MTB Bucket List, 5 Places to Ride at Least Once in Your Life According to Michael Browne 33

MTB Bucket List, 5 Places to Ride at Least Once in Your Life According to Michael Browne

Let's be real for a second. A decade or two ago, when you heard about this legendary trail somewhere on the other side of the world, you knew it was a rare gem; something that absolutely had to be explored. So you packed your bag and your bike, you rallied a few friends and you made some half-researched spur of the moment road trip in search of what was written up in a magazine or posted on a message board as "you must do this before you die."

When you got there, when you saw that legendary view, it was completely and utterly worth it. Your sense of being became a little more complete, and the story you brought home was worth 1,000 times more than whatever you paid in gas and time off and shitty gas station snacks along the way.

But we're mountain bikers. One day reality hits the fan and it splatters on the wall like a partially digested Chipotle extra spicy burrito. Guacamole, black beans and all. You either procreated, spent too much money on XTR, or just had the scant bit of foresight to realize that road trips and epic rides won't change your bed pan in your old age. So you bucked up and got a job that tied you down a little more than your free-spirited nature truly prefers. 

But as the saying goes, a dog will hunt. And as I know it, mountain biker will ride. There's nothing worse than knowing what's out there and knowing what you can't have. So you take what you know, and you shape, craft, sculpt and build a piece of heaven in your own backyard. Some of us seek permission, others ask forgiveness. It might be in the form of a pumptrack where a lawn used to be, a ribbon of green, black, and brown on land the electric company forgot they own, or a choose-your-own adventure network of repossessed deer trails strung together in a forgotten city park.

Whatever your situation, you take what you know and use what you have to make it absolutely awesome. Your opus. Your applied collective knowledge of the world's best trails, dropped onto whatever landscape you have available at your fingertips.

Now, I wish I could say I have done exactly that. But you see, I'm still in the collecting phase. I'm still gathering up the best of the best, and to be perfectly honest, have been too goddamn lazy and too absorbed with other things to lay it all on the line in the woods near my house. Plus, I'm incredibly spoiled and have my own trail builder at my place of employment. Shoot me now. Or just ask me for a job. I am looking for interns.

Anyway, my point is that years ago that list of "Epic Rides" was truly a collection of stuff you absolutely had to experience. No doubt, those rides are flawless. They drain well, they have incredible flow, they have supporting infrastructure, and they are guaranteed to be free of debris, have great signage and maps, and are sure to be here years into the future.

But there's a small army of resourceful mountain bikers out there who have made their own thing, and they've made it incredible. With their own sweat, their own vision, and their own praise-worthy selfish motivation of just wanting to have a place to ride while living inside their own reality. To that I applaud you. So, "Epic Ride" or not, I present to you the places I've been that you have to ride before you die. There may be more like them, but I haven't seen them yet. Death be damned, I’m aiming to see them all.

1. Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

When I lived in Pittsburgh, I lived in a, umm, disadvantaged neighborhood. The barber shop owner next door was assasinated while I was at Interbike. Standing in his shop, the very gang members he helped lock up ten years prior were released from jail and made him their first stop on the way home. Lesson learned — if you own a gun and intend to protect yourself with it, you should probably clean it.

My ride to Frick Park from East Liberty took me past the church where they filmed the Chasing Amy chapel scene, through a graffiti'd up skatepark, and through the gates of Frick.

This wide and long swath of undeveloped city land makes the east side of Pittsburgh one of the best places to live in the entire world. City meets park and is bordered by housing and vibrant communities. The trails have improved and expanded since the last time I rode them, but nothing beats sculpted trails that are as suitable for a 29er hardtail as they are for a 6-inch all-mountain bike. 200 feet of elevation. To add, an active, multi-use population means if you're in the market for a significant other, you might just nab yourself a runner chick, or a dog walker if you bother to stop and smell the rhododendron. All of this is thanks to the core group of riders who burned in the trails and made this a home for recreation rather than recreational drugs.

