical sections of the park, an ash tree suddenly jumps onto the trail and tries to wrench my handlebars from my grasp, but thanks to dumb luck and some previous expert advice from Sally, I manage to stay upright. Near the top of the vista, we navigate through several jagged limestone switchbacks. Over the years, I’ve found most of the right lines through trial and error (mostly error, as the scars on my legs will attest).

Riding into Yellowwood, the flowy trails abruptly switch to a rougher, more backcountry feel, which was entirely by design, according to HMBA board member Paul Arlinghaus.

“The key to building a really great trail system is to provide a wide range of trail experiences,” Arlinghaus said. “Each trail that we’ve built in Brown County State Park has its own experience.” And while HMBA volunteers have succeeded in building a diverse trail system at Brown County, they intentionally left the true backcountry experience to neighboring areas. “Anyone expecting to have the trails to themselves at Brown County on a weekend is going to be out of luck,” Arlinghaus continued.

“State Forests, meanwhile, make it inherently difficult to build trails that appeal to masses,” said Arlinghaus. “Restrooms, campgrounds, nature centers, and pools are hard to come by. So building a trail system that includes trails for the masses in the state park and trails for the adventurous in a state forest makes a lot of sense, and provides riders with a wide range of choices.”

As night falls in the camping area, groups huddle together, passing around growlers of far-flung craft porters and IPAs to sample and trade like baseball cards.

The mostly doubletrack 10 O’Clock Trail dumps you onto Miller Ridge and Crooked Creek trails, where you must conquer the rough-hewn logs and rock features while battling some steep (for Indiana) elevation changes. Riders are rewarded at the end of Crooked Creek with views of the eponymous lake.

From Yellowwood, riders can enter Hoosier National Forest’s network of horse trails, doubletrack, and the Nebo Ridge Trail, where most older mountain bikers first cut their teeth—or more accurately their elbows and knees—on Indiana singletrack. From there, it’s time to turn around and experience many of the trails from the opposite direction.

Sally and I didn’t do the full 100-mile route, but by the time we reach her RV, I’m doubled over and panting. Looking over at Sally, she’s positively giddy and ready to go for another loop (or three). But there’s other fun to be had. As night falls in the camping area, groups huddle together, passing around growlers of far-flung craft porters and IPAs to sample and trade like baseball cards. We’re all laughing, talking about the day’s rides and what the next day has in store for us.

Plan Your Trip

[Sleep] If you’re attending the Epic, pitching a tent or parking an RV at the Rally Campsite is the way to go, as it’s included in the entry fee. If you’re hitting the park at a different time of year, you still have plenty of camping options inside the park, starting at about $15 a night. (Be sure to reserve a spot online; BCSP is the most popular park in the state and can fill up on a busy weekend, particularly during peak leaf season.)

[Fuel Up] In nearby Nashville, Indiana, Big Woods Pizza has been serving dirty mountain bikers for the better part of a decade. Try either the pulled-pork nachos or the Sequoia-sized Forager pizza and a pint of their signature Busted Knuckle porter.

[Get Crafty] Still thirsty after a couple of pints at Big Woods? Upland Brewing Company has taprooms in both nearby Bloomington and Columbus. The seasonal Campfire Session IPA is great for cooling off after a long ride. Be sure to bring a growler of the Bad Elmer’s Porter back to the campsite.

[Ride] With nearly 50 miles of trail in the state park, and another 80 or so in Yellowwood State Forest and Hoosier National Forest, you’ll want to do some route planning ahead of your visit. Check out the map below and then download the free MTB Project mobile app (iOS / Android) to stay on track while you’re riding.

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