Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mountain biking around the northern Allegheny National Forest

Thirty years ago, when I started to devote less time to keeping local taverns solvent and more time to getting outside and seeing what happens there, I didn't really know that many places to go for outdoor adventures.  So I started looking at maps, and seeing as this was pre-internet that meant good old Delorme Gazetteer atlases.  It didn't take long before I realized that in our part of the country the only really big chunk of forest that was open to the public was Allegheny National Forest, in northwest Pennsylvania.

Our campsite in the ANF over Memorial Day weekend this year.

It wasn't exactly in my back yard, as it takes almost two hours for me to get to even the closest boundary.  But there was a LOT of woods.  And a couple of nice, big rivers, along with lots of smaller creeks, and about a million miles of trails and gravel roads.  It's where I took the things I learned in Boy Scouts and made them part of a comfortable back country skill set.  From campground camping to winter backpacking, it was where I finally learned how to relax and be at home in the forest.  When I started kayaking it was the Clarion River that I spent hours of time on, learning how to control a boat in current.  And when I moved up to whitewater I returned again, this time to the small creeks, where heavy thunderstorms transformed them from quiet brooks to roaring rapids.

Then when I started mountain biking I went back to the maps again, looking for the places in the ANF where I would be able to do this new form of deep woods recreation.  Unfortunately I was disappointed to learn that there were remarkably few legal options for mountain bikers, with almost all of the established hiking trails closed off to bicycles. So as I began ranging out from my home area looking for new and interesting trails to ride I didn't see any need to spend much time looking in that particular area.

Well, the situation has changed.  Thanks to a few small groups of dedicated riders and local advocates, there are now several options for riding, with more new trails on the horizon.  There are the two old school ANF trails that remained open for biking - Tanbark Trail and the Morrison/Rimrock Trail loops.  And there are trails in the Allegheny State Park, just north of New York state line, plus another NY trail system at Harris Hill Extension Forest.  But the big news is the beginning of the Trails at Jake's Rocks, an extensive network of over 40 miles of trails planned to be built along the south side of Kinzua Reservoir, just east of Warren.  It was a long and difficult process to get this project going, but this month they're having a grand opening ceremony for the first ten miles or so of trails.

So when it turned out that I had a whole Saturday to myself, with nothing to do but whatever I wanted, I loaded up the bike, my gear, and a whole lot of water and made the drive northwest from Warren, Ohio to Warren, Pennsylvania.  It was a pleasant cruise through the back roads of western Pennsylvania, and a couple of hours later I was motoring up a forest service road to the highlands of the Jake's Rocks area.

Without a real map or knowledge of the trail I parked at the picnic parking area, where I saw a fresh new trail leading off into the woods.  There were only a few cars in the area, and I didn't see any other signs of mountain bikers, despite the nearly perfect weather.  After gearing up I took off down the trail to explore.

The new trail I rode made a loop around the top of the plateau, with only mild hills of short duration, and a couple of nice views of the reservoir far below.  It appeared to be mostly a machine built trail, with the typical wide tread.  The machine operators had created a mostly smooth tread, with nearly all of the rocks removed and placed off the edges of trail.  They definitely made the most of the gradient, with lots of grade reversals, and created what is mostly a very flowy, fast trail.  They spent a lot of effort on creating positive drainage paths at nearly every dip in the trail, which hopefully will mean that the trail will handle water well and be rideable soon after rain events.

New mtb trail at Jake's Rocks.
And the trail was truly fun to ride.  It was designed to be fast, so that you can get the most out of your downhill gradient.  Many of the curves were banked - not quite a berm, but still enough to let you carry through with more speed. I rode the loop in the counter-clockwise direction, and there were a couple of extended fast and flowy sections that had me grinning ear to ear.

Fast and flowing singletrack.

New trail with hand built tech feature on the side.
Of course every trail is going to be different, and they don't all have the same characteristics.  Here you gain flow and speed, but you give up technical features on the tread.  If you look at the tread in the photos notice that you don't see hardly any roots - one of the characteristics that many machine made trails share.  Of course over time there will be some compaction and erosion of the soil, and some roots will begin to emerge.  And there are places where there are some nice rock features, obviously hand built to add interest and technical challenges to the trail.

Hand built section between the boulders.

Another section of hand laid stone tread.
There were a couple of surprises on the trail as well.  Along Jake's Rocks Road there are several dispersed campsites - these are free primitive campsites alongside the road, with no support facilities.  The loop crosses Jake's Rocks Road right where two of these sites are located, so that you could come and camp for free - and get to your ride on the trail right from your campsite!  I was also surprised to see so much sand in the soil, with a few places actually being deep, soft sand.  Another surprise was a nice stretch of bare bedrock in one area, complete with a brass USGS survey marker.

Bedrock trail, with USGS marker in left foreground.

One other thing to keep in mind about the Trails at Jake's Rocks - the proposed trail system is supposed to be something like 40 miles, and is supposed to reach from route 59 down by the reservoir, up the 'Elbow' about 700 feet to the top of the plateau, then extend across the highlands and back down to Dewdrop Campground, and then all the way down to Kiasutha Campground:

That means that there will end up being a wide variety of trail types and difficulties.  Undoubtedly there will be some trails that are more difficult technically, as well as some steep downhill sections that will only appeal to the more expert riders.  As the trail system develops it will be able to draw a wider group of riders, with trails appealing to all skill levels.  I'm looking forward to watching this project develop over the next few years, and hope that the trails live up to their potential and provide the area with a decent economic boost.