This in turn ushered in a bit more organization, trail building and planning to make the park a bit less confusing and disorienting. Even so, no trails are marked which means you have to find a local. Ask about the Blue Slide Trail. Be ready for a bermed thrill ride and be prepared to climb out. Just make sure your climb out lands you at D's 6-packs and Dogs, a place that serves up not only the world's best selection of beer, but also the best veggie hot dog in the city. They serve meat versions, of course, but who really wants to eat a "meat" hot dog anyway?

2. Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico

This story might seem like a vast departure from the local trail builder hero you got introduced to at the beginning of this article, but hear me out for a second. Copper Canyon is a series of canyons that are larger and, at places, deeper than the Grand Canyon. If you love being immersed in terrain with layer after layer of peaks, valleys, and textured land, then the only other place I've seen that even compares to this is Patagonia. Too bad the land of the small dog happens to be more notorious at the moment for its narcos and war lords than what honestly is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Photos by and

Besides canyons and dogs and drug lords, in Copper Canyon lives a people named the Tarahumara. This rugged, native society doesn't speak English. When I was perched out on a finger of land with a view that I and the 20 other journalists would later call the "best product launch ever" (thank you so much, Chris Winter of Big Mountain Adventures), I stood next to AskRC as a native man climbed up from the canyon wall beside us with what appeared to be a 50-pound sack of potatoes on his back. No sweat. No speech. Not even breathing hard. We couldn't have been further apart in our worlds. Me, on a multi-thousand dollar mountain bike with suspension and hydraulics and an I'm-just-a-visitor attitude, and he, with handmade moccasins, hands turned to leather, and a faraway stare that didn't carry any animosity or even a desire to understand. Just a "pardon-me-I-need-to-deliver-my-potatoes-to-my-family" look.

It’s that utilitarian motion of generation after generation of Tarahumara "feed the family" mentality that has delivered a vast network of sprawling goat trails that will test the mettle, map-reading and technical skill of the most dedicated mountain bikers.

If you manage to brave the current climate of drug traffic, be sure you also see the "monks," what could be described as a monument park dedicated to non other than the phallus.

Takeaway: Copper Canyon is now your selfish motivation to speak out against the Mexico drug cartel situation. Until this gets sorted, you're not riding here. The only good news here is that while we’re not riding, the Tarahumara are carving in some incredible new trails with their leather feet and sacks of potatoes.

3. Brown County State Park, Indiana

If there was ever a personal story of a hero who brings home the bounty for his native people, this is it. Alex Stewart, thank you very much. When I visited you in 2005, you had a dream. You wanted to not have to drive to Pisgah every year, and to turn this middle-state forgotten park into something real, something awesome, something to write home about. When you explained to me that no mountain bike trail project had ever landed the kind of money you were asking for, you knew that $150,000 was right around the corner. It would be paid out incrementally over years in the form of manual labor, machinery costs, surveys and bridges. Today you have yourself an IMBA-designated "Epic Ride" that's truly worthy of the name.

Sure, the Hoosier state isn't as glamorous as Mexico, or hell, even Pittsburgh. But what they lack in glamor they make up for with flowy earth and undulating climbs and deep woods riding that makes you realize you don't need to hop on a plane or drive to the nether regions of a Canadian province to experience awesomeness. Way to go, Alex. I hope you're still fighting the good fight, cause I hear your trails have only gotten better.

4. A certain Wisconsin-based company's private trails

There's only one rule about this club. You can't talk about it. I might be violating some rule I don't know about by even mentioning the existence of such perfectly manicured acreage, but I'm going to risk it anyway. Here's the not-so-secret fact you may not be aware of: if you are a retailer of this company's products, go to their annual show in August and you'll get to ride them yourself.

That's right. 200+ acres of land. A full time trail builder whose love of power tools is trumped only by his love of making every foot of trail more rideable, more enjoyable, and more challenging than the last.

