In September 2017, Paxton Roberts left his home in Bentonville, Arkansas, for a bike industry trade show in Las Vegas. There, on the red rock trails beyond the casinos, he tried an electric mountain bike for the first time.
“It’s a completely different ride—still fun, still active. It’s not a motorcycle,” he said. “The trail had super steep technical climbs. You still have to pick your line, balance and use all your core muscles, but there’s a little extra assist. It made those sections with obstacles more fun.”
E-bikes represent the fastest growing segment of the $5.9 billion U.S. cycling market. According to Bicycle Retailer, in 2018, e-bike sales increased by $54 million compared with 2017, representing a 78 percent jump. And while commuter and urban models are taking to the streets—where federal, state, and local legislation is catching up fast to accommodate the surge in e-bikes—mountain bikers are also powering up. But the domain of dirt is different from pavement. So, where can electric mountain bikes ride?
The short answer: It’s complicated. Before zipping onto singletrack, know what type of electric mountain bike (or e-mountain bike) you’re riding. Rogers tested an e-mountain bike with a pedal assist, meaning his leg motion engaged a battery-powered motor that pushed the bike to a top speed of 20 miles per hour. “You basically have the legs of a Tour de France sprinter for two to three hours,” according to Adrian Montgomery, a bike industry vet based in Ketchum, Idaho. “I’m never above my heart rate threshold on an e-bike ride.” Stop pedaling and the motor switches off. The bike industry classifies these models as Class 1 e-bikes; Class 2 e-bikes feature a throttle and don’t require you to pedal, while Class 3 e-bikes, also known as speed pedelecs, can accelerate up to 28 miles per hour with the help of a pedal assist. Class 1 e-bikes are the only e-mountain bikes currently sold by REI.
E-bike technology is currently outpacing land managers and policy makers. For now, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service regard all e-bikes as motorized vehicles, while the National Park Service has no official e-bike policy (although some parks allow e-bikes where mobility devices like wheelchairs are permitted). Both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service recommend that users check with local offices for information on where they can or cannot ride before heading into a national forest or park with an e-bike.
The advocacy group People for Bikes, which accepts funding from e-bike manufacturers, wants to bring clarity to the murky landscape. They partnered with the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association to design model state legislation governing e-bike usage that uses language to reinforce e-bikes as bicycles, not motorized vehicles. So far, 17 states have passed e-bike regulations. But while e-bikes join the peloton on bike paths and commuter lanes, where to ride e-mountain bikes remains uncertain. “It’s unequivocally a growing issue,” said Morgan Lommele, the director of state and local policy for People for Bikes. “The three classes allow local level land managers to distinguish between classes to allow access.” And proposed manufacturer stickers would identify e-bike class for land managers.
Consider Jefferson County, Colorado. In 2017, a new state law sorted e-bikes into three classes and defined the bikes as nonmotorized vehicles. That made way for a 2018 pilot study by Jefferson County Open Spaces. Over 12 months, the agency offered e-bike demos to evaluate trail impact and user attitudes. “People had a perception that e-bikes are loud and heavy, like a motorcycle,” said Mary Ann Bonnell, the visitor services manager for Jefferson County Open Space, who conducted field research. “But those beliefs weren’t rooted in real experience.” A demo ride often shifted users to a more positive opinion. The result: In Jefferson County, Class 1 e-bikes can now ride natural surface and paved trails; the latter allows Class 2 e-bikes, too.
Beyond Jefferson County, how can you find out where you can ride your e-mountain bike? Check People for Bikes’ state guides. And while People for Bikes collects e-mountain bike routes on a national map, trail beta is open source, without regulatory control. On trail websites, like MTB Project, information may often include whether e-mountain bikes are allowed or not. Because e-mountain-bike-specific signage is rare and inconsistent, verify trail access by contacting local land managers. You can look to the Bicycle Product Supplier Association for guidance on local advocacy toward e-mountain bike access. And know that IMBA, the sport’s leading advocacy group, supports only Class 1 e-mountain bikes on nonmotorized trails.
More tips? Use your extra breath to communicate with human-powered cyclists—especially when you whiz past on hard climbs. And put extra power to good use away from crowds. “I like [e-mountain bikes] for exploration purposes,” said Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Nat Ross. “They decrease the boundaries out there and increase possibilities.” Ross recently moved to Bentonville, Arkansas. There, he uses an e-mountain bike on trail work days to move heavy tools, carry safety gear and cover more ground—the same reason park rangers and grassroots mapmakers have adopted pedal-assist bikes.
Meanwhile, e-mountain bikes have become a normal part of the singletrack landscape. At home in Bentonville this April, Rogers joined a Wednesday night group ride. The 40-person turnout included a handful of riders on e-bikes. “It’s not unusual,” he said. “People no longer walk up and ogle it and ask a bunch of questions.”
Your guide to mountain bike hubs with singletrack and adventure routes accessible to e-mountain bikes.
Local’s Take: This northwest Arkansas city holds 28 miles of trails accessible to Class 1 e-mountain bikes, and more than 200 trail miles across the region. “The trails are super accessible. You don’t have to drive, and there was a conscious effort by people building the trails to make something for people of all abilities,” said Roberts, who is the executive director of Bike Northwest Arkansas. “We’re hilly, not mountainous. Climbs range from 10 to 20 minutes, max. But there are a lot of them, and gullies, valleys and drainages provide a wide variety of terrain.”
