The Best Mountain Bikes of 2023: Staff Picks

Discover confidence and excitement on singletrack with these trail-slaying mountain bikes.

Kelly Bastone|Updated August 14, 2023

51 reviews with an average rating of 3.7 out of 5 stars
two mountain bikers on a ridge

Mountain bikes are sophisticated machines that turn dust, duff, roots and rocks into grin-inducing fun. Their performance technology involves geometric angles, bump-softening shocks, varying wheel sizes and a host of components for shifting, braking and even adjusting the saddle height while pedaling. It’s enough to boggle even bike geeks.

So we asked our team of experts to winnow the options and help you find the right one for you. These mountain bikes serve different types of cyclists, from newbies who are just developing a relationship with mountain biking to experienced cyclists who hammer singletrack seven days a week. Some models serve riders who need one bike for multiple aims—including bikepacking or commuting. All are sold at REI Co-op, where bike techs are trained to answer questions that these reviews can’t address. They’ve helped scores of people to find their bliss on mountain bikes. Here’s their short list of proven winners.

Staff Picks

For quick recommendations, check out our roundup below, or scroll down for more in-depth reviews.

Riders who gravitate to flow trails with lots of bermed turns and swooping arcs will love this bike’s energy and snap. Salsa shortened this Horsethief’s chainstays to 432mm (5mm less than previous generations) for extra zip through corners. But this bike is also one of the most versatile in our lineup: Flow-addicted cyclists who also like long cross-country epics, technical descents or even overnight bikepacking adventures should consider this rig for its adaptability to various riding scenarios. “This bike is great because it is so versatile,” confirms Brent Ellinger, a sales lead at the REI store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who has owned the Horsethief for several years. “This amount of travel makes for a bike that can do downhill trails if you have a little more skill, but it's still very efficient for flow trails that are less technical.”

With a flip chip built into the rear shock’s link mount, the Horsethief can adjust to an array of wheel and tires sizes. It comes with 29-inch wheels and tires that are 2.5 inches in front, 2.4 inches in back. But riders wanting to boost the bike’s playful agility could swap in 27.5-inch wheels and wider tires (2.8 to 3 inches) for extra grip in corners and lumpy features. The flip chip adjusts the bike’s bottom bracket height and head tube angle to keep such changes feeling balanced. The frame also includes two bottle cages and space for frame bags.

The Horsethief is also a solid trail bike for singletrack that ranges from buff to rowdy. Its standout advantage is its Split Pivot suspension design, which uses a concentric rear axle pivot to isolate pedaling and braking forces to improve traction while braking (with most mountain bikes, braking inhibits suspension performance, so in technical terrain, traction suffers). The Horsethief’s short chainstay length also helps this bike hop through tight situations (like switchbacks and narrow gaps between boulders) to help riders feel agile. 

Sizing skews toward tall folks. Even in size small, the bike’s 30-inch standover height caters to people measuring 5’5” or more, while the XL size suits riders 6’2” and greater. Buy here.

 

The DRT 3.3 from Co-op Cycles helps beginners feel confident while delivering the performance that experienced riders want when negotiating technical singletrack. Its approachable price also endears it to entry-level riders, and yet the build includes quality components that appeal to the full ability spectrum and make this model an incredible value. 

“The four-piston brakes are very strong, ensuring controlling speed on the descent,” says Robert Blazoff, a retail specialist in the Northville, Michigan, REI store. Two-piston models cost less but typically deliver less stopping power. Paired with large, 180mm Shimano rotors, the Shimano Deore disc brakes scrub excess speed in a jiffy. That reassures tentative riders, and the shorter stopping distance also helps experts maintain momentum. Smaller sizes incorporate 27.5-inch wheels, while larger riders get 29-inch hoops. Doing so optimizes the bike’s weight and handling for the size of its intended rider. And at 2.4 inches wide, the Maxxis tires balance rolling efficiency with confidence-boosting traction. Says Blazoff, “It will provide grip even on the steepest root-filled rocky technical climb.” Thus, the DRT 3.3 provides all-around performance at a great price. Buy here.