So if you haven't read through the lines here, I'll lay it out there: Trek, my employer, owns and leases some land near the company's headquarters. Open only to employees and guests of the company, this trail system was the brainchild of Joe V, the company's VP and Director of Product and Marketing, dreamed up as a way to entice more mountain bikers to join the company. It worked. Two years after the initiative kicked off I joined them. Without that dedication to continually evolving, shaping, crafting and dreaming up land that can be considered recreation, meditation, fitness, and product testing space, many co-workers (including myself) wouldn't continue to work there today.

The land is incredible. Jumps, berms, rock gardens, wooden structures, open fast prairie land, dense evergreen wooded maze trails. It's all there, and it ekes out more speed, exhilaration, excitement, and heart-thumping pleasure-in-pain than other places in this world that are given 10 times more natural topography to work with. Proving yet again that when you have to work for it and prove it, you're going to get further than those who have it all naturally.

The caveat: you can’t ride here. Unless you work here.

5. Ray's MTB Park

This one goes out to a guy who put it all on the line. Ray Petro. Some may say the idea of an indoor mountain bike park would've happened naturally, but I'm going to put it out there and say that without his example no one else would've put their neck out there like he did. This pioneer paved the way for a new experience. This guy is the godfather savior of the year-round mountain biker.

Contractor turned mountain biker, Ray literally had an "if you build it, they will come" moment and turned a vacant Cleveland parachute factory into something real, something meaningful, and something that has given to our culture of mountain biking more than any pro racer, or arguably any other trail builder.

Who'd have ever thought that 100,000 square feet of cracked concrete floor and a few truckloads of lumber would be such a significant icon in our sport? Not I, at least until I saw it. That original vision - staggering, inspiring and as beautiful as it was then - is a pittance compared to what exists today. The two locations include foam pits, flowing jumps, technical lines, hamster wheels (yes, the same one you saw on Shipping Wars), and more inspiring t-shirts than you could imagine.

Because this can happen at Ray's.

This guy doesn’t rest on his laurels. Nope, every year when summer comes around and the park shuts down, he looks at the place as a clean slate. Wipes it all away year after year to re-imagine, re-envision, and make sure that the experience you got last visit is blown away the next time you show up. That, my friends, is the most inspiring thing that I've seen yet.

-Michael Browne

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  • DHDan

    3/5/2014 8:15 AM

    how is that a bucket list? there is a world outside America you know

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 11:28 AM

    Forgot to mention, Mac Miller's album, "Blue Slide Park" is named after Frick Park and the Iron Gate trail.

  • M4RT15

    3/3/2014 9:26 AM

    Frick is awesome. I grew up learning to shred singletrack at Boyce Park in Monroeville, so that place is always going to be my favorite Pittsburgh riding spot. Every time I head to Pittsburgh to visit my parents nowadays, I bring my bike so I can get a few hours in at Boyce.

  • djfiler

    3/3/2014 7:23 AM

    I'm the rider/filmer in the first video and am happy to report that the trail system has massively expanded since that video was made last year. Even through the winter, those crazy trail minions were slaving away every week, benching trail into the side of a cliff... through the permafrost... in the snow. All the new stuff is on the side of the hill/cliff overlooking the Mon. The bench cut is 4 or 5 feet deep in some spots, fast twisting singletrack with a ton of exposure. In a word, it is Humpular. I can't wait for riding season!

    While I am grateful to have the luxury of riding in Whistler every year, It is awesome living in the middle of a city yet having endless technical singletrack right outside my door. Frick Park keeps getting better and better.

  • danheckler

    3/3/2014 8:09 AM

    Bravo! I recognize some of it, but it's been well over a decade since I've ridden there as I am living out west now. Looks great! I love the improvements, and I will certainly have to make time to ride the bench cut trail next time I'm in PA. Thanks.