Start Here: Stop by Phat Tire Bike Shop on Main Street for directions to the All-American Trail, a five-minute pedal from their front door. Singletrack alternates with paved sections, and natural features offer skills practice on the half-mile spur trail.
Level Up: Find the 300-acre Coler Mountain Bike Preserve just west of Bentonville to explore 16 miles of flowy singletrack. The ultimate challenge: Rock Solid, a half-mile descent through rocks, roots, slanting ledges and small drops. Scout the line where it intersects with Oscar’s Loop, a 3.9-mile route that contours along Coler’s base.
State College, PA
Local’s Take: Just 16 miles southeast of Penn State’s football stadium, Rothrock State Forest protects 96,975 acres and 100 miles of trails open to Class 1 e-mountain bikes. (Bonus: In Pennsylvania, state park and forest trails open to bikes also allow e-mountain bikes.) In Rothrock, you can make your way up three parallel ridge lines with peaks that top out near 2,000 feet. “Rothrock is special because it’s extremely technical riding,” said Scott Sheeder, president of the Nittany Mountain Biking Association. “It’s a school of hard knocks, with continuously rocky trails.”
Start Here: The Lonberger Path leaves the parking area on Bear Meadows Road and continues over a flat, smooth trail surface. “It’s where people historically start mountain biking,” said Sheeder, “and it’s the main connector to 200 miles of other trails and roads.” Turn back at the intersection with Spruce Gap Trail for a 2.8-mile excursion.
Level Up: Back at Bear Meadows parking, head south to pick up Tussey Mountain Trail. The 4.2-mile ridge traverse climbs a total of 399 feet, with punchy climbs that max out at an 11-percent grade. Expect more technical climbs through hardwood forests filled with blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel.
Jefferson County, CO
Local’s Take: Sandwiched between Denver and the Rocky Mountain foothills, Jefferson County open spaces include 28 parks that total 56,000 acres and hold 244 miles of trail. Bonnell recommends new e-mountain bikers select their time and day wisely. “Our parks are exceptionally busy on weekends between 9am and 3pm,” she said. “If you’re trying to do something new, that can be frustrating for everyone. Go when the trails are not completely packed on a weekday and before or after busy times.”
Start Here: Flying J Ranch, an hour’s drive west of Denver, holds the three-mile Shadow Pine Loop for Class 1 e-bikes. True to its name, the entry-level trail loops beneath lodgepole and Ponderosa pines, as well as Douglas fir.
Level Up: White Ranch Park, located north of Denver in Golden, offers 20 miles of trail open to Class 1 e-bikes. Technical challenges abound on trails like Belcher Hill, a 4.5-mile trail loop with 1,733 vertical feet of climbing over dirt, roots and rock.
E-bikes are limited to multiuse paths in town. Venture to Sawtooth National Forest, however, and you’ll find a vast network of trails and roads legal for off-highway vehicles like dirt bikes. That means a green light for e-mountain bikes, too. “On machine-built trails, you get a 48-inch wide track on a six-degree slope. It’s a controlled experience,” said Montgomery. “These [OFV] trails are hand cut, ridden in by motorcycles and bicycles. It’s exciting to have things show up on the trail you’re not expecting."
Start Here: Follow ID 75 south of town for about 6 miles, then turn west on Greenhorn Gulch Road and follow to a Forest Service parking lot. The Greenhorn Gulch network allows e-mountain bikes on most—but not all—trails. Start on the Mahoney Ridge Trail, a 3.1-mile out-and-back that courses through the Castle Rock fire burn and delivers vistas of the Pioneer Mountains.
Level Up: Montgomery swears he pedaled through wildflower meadows with eight-foot-high blooms on the Greenhorn Gulch Adventure Loop. See for yourself on this 22.6-mile loop that climbs a total of 4,317 feet. Just watch that battery—heavier e-MTBs place an extra burden on tired legs if they power down.
Mammoth Lakes, CA
Local’s Take: Last summer, Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort opened 80-plus miles of singletrack to Class 1 e-mountain bikes. Resort trails typically open in May and require a day ticket ($29). The ski area operates under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, meaning e-mountain bikes are restricted to singletrack within the resort boundary. Still, U.S. Forest Service roads spiderweb beyond the nearby town and offer an escape from crowds. “These old resource extraction roads are not built for fun,” said Town of Mammoth Lakes Trails Coordinator Joel Rathje. “But if you have to go a half-mile up a 20 percent grade on an logging road, an e-bike turns it into fun. And on long, drudgery sections, I make it into a bike park by going into ruts and flying off them like they were berms.”
Start Here: Start your dirt-road adventures on Knolls Loop, a 9.2-mile circuit that begins on Sawmill Cutoff just north of town. An e-mountain bike flies up steeps to views of the Sierra.
Level Up: Test your navigational skills on an extended tour of Inyo National Forest roads that lead to untrammeled corners of the surrounding Inyo National Forest. Find maps at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center, located near the entrance to town, just after the exit off Highway 395.
E-mountain-bike usage is a changing landscape. Users should check with the local land manager to make sure their class of e-bike is allowed before taking to the trails.