 

Riders love the all-mountain Blackthorn for its composure in lumpy, raucous descents. The 64.6-degree head tube angle helps it plow over big rocks and encourages a sense of security in the steeps. The 160mm RockShox Lyrik Select+ fork absorbs airy drops. Thus the Blackthorn is “a big, stable ride, and great for technical trails,” says Mike Knape, senior manager of data and analytics for REI who rides his Blackthorn on Bellingham’s Galbraith Mountain north of Seattle.

He would not, however, describe it as “playful.” Nor does it help riders feel superhuman on climbs, though its uphill performance is better than you might expect from this downhill-oriented bike, reports Knape. The Blackthorn Carbon SLX has a stiffer frame and weighs less than its aluminum counterpart, the Salsa Blackthorn SLX Mountain Bike, and thus requires less muscle when cranking uphill.

Like the shorter-travel Salsa Horsethief SLX discussed above, both versions of the Blackthorn incorporate a Flip Chip that adapts the geometry to various wheel and tire sizes. The Blackthorn also features Split Pivot suspension, which uses a concentric rear axle pivot to isolate pedaling and braking forces to improve traction while braking. And sizing caters to riders 5’5” and taller. Buy here or here.

If you’re looking for an electric mountain bike (eMTB) that can handle the gnarliest climbs and steepest descents, the Moterra 4 from Cannondale delivers. This Class 1 e-bike uses Shimano’s top-of-the-line motor, the EP8, which delivers a zippy 85nm of torque and pedal-boosting power to 20mph. That oomph helps riders clean rock slabs and tackle every uphill obstacle that the mountain throws at them.

“The Cannondale Moterra Neo 4 is a confidence-inspiring ride for all skill levels,” says Tyler Roberts, a bike/ski mechanic in the Bend, Oregon, REI store. “Rock Shox suspension front and rear provides a plush ride that still pedals efficiently. This bike is a wonderful choice for riders looking to set off on longer rides with less fatigue and more smiles!”

Despite the bike’s weight (like all electric models, the Moterra Neo 4 is heavier than motor-free versions) its handling is agile enough for tricky trails. “I found the extra weight contributed to greater tire grip and stability at speed,” says Roberts. Four-piston TRP brakes and big, 200mm rotors facilitate effective stopping power for reliable control in steep, rowdy terrain. Maxxis Rekon tires in 2.6-inch width provide outstanding grip in corners.

The battery can be removed for convenient charging in your home—or you can plug it in while it’s attached to the bike. Its 630 watt hours lets one rider log two to three 10 to 12-mile rides before the battery life dips. Just allow plenty of time to recharge: Riders report a slow charge time. Buy here

 

This bike is not just for shorter people. Offered in sizes ranging from XS to XL, the Habit 4 represents excellent value in a mid-travel bike built for smooth-packed dirt and moderately technical trails. The Habit 4 from Cannondale accommodates the not-tall end of the size spectrum with an appealingly shorter reach (405mm in the XS), a low standover height (37.8 inches in the XS) and size-specific engineering. Instead of simply shrinking size Medium, Cannondale tweaks the geometry of each frame size so it performs best for the intended rider. Size-specific suspension kinematics further ensure that the smallest (and biggest) riders all enjoy optimal handling.

The setup also strives to balance uphill and downhill capability and results in a major fun factor on all parts of the trail. The 77.5-degree effective seat tube angle places the rider in a forward position that helps conquer climbs. The 65.5-degree head tube angle hits the sweet spot for ups and downs: It lets riders maintain control over the front wheel while gaining elevation and offers stability during descents. It’s the jack-of-all trades trail bike that lets enthusiasts enjoy easy paths, ambitious singletrack, and bermed corners in lift-served bike parks. Buy here.

 

This is no bike-path build. The Timberjack SLX 29 from Salsa uses a long, low and slack geometry that delivers stability through rough trail features. The front end features a 66-degree head tube angle to soak up big roots and rocks. That, combined with the 130mm front fork and the larger wheels’ ability to create a smooth ride over lumpy singletrack, helps this hardtail conquer technical routes.