After my ride at Jake's Rocks I took a break to rehydrate and eat, and then drove back down to Warren and followed route 62 up across the New York state line to another mountain bike trail system at Harris Hill Extension Forest, just west of the tiny town of Ellington.  About an hour north of Warren, this place has a very remote feel but lacks the dramatic terrain of Jake's Rocks.  A group of dedicated riders has been building trails here for a couple of years, and they've managed to create a good sized trail system on a relatively small piece of land.  I'd been reading about this system for a while, and was eager to see how it felt.

Looking down from the top of Harris Hill towards Ellington.

I was the only rider there that afternoon, and left a roadside parking lot to traverse a flat path back to the trail head area.  Entering the woods on a trail named 'Humpty Dumpty' was a stunning difference when compared to the trails that I'd just ridden.  Where the Jake's Rocks trails were machine made, with the relatively straight, wide tread that requires, here they had all the characteristics of classic hand made cross country singletrack.  The trail turned and twisted, passing between trees too close to ever allow a trail building machine to get through.  As I rode I often had to adjust my line to avoid a shoulder crunch on a tree as I navigated my way.  The tread was alive with the natural features of the forest - the network of roots was a constant reminder to keep my eyes open, while the tread climbed up and over small earth hummocks that would have been obliterated by machine built trail techniques.  It had the intimate feeling of a rake and ride trail, where the trail lays lightly on the terrain.  Where the new trail at Jake's Rocks felt almost like a road cut through the woods, with the rocks and vegetation pushed to the edges, here the trail felt like it was a part of the forest, almost like a game trail.

Humpty Dumpty Trail at Harris Hill Extension Forest, NY

And it was a great cross country mountain bike ride.  This is really the kind of trail that I started on, and have grown to love.  The game here, at least for me, is not speed but rather the challenge of being able to keep going over a continuously changing series of terrain conditions - all while traveling through the beautiful Allegheny mountain scenery.  The only problem I had was low energy levels - it made me wish I'd hit Harris Hill first and then headed down to Jake's Rocks for the end of the day ride.

Classic XC mtb trails at Harris Hill Extension Forest.
I didn't get to ride nearly all the trails, but with names like Lungbuster, Goatboy, and Bedlam I know there are plenty of challenges that remain for me to explore the next time I visit - and I guarantee that there will be a second visit.  These guys have done themselves proud, and created a true gem of real traditional XC mountain biking.  

More HHE. Notice the Indian Pipes growing at the base of the tree.
How do the two trail systems compare?  In my opinion, they're both really good although they are almost polar opposites.  The machine made trail at Jake's Rocks is fast and fun, something that will have a lot of appeal for younger riders.  The more traditional trails at Harris Hill will appeal to people with a bit of experience who crave a technical challenge when they ride.  Both systems are located in beautifully scenic ecosystems, though they once again are very different from each other.  I'm not quite conceited enough to start assigning grades to either trail system, but I will say that they both have their own attraction and either would give an intermediate mountain bike rider a great day on the bike.  I can only hope next time I'm in the area with a bike that I have at least a couple of days to explore, so that I can see a bit more of each one!


  1. Nice write up!! My name is Chad, the lead builder for Phase I of The Trails at Jake's Rocks Project. The three pictures of the three areas you indicate as hand built were all built using machines. Have a good day!!

    1. Wow, I'm floored. So I'm guessing that the tread/corridor was machine cut, and the rocks hand laid? Or did an excavator type machine actually lift and move the rocks? If it was all laid by machine, how much more time does it take to do that kind of work as compared to the more straight forward smooth dirt tread?

      Thanks for your reply. That place is already pretty nice, and I anticipate it just getting better and better over the years.


    2. We quarried and installed all the tread rocks with machines. (Its all in the operator.) We placed small rocks, in the holes in between the machine laid tread rocks to lock the tread rocks down. The gargoyles, beside the rock tread to keep users on the rocks, were also machine laid. Rock tread takes 8-20xs longer to build (depending on many things such as how far away rocks must be quarried.) than dirt tread. Even longer if building by hand.

      As the Trails of Jake's Rocks age, the tread will texture greatly. Further rocks and roots will emerge. Texturing was beginning at Jake's on most completed segments within 3 weeks after segment completion. We were very pleased to witness the expected texturing happening so soon after segment completion. In places like OH it seems to take much longer to notice trail texture changes. Better later than never!!

      Have a good day!

    3. Thank you so much for your reply. Obviously I know far less than I imagined about machine building of mtb trails. The trails are already truly impressive, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they change over time. I really need to get back over there soon!!!

  2. Hi Steve, good write up. Both trails look like a great way to spend a saturday with nothing else to do. I understand your love of both trails, one just flowing along, the other a pay attention ride to get through.

    1. Those flowy trails are fast and fun, but I truly prefer something that has a bit more challenging tread. My worry is that it seems like ALL the new trails I see being built in our area are now of the fast & flowy variety. Meanwhile I'm adding boulders that I've brought in from 50 miles away to the mtb trail in a swamp that I'm building.