  • djfiler

    3/3/2014 8:42 AM

    Definitely make it back to frick sometime. You won't be disappointed.

    To give you an idea of how good the new stuff is, we hardly ever ride Iron-Gate/Irish-center anymore. That's the fast constant downhill starting up top behind the baseball field and ending near the irish center. Instead we spend more time on 276, crater and humpular.

    Skip ahead to the 40 second mark on this video... that's some of the newer stuff.

  • chillindrdude

    3/3/2014 6:09 AM

    lamest...bucket list...ever

    here's mine (in no particular order)
    1. whistler
    2. whole enchilada, moab
    3. queenstown, NZ (rotorua)
    4. Tenerife, Canary Islands
    5. Malaga, Spain
    6. Anywhere in the Alps...

  • danheckler

    3/3/2014 5:43 AM

    Deleting commentary is oh so 'Merican. What the moderator/web editor may or may not know is that the author was my editor a decade ago when I was a contributor to another mountain bike publication. Hence my pointing out a couple of grammatical errors. Those comments were strictly tongue-in-cheek, but it appears someone can't take a joke, or criticism (however it is perceived). Get over yourselves Vital.

    For what its worth, I agree with Frick Park - heck, I've even ridden there WITH Mr. Browne. But to include a restricted trail network on a bucket list is simply ridiculous. "5 Places you must ride! - oh but you can't ride one of them - sorry" - it's total elitist bullshit that has no place in our sport.

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 6:25 AM

    It's really great to hear from you, Dan. Please send me the grammatical errors! I sat on this piece for some time before just clicking send....without proofing. D'oh!

    I can understand your note about the elitism of private trails as being on a bucket list. Technically, the trails are not as restricted as you might think. Since you know me, I could invite you to ride here. Consider that invitation extended, indefinitely, right now.

  • danheckler

    3/3/2014 6:38 AM

    The errors have already been corrected.

    I am stoked to see you're "in print" again - I've always liked your writings - there should be more! And thank you many times for the invite, I sincerely appreciate it. If I'm ever in the area, count on me getting in touch - those trails look like a lot of fun! However, I still believe they shouldn't be on a "5 Places to Ride at Least Once in Your Life" if the majority of folks reading will never have access.

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 11:21 AM

    Thanks for the comments, Dan. It was really cool to be able to connect with you again!

  • Reformed Roadie

    3/3/2014 5:38 AM

    I used to live on the other side of Frick…much safer trip to the trails.

    Frick is amazing for the fact it is within the city limits of Pittsburgh and you can ride WITHOUT getting in your car.
    Trails are so fun, the scenery on the double track to the top nice (esp. when it's warm) and continues to grow & evolve.

  • fabdemaere

    3/3/2014 12:33 AM

    My bucket list:
    Whistler (obviously), Mount 7, gnarcroft, Dirt Park in Queenstown, the old Rampage site, PG's in Laguna, X-line in Saalbach, Mt. Prevost, Nevados De Chillan bike park, Kuranda in Cairns and Nevado De Colima.

  • #6

    3/3/2014 12:20 AM

    There may be other Continents on the globe......#narrowminded

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 6:28 AM

    Point taken. With this piece, I wanted to consider my audience who I naively assumed would be primarily US-based.
    I've ridden a lot of incredible trails over the years in many places around the world. These are just the places that stuck with me, for whatever reason. Am I hearing a request for, "The most exotic locations you've ridden?"

  • #6

    3/3/2014 6:41 AM

    I wasnt by any means asking for a "most exotic locations" list. What I was hoping for by the title,was a list of trails that were spread around the World. Lets face it for example,the Trans Provence 2010 had a "north american" contingent... then surely if riders are prepared to do that unseen/unriden, it should be on the list, especially as the route is available to be ridden guided but untimed....
    And thats just one that springs to mind
    I think you underestimate the wide reach that VITALMTB has....

