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Secret trails are the heart and soul of local mountain biking

Get out there and discover your own!

Riders tackle the rock ramp at the south side of the Sticks and Stones trail. Features such as this challenge the best riders, but there’s always a by-pass for the faint-of-heart. Peter Minnich. (click for larger version)
May 29, 2009
All sports have secret places. I've known fishermen who would lie to their best friend about where he'd been fishing just to keep his place secret. Mountain bikers are no different. Why would a mountain biker want to keep a trail cache secret?

The answer may have something to do with location and legitimacy. Mountain bike trails fall into three groups: found trails, authorized, designed, and built trails, and bootleg trails. Found trails are there for some other purpose — hiking, logging, etc.; a mtn. biker finds it and adds his/her purpose to it. The Nanamocomuck Trail out on the Kanc is such a found trail.

Authorized, designed trails began appearing in the Valley in the last decade or so, under the auspices of trail building agents such as NEMBA. The Red Tail Trail, Sticks and Stones, and the north end of the Mineral Site Trail are excellent examples of designed trails. They feature banked turns, bridges, benched side cuts, and rideable grades. Such trails have added many miles of great riding to the Valley network. They are the core of the Conway area riding.

Bootlegs are built trails, but they lack oversight and authorization. Who knows how they come to be. Maybe it's trail gremlins that rake them. They're out there. Ride 'em if you find them.

The brand-new pump track at Pudding Pond is a designed trail — more like an enclosed terrain park for mountain bikes. NEMBA volunteers built it a couple of weeks ago, and I hear it's getting a lot of visitors.

While we worked the dirt that Saturday morning, a young black bear sidled down from the Middle Mountain side hill and sauntered through the clearing. It was Marty Basch who said it best: "Hey, let's call it the 'Black Bear Pumptrack.'" Sounds good to me.

The Pudding Pond area is reached from North Conway by way of Artist Falls Road. Drive under the railroad trestle on the east side of North-South Road. Turn right on Thompson Road and watch for the parking area on the right near a gate. Ride south a short distance to the sign board kiosk. The Black Bear Pumptrack is to the left, between some boulders blocking an old logging road. Sticks and Stones starts right behind the sign board. Neither trail is currently signed.

Signs marking the mountain bike trails in the Valley are few and far between. You will find one here and there — at the north end of the Side Hill Trail and at the junction of Cranmore and Red Tail Trails, for example, but don't go looking for rider friendly signs such as you see at Kingdom Trails. You'll be frustrated and lost. A map is helpful, local advice is available, too, but once you're out there, you're on your own. That's part of what makes the trails secret. You have to find them to know where they are.

I used to think the absence of signage was a serious flaw in our trail network. But maybe not. Look at it this way: Trail signs invite riders who may not be ready for the woods. After all, a certain amount of navigation skill and riding experience is useful to keep from becoming a cell phone casualty. GPSs are great, but they don't replace common sense and experience. Experience comes from taking risks in the unknown. If there are no signs, it's all unknown…until you know it. That's what makes it an adventure. There are "signs" out there; you just have to know how to read them.

Just testing

See if you can find this one. There's a great piece of fresh single-track that connects the Powerline Trail to the Pudding Pond loop trail.

You ride south on the Powerline Trail from the Pudding Pond kiosk — about a mile and a half of mud and abuse. Past the high point, descend the seriously eroded double track under the power line. Keep your eyes open for a muffler and tailpipe hanging from a tree on the right side (west). That's the sign! If you reach the four-way junction near the granite column, you passed it. Turn around and ride back up, watching on your left for the muffler in the tree. The muffler marks the entrance to the fine single track that will take you all the way back north to the Pudding Pond Trail. The Pudding Pond Trail can be ridden either way, but the section to the right will take you to the junction on the south side of Sticks and Stones, near the rock ramp.

I know; this sounds like the directions out of Dante's Inferno. It's not as complicated as it sounds. If you find it and ride it, you get the satisfaction of knowing your way without having to be led around by a bunch of signs, any one of which could be wrong. Get out there and trust your judgment. By the way, get a Conway Area Mountain Biking Trails Map at a local bike or sports shop. Pudding Pond is right in the middle of the map. You can't go wrong.

