If you consider yourself a true mountain biker, then at some point you’ll need to make it out to California.
California is widely considered to be the birthplace of mountain biking, beginning back in the 1960s in Marin County. Since then, mountain biking has exploded in the state, particularly in the last 15 years.
You’ll also notice the diversity of terrain California has to offer, from mountain biking through the desert trails and rocky hills of southern California, to the redwood forests and rocky shorelines of Northern California.
The state’s trails offer difficult climbs, unreal ascents, amazing views, and some of the flowiest trails you’ll find in the world.
With the state spanning such a wide array of climates, you’ll need to consider where you’re going and when. Mountainous parts of northern California will see snow, making them three-season trails, while southern California trails will be open year-round, but will see extreme heat in the summertime, so make sure to time your trip well.
Here are the 10 best mountain bike trails in California.
1. Downieville Classic, Downieville
The Downieville Classic has become renowned not just in California but throughout the country. How could it not be?
It’s a 17 mile entirely downhill trail that drops more than 5,000 feet from start to finish. If that alone doesn’t make you drool, then maybe you need to switch to road bikes.
The top is a technical challenge with tight switchbacks and several creek crossings. The lower section is straighter and faster. As for features, how about suspension bridges and waterfalls.
There are even a few spots where you can hop off your bike and into a swimming hole to cool off (or catch your breath).
2. Ken Burton Loop, La Cañada Flintridge
An oldy but goody, the Ken Burton Loop is just minutes from downtown Los Angeles. The trail was built in early 1990. It lay unused for six years after damage from wildfires before being restored and reopened in 2015.
The Ken Burton Loop continues to be the only one in the Angeles National Forest. It begins with a tough climb that is rewarded by white knuckle downhill singletrack. Carved out of the side of a mountain with a fair amount of exposure, this is not a ride that’s for the faint-hearted.
This rugged trail features some 20 steep switchbacks that demand concentration and focus.
3. Cannell Trail, Kernville
This IMBA EPIC trail in Southern California has a huge reward at the end of it in the form of an 8-mile long 5,000 foot downhill fittingly called the Plunge.
Before reaching that epic descent, you’ll start out at 9,200 feet above sea level and encounter tough climbs and steep descents all above 7,000 feet.
In true IMBA epic fashion, expect rugged rocky trails that are as technical as they are naturally beautiful. You’ll ride through mountain meadows, encounter elk, and enjoy stunning views.
Pay for a shuttle service to get to the trailhead or go with a friend and set up your own. Weather can be extreme here, so bring lots of water and beware that the area is routinely snow-covered in the winter.
4. Soquel Demo Forest, Day Valley
At five years old, this is one of the younger trails on this list, and that seems to be a benefit as it follows all the new school trail designs that favor flow.
Smooth single track with berms, rollers, tabletops, and jumps all perfectly placed to maximize the rider’s momentum.
Not that this trail is experts only. There are plenty of ride-around to make this trail doable for newbies looking to build their skills.
The scenery, a breathtaking forest of giant redwoods, is part of what makes this one of the best flow trails not just in California, but also in the country.
5. San Juan Trail
Lauded as one of the best stretches of singletrack in southern California, the San Juan Trail will challenge you in all kinds of ways.
Begin with a climb of nearly 11 miles during which you’ll ascend nearly 3,400 feet. The climb is a long, hard, ascent up multiple switchbacks with some technical sections.
Be sure to keep your head up as you ascend to enjoy some breathtaking views. The second half is a return trip and thus all downhill. The descent is technical with plenty of loose rocks to navigate along with exposed mountainside singletrack that will require all of your concentration and nerve.
6. Idyllwild, San Diego
This system of more than 40 miles of mountain biking trails located in the San Jacinto Mountains offers something for riders of every skill level. Highlights include the Hub Trail system, which offers challenging climbs and descents along with great views of sprawling mountain meadows.
The real jewel of this trail system is Thomas Mountain and Ramona Trail, a challenging 17-mile loop that includes a 4,000+ foot ascent in 13 miles to Thomas Mountain peak, from which you can enjoy views of San Diego.
Also check out the difficult 24-hour loop, which takes you up to Keen Summit before sending you on a fast descent through fields and meadows.
7. South Yuba Trail, Nevada City
An excellent summertime ride for its location next to the beautiful and rugged South Yuba River, the South Yuba Trail is located in Northern California about halfway between Sacramento and Reno, Nevada.
This IMBA Epic trail winds up down across rocky terrain alongside the river, making for picturesque views and technical riding.
This is not a ride for beginners as it is a rocky trail with several steep ascents and descents and a fair amount of exposed areas. If riding in the summertime, take the opportunity to beat the heat while taking a mid or post-ride dip in the ice-cold waters of the Yuba.
8. The Luge, Portola Hills
The name might give away what this trail is all about; super fast downhill.
Located in Orange County’s Trabuco Canyon, this is a trail system that’s easily accessible from the Los Angeles metropolitan area. At just 1.4 miles, the Luge may not sound like an epic descent, but when you factor in a loss of 622 feet and a -12% grade, this is a real challenge to your skills.
The Luge forces you to quickly and accurately choose the right lines on the trail to avoid larger rocks and deep ruts in the path. The Luge also is exposed in various places on the right, left, and sometimes both sides, testing your nerves.
9. The Lizard Trail, San Joaquin Hills
Flowy, technical, rocky, with plenty of jumps. What more could you ask for out of a mountain biking trail?
That’s what you get with the aptly named Lizard Trail, which winds through the deserts of southern California.
This fast trail offers plenty of options for advanced moves, including well-conceived rock gardens, and well-timed rock drop-offs. Fast and flowy sections take you through some lightly wooded areas. With little elevation change, you’ll generate plenty of speed on this trail.
Just keep in mind that the Lizard is a mixed-use trail, so watch out for hikers as you barrel around those blind turns.
10. Paradise Royale Loop, Redway
More than 3,000 feet of climbing, amazing single track, and exhilarating downhills, this is what you get with the trails at Paradise Royale.
This 14-mile loop, which is intended to be ridden clockwise, begins by following a ridgeline before descending to a creek crossing. The terrain is heavily forested with plenty of technical switchbacks.
A leg-burning climb to the top of Paradise Ridge offers plenty of great views of the ocean as well as large sections of burned-out forest. Take it all in before an exhilarating downhill run to the creek that features a variety of great technical sections with plenty of jumps and banked turns.