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 11:25 AM

    Now I see your request; I guess that I'm not really the person to create a curated list of the world's best trails. And I think that's what I was trying to get across — no matter how far you travel or how many trails you ride, it comes down to the memories you make, and the people with whom you ride. I have story after story I could relate about riding top secret trails with world famous riders, but I think you can get that from a lot of other places. I wanted to offer a slightly different take, and remind Vital's readership that the important thing is actually getting out there. You don't need to travel the world over to feel like you're a part of this community.

    With all that said, I think your idea could be a great topic for another article!

  • bturman

    3/3/2014 12:20 PM

    #6, combined with this one, I think you'll find plenty of world wide variety if you look through our previous Bucket Lists.

  • euan.brownlie

    3/3/2014 12:17 AM

    Again, these are all in America. All the best trails are there apparently.

  • bturman

    3/3/2014 3:15 AM

    Euan and #6, this is simply one man sharing five of his favorite rides that might be worthy of being added to your bucket list. It's not meant to be a definitive "Top Five Rides in the Entire Universe" article, so please take it for what it is and appreciate what Browne is putting on the table.

    Better yet, try adding something to the discussion. What are your five favorite rides that I should consider for my own bucket list?

  • filthyanimal

    3/2/2014 8:45 PM

    IMBA designed = ZZZZZZZZZZZ...

    Rad trails can be built to be safe, fun, and sustainable. Unfortunately, certain trail building "standards" are putting the kybosh on trail project at a time.

  • danheckler

    3/2/2014 8:02 PM

    "The caveat: you can’t ride here. Unless you work here. " = Lame. Shouldn't be on the list if everyone can't enjoy.

    "It's all there, and it eeks out more speed..." I think you meant "ekes" Mr. Editor.

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 6:32 AM

    caveat: you're invited.

    aha! There's the grammar check. eeks >> ekes. NIce catch!

  • Mfro

    3/2/2014 7:36 PM

    Call me boring, unimaginative, even parochial, but I have grand designs on riding trails in Europe, Africa, the Himalaya, South America, Canada and NZ on my bucket list. This is of course an entirely subjective opinion, but the locations listed hardly smack of grandeur or legend. I want to read about or watch videos of impressive riding in unimaginable scenery to feature on a bucket list. No offence but listing those locations is like having Top Gear review a 1987 Toyota Corolla. How about an article featuring some of the most coveted trails on each continent? Tell you what, get the readers of Vital to post up a video of their fav trail in their own country, get them whittled down to the top 10 for each continent then I will spend the whole of 2015 visiting, riding and reviewing them. I'm open to sponsorship offers and endorsements bike companies!!!!

  • TBubier

    3/3/2014 5:47 AM

    Sounds like you just volunteered. I cant wait to read your article.

  • BrowneTrek

    3/3/2014 6:32 AM

    That article could be written. Just likely not by me. I've ridden in Jamaica, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, UK, Germany, Spain, France, Belgium, Canary Islands, South Africa... but I hardly spent enough time in ANY of those places to write a definitive guide.

    I can think of a few people who possess that knowledge, though...

  • dizzmcfunk

    3/2/2014 7:12 PM

    kirkwood for life

  • dustboy

    3/2/2014 6:47 PM

    Even here in California, where we can ride outdoors year round, I wish we had a Ray's. Rode MKE once and been dreaming of it since.

  • diatribe69

    3/3/2014 10:35 AM

    Only problem with California is that about 98.6% of the great trails are illegal ones. (See: Santa Cruz)

  • dustboy

    3/3/2014 11:48 AM

    That problem is related to two bigger problems which are: 1) too many people, and 2) too many litigious people. Even if a great trail is built legally here, buzz gets around and every storm trooper with a Monster Energy tee shirt comes to ride it. Then a storm trooper comes a little short on a gap jump and everybody gets shut out while the attorneys wring the landowner for every dime on their liability policy.