Add this to the list of reasons Huntsville is tops in the State: it's got to be the most convenient city in Alabama if you want to rush out of work at the end of the day and hit the trails for some mountain biking. If you don't know much about the great mountain biking options in the Huntsville area, you've come to the right place. This article will give you a very basic introduction to the local trails and also offer a few suggested day-trip options.
Monte Sano State Park
There's no doubt that Monte Sano State Park is the best local option for mountain biking. If you think about it, Monte Sano is Alabama's most urban state-owned recreational area, situated right in the middle of Huntsville. Birmingham has Oak Mountain State Park, but it's way out of town. Meaher State Park is near Mobile, but it's across the causeway to get there, plus there's no biking to speak of. Lake Lurleen is near Tuscaloosa, and Auburn has Chewalca State Park, but those college towns don't compare to Huntsville in size.
Moreover, the trail options on Monte Sano are really good. My favorite ride right now is to start out at the Land Trust Parking Lot on Tollgate Road and ride up the Mountain along the roughly 1.5 mile Bankhead Trail. It's short, but it's a heck of a good ride and you can FLY on the way back to your car. When you get to the top of the Bankhead Trail, you will find yourself in the curve where Bankhead Parkway ends and Fearn Street begins. A lot of bikers and hikers park here to jump on the closed section of Bankhead Parkway, which shoots rather directly up to the Hidden Lookout at Monte Sano State Park. I usually take a break here and then keep heading up the Mountain via the paved Bankhead Parkway. From the top Hidden Lookout, I then head over to the Bucca Family Trail, a 2.9 mile easy loop that's also a great place to introduce your kids to mountain biking. You can go pretty fast on this trail, and if you want to extend your ride, you can loop back to the paved section of Bankhead Parkway via the longer Montain Mist Trail or a very short (and steep) section of the Sinks Trail. Once back on the paved section of Bankhead, you can then head down the Mountain to the Land Trust Parking area, enjoying that supersonic last mile on the Bankhead Trail.
That's my favorite loop on Monte Sano, but the geography of the Mountain and the number of trails gives you plenty of options to design your own route. The State Park has a nice summary of the trails, with posted lengths and difficulty ratings, here.
Land Trust Trails
The Land Trust of North Alabama allows mountain biking on pretty much all of its properties, and you can find a list here. Most of the good trails are on the Land Trust's Monte Sano property, but you can also get some good rides on the Wade Mountain Preserve, and the newly-opened Chapman Mountain Preserve will eventually feature a closed mountain biking course that will hopefully have some cool features.
Rainbow Mountain is also open to biking, but having hiked it plenty and occasionally poked fun at its offerings, I am a little intimidated. It's rocky and there is a good bit of elevation. I'm sure someone better at mountain biking than me will chime in to tell me if I'm overly cautious, but as of yet, I've not checked it out. Plus, we keep getting lost there.
John Hunt Park (and other City of Huntsville options)
The City of Huntsville is revamping John Hunt Park, and a 4-mile closed course for mountain biking is under construction at the moment. In the meantime, we think it's kosher to ride the cross-country course, but we haven't actually checked with the City on that. It's not the most impressive ride, but it does give you a chance to reflect on how weird it is to have this massive unused recreation area smack in the middle of town. It's also a reminder that our landfill is basically in the middle of our city. We're not sure why you'd want or need a reminder of that, but we are just speaking factually, here.
Speaking of City-owned options, you can technically mountain bike at Hays Nature Preserve, though we think it's more suited for cyclocross biking. Similarly, the City has an impressive Greenway network (about which we have written quite comprehensively). Road biking on the Greenway is a lot of fun, and hopefully the connectively of the Greenway paths will continue to improve.
Wheeler Wildlife Refuge
Not really a mountain biking trail per se, the Refuge is still an absolutely awesome place to do just about anything outdoors. I do a lot of Jeeping there, and a know a lot of people hit Wheeler for fishing, but it's probably one of the best places in Alabama for cyclocross biking. There are two good spots of hop on the miles of dirt road available at Wheeler: follow Greenbriar Road to Jolly-B Road, or head out to Mooresville and start there. If you do head to Mooresville, check out Southern Carnage, a cool little bike shop that caters to local riders.
If you want to learn a little bit more about what makes Wheeler cool, be sure to check out our article on alligators in Limestone Bay.
Since Huntsville is basically the center of the universe, there are probably 20 great day-trip spots for mountain biking, but frankly, we haven't tried to count. If you want to count for us, great. We'll make you a featured outdoorsman/woman. If not, just don't insult us in the comments.
Anyway, here's where you should go: the 5-Points Recreation area near Cloudland Canyon State Park, just outside Trenton, Ga. It's an hour and a half to get there, give or take, and the trail options are ridiculous. I recently logged about 15 miles on the Cloudland Connector Trail, which is a great sampling of the options. If you want a little more elevation, it's available, but I was hot enough without the need to climb. I parked at the Ascalon Trailhead and took off from there, but you can also choose to park either inside the State Park or at the Hinkle Road Trailhead.
Another option, which gets a lot more publicity, is a Forever Wild property called Coldwater Mountain. The official website is kinda weak, but here's a really good summary of the trial offerings. And here's another link to get you the information you need to plan a day trip. Wherever you get your information, the important thing to know is that Coldwater Mountain has about 35 miles of trails (eventually there will be 60 miles) - plenty for a long day. And it's being touted as an internationally-recognized destination for great biking. All of this just outside Anniston, which is around 2 hours and 20 minutes away.
Finally, consider checking out Duck River Recreation Area, which is owned by Cullman Utilities. A rudimentary trail map is located here. It's a flowing, single-track trail somewhat similar to Cloudland Canyon, with less elevation. The climbs are short and the downhills are quick. The trail is a hard-pack clay with minimal rocks and roots, definitely different from Monte Sano. And you get some cool views of the reservior because the trail runs all the way around the edge of the lake.
Obviously, if you are willing to go overnight, you can go anywhere. But two good options are Chewacla State Park and Oak Mountain State Park. Oak Mountain is south of Birmingham and has plenty of good trails, including the Fire Trail, which is where I got my introduction to mountain biking as a high school student from Homewood. (Speaking of my younger years, Oak Mountain has a really fun BMX course that I used to hit all the time growing up). Here's a link that will get you to a trail map. The cool thing about hitting Oak Mountain is that there are camping options inside the park and you can basically ride your bike on park roads to all of the trailheads.
If you want to go a little further away than Birmingham, or perhaps want to catch a football game down in Auburn, try out Chewacla. The trails range from 0.5 miles to 8 miles, and there is a crazy, 92' foot long bridge you can ride over. The park is also right on the edge of town, and is a popular place to stay during football season. If you go, I'd highly recommend renting one of the refurbished 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corps cabins. You can hop on a trail right outside your front door, and it's close enough to town you can finish the day at Niffers.
Ready to Ride but Need a Bike?
Ready to start riding but in need of a bike? There are some great stores around, but my two favorites are Blevins Bicycle Company, in south Huntsville, and Cahaba Cycles in Homewood. Matt Blevins grew up in Huntsville and opened his own shop a few years back. Cahaba Cycles is included because it's in my home town and I bought my first bike there in the 1980s, when they did lawnmower repairs through the back door.