The real deal

Now you're ready for a real secret trail. Try this one. When you're at the four-way junction at the south end of the power line, just east of the granite column, look northeast toward Rattlesnake Mountain. You'll see a single-track leaving from the dirt road on a gentle rise. Go ahead, ride it. In a short distance it turns to the left. From here it continues north, roughly paralleling the power line, winding through the woods on the side hill. There are a number of unmarked junctions along the way. The choice is yours. It's a maze; it's meant to confuse. Think of it as a wormhole through the woods. You're not lost if you're on the trail. You can always go back the way you came. The side hill woods are full of fresh single-tracks, most of it not mapped. Go see if you can find it. Then you'll have your own secret trail stash.

It's no secret that the Moats trail network is great single-track. The real secret is how to get to it. Probably the most direct access is to drive up High Street from Passaconaway Road, off West Side Road. Park by the gate or higher up at the Mineral Site parking area. Ride down the gravel road, past the gate about a mile and a half to a junction. Backtrack from the junction, watching for those subtle little single-track trail entrances. On the Conway map, they're shown as dotted lines for "other travel ways." These are well-established mountain bike trails which simply have not yet made it onto the Forest Service "established trail" grid. Maybe soon. In the meantime, go ride 'em.

A couple of words of caution about the Moats area trails: watch out for ATVs on the gravel roads. ATVs are not supposed to be there, they're poachers — but, for whatever reason, they are there. They go too fast, and they are NOT watching out for you. Beware.

The trails on the east side of the Moat Brook swamp are closed to protect Northern Goshawk nesting territory. Don't go there. An angry mother goshawk is a force to be reckoned with. They do not take well to intruding riders.

Last word of caution: If you decide to start from the Mineral Site parking area, notice that the map shows the Mineral Site Trail as "advanced." It's a great trail, but it's a challenge if your riding skills are rusty. Take the gravel road as the easier way down, ride the singletrack down below, then ride up the Mineral Site Trail, to sample the advanced trail challenge.

For a simpler ride

If you want to sample the single-track without committing yourself to epic distance and trail finding, start with the Echo Lake network.

Echo Lake State Park is sandwiched between Hale's Location golf course and West Side Road. Look for the sign on West Side Road just south of the strawberry fields. There's limited parking outside the gate in the sandy cul de sac. Don't park along the road! There's a signboard with a trail map. If you ride straight ahead between the boulders, watch on your immediate right for a rare trail sign — the Elm Brook Trail. This is a great intermediate single-track. If you want an easier ride, bear right before the boulders for a nice smooth double-track that goes to the Hale's Location road. Look for the Perimeter Trail near the road to the White Mountain Hotel.

Whichever wormhole you choose to enter, wear a helmet and bring a tube and pump. You'll have more fun if you don't have to walk out a flat.

Upcoming events:

• MWV Velo Club June Birthday Ride, June 6, at 9:30 a.m. The ride will start at the Lafayette Regional School parking lot in Franconia Village. Three loops of 15, 35, and 65-plus miles can be ridden. Marked maps will be available at the start. The big loop will take in about 25 miles of beautiful Connecticut River Valley from Woodsville to Littleton. Come join me to ride my age in miles. I think I can still do it. Go to the MWV Velo Club website www.mwvvelo.org for a description of the three loops.

• Second Annual Community Bike and Gear Swap, June 13, 9 a.m., at the Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewery in North Conway. The swap is co-sponsored by the MWV Velo Club and the North Conway Library. Tables can be rented for $10 by calling Cathy Steers at 986-7132 or email at cathy steers@gmail.com. Rain date: June 14.

• Maine Bike Rally, July 10-12, at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine. The Rally offers a variety of guided road and mountain bike rides plus food, entertainment, a bike parade, and a Sunday morning time trial race. There's something for every cyclist at the three-day event. For information or to volunteer, go to www.bikemaine.org.

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