It pairs the long wheelbase with short chainstays (420mm to 437mm) that keep the handling from feeling sluggish. The design feels snappy in turns and makes this bike a wheelie machine: The rigid frame lets riders execute bunny-hops and manuals with less effort.

At 33 pounds, it’s not the lightest hardtail available (its weight is comparable to many mid-travel full-suspension bikes) but it’s less expensive—without sacrificing quality components. The Shimano drivetrain and MT brakes promise excellent durability and low-fuss maintenance. And because the frame includes Salsa’s alternator dropout, riders can customize the geometry to adapt to their needs: You can lengthen the chainstays to improve stability at high speeds or while bikepacking, or achieve enough chain tension to turn the rig into a single-speed. Buy here.

 

Shop Mountain Bikes 

 

Mountain Bike Buying Advice

Figuring out the best mountain bike for you starts with where you plan to ride. After that, get in touch with your inner gear nerd by delving into componentry, specs and features. Lastly, figure out the right frame size. Learn more in our in-depth buying guide, How to Choose a Mountain Bike.

Bike Category

The ever-evolving world of bike categories can seem daunting, but it’s worth the time to familiarize yourself with it before you select your ride. One key consideration is where and how you plan to ride. This will help determine the kind of mountain bike you should get. Just keep in mind that the lines between different bike subcategories can be blurry. And just because a bike is designed for a certain style of riding doesn’t mean that is the only way it can be used. 

Trail bikes (nearly every bike in this article) are best for, you guessed it, trails. They’re the most common style of mountain bike and designed for navigating rocks, roots, climbs, drops and everything that’s fun about mountain biking. Cross-country bikes, on the other hand, are designed for mellower terrain (think: gravel roads), and more ups and downs. They’re descended from a type of racing and tend to appeal to competitors and more skilled riders, as well as recreational riders who like to spin the pedals on dirt roads with undulating elevation profiles. Finally, all-mountain mountain bikes like the Salsa Blackthorn are a breed of mountain bike designed for bigger leg-burning climbs, longer, more challenging descents and more technical features—both man-made and natural. Bikes for all-mountain riding are designed to perform well on steep descents while also being light and nimble enough to pedal uphill. Lastly, electric mountain bikes like the Cannondale Moterra 4 allow riders to cover more terrain and pedal farther. Many styles of mountain bikes can be found as e-bikes that include battery-powered motors.

Features

The more you ride, the more you’ll learn about yourself and your tastes. Before you get there, however, you can make an educated guess about what sort of suspension and wheel size are best for you.

In general, full-suspension mountain bikes like most of the bikes in our lineup offer better performance on more rugged trails. They’re also more expensive. Hardtail mountain bikes like the Timberjack SLX 29 from Salsa, which have a suspension on the front only, cost less. That suspension on the front can provide enough shock absorption and comfort for less rough trails. Plus, having no suspension in the rear means you won’t lose pedaling power on climbs. Other suspension details matter, too, so take a peek at our article on suspension basics to learn more.

As for wheels, these days you typically have two choices: 27.5 inches or 29 inches. Smaller, 27.5-inch wheels are better at accelerating and maneuvering, while 29-inch wheels roll over obstacles easier and have better traction. Because frame geometry and wheel size are related, this decision also has implications in the bike size you choose. Learn more about wheel size here.

Frame Size

Getting the right fit starts with getting the right frame size. At its simplest, that requires checking the particular bike’s sizing chart and choosing the cell that matches your height. It might also mean, though, that you need to determine your “standover” height (pant inseam length is a close approximation), and then pick a bike size that works with that geometry spec. Read Mountain Bike Fitting Basics to learn more.

Ken Knapp contributed to this report.

 

Learn More: How To Choose a Mountain Bike 

 

Methodology

REI’s bike techs have a lot of opinions when it comes to pairing riders and rides, so we polled them: What are the best mountain bikes at REI? We asked them for their favorite full-suspensions and hardtails, as well as value picks and bikes for newer riders. The rigs on this list are their favorites for most folks.