Four California Ski Resorts Offer -
Summer Downhill Biking Thrills
TRUCKEE, CA – Summer mountain biking at ski resorts in
America is a growing vacation trend as bikers ride up mountains on
chairlifts and gondolas with their bikes -- lifts that were previously
used only to haul up skiers and snowboarders in the winter.
No where is this trend stronger than in California
where four major ski resorts – Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley, Northstar
and Kirkwood – now lure thousands of thrill seekers on bikes to their
slopes each summer. Noting the growing popularity of the sport, Squaw
Valley re-opened its bike park this year after shutting it down eight
The thrill in this expanding endeavor is coasting or
hurtling down narrow mountain trails and broad ski runs on hardy
Many bikers call it “the ultimate adrenaline rush.”
Northstar, where I sampled the trails recently on a
rented 18-gear, $4,000 bike, is at the epicenter of this booming
mountain sport. The four-season resort, just outside Truckee, lures 350
to 400 bikers to the peak on weekend days.
The resort, which cut the ribbon on a new Bike Academy
earlier this summer and also just opened a large new beginner learning
area near the new slope-side Ritz-Carlton Highlands Hotel, has more than
100 miles of bike trails and has the most extensive lift accessed bike
trail network in the Western U.S.
Mike Hafer, bike academy supervisor, said that the
“downhill part of mountain biking is where the activity is rapidly
growing. It is all about gravity and the adrenaline rush.”
He explained that outdoor enthusiasts are able to take
more advantage of summer ski slopes largely because bike technology has
improved so much in recent years that the bikes, with muscular
suspension systems and advanced braking and shifting, enable people to
tackle almost any uphill or downhill slope. Bikers ride up on
chairlifts, trams and gondolas and their bikes ride right up with them.
Rod Jaeger, a 48-year-old Florida businessman, is one
of the many mountain biking addicts. “This is such a rush,” he said.
“This can be as dangerous or mellow as you want to make it, depending on
where you go on the mountain.”
Hopping nimbly off a Northstar chairlift, Jaeger noted
that he used to really be into speed and time himself top to bottom
until he fell on one high-speed run in Colorado four years ago and broke
his shoulder. “Now, I don’t time my runs any more. I just enjoy them.”
For travelers who just want to experience easy-going,
relatively flat bike mountain runs, that terrain typically is also
available at the resorts. I found that the Tomkins Memorial Trail at
Northstar, which meanders around the base of the peaks for about 10
miles, was just right for my adventure level.
Some of the California ski resort bike parks have been
around for years – Mammoth’s started in 1985 and Northstar’s opened in
1992. The relative low-level of activity in the parks has changed
dramatically in the last couple years with a surge of new interest
propelled by improvements and additions in bike trails and the emergence
of advanced mountain biking technology.
Amelia Richmond, a spokeswoman for Squaw Valley, said
“The resort decided it was time to bring mountain biking back to Squaw
because mountain biking is on the rise across the country and technology
improvements allow bikers to tackle more difficult terrain.”
Squaw Valley, which has a four-mile long top to bottom
run and 15 miles of downhill and cross country trails, plans to further
develop the bike park including the addition of beginner trails.
Kirkwood added two new bike trails this summer
including an “advanced climb and technical descent” dubbed Sentinals
Trail and the low intermediate cross country Robey Wolfe trail.
Mammoth Mountain, with more than 70 miles of bike
trails, stages the Kamikaze Downhill Race annually which drops 3,100
vertical feet from the summit to the main lodge.
As a lure to entice a broad range of summer
vacationers, the four California resorts boast a plethora of activities
besides biking which include hiking, river rafting, wine tastings, beer
fests, interpretive nature walks, star-gazing tours, music concerts and
art shows. For a look at the summer schedules, which often go deep into
October, visit the resort web sites at
But the emphasis this summer is on the mountain biking
parks and attracting more people to the slopes with new instructional
programs, better bikes and a chance to peddle through spectacular
scenery while scaring up an occasional bear, fox or coyote. All of the
parks also run a schedule of bike races each summer which can be found
on their web sites.
Mike Hafer at Northstar stressed that “a major reason
that we have the Bike Academy is to educate people about downhill biking
and make them feel more comfortable when they go out. Downhill biking is
very technical and can be difficult unless you are properly trained as
to what to do.”
Northstar has engineered a number of features into its
trails including “big air” berms and table top jumps, wooden platform
ramps and a reportedly first-of-its-kind irrigated bike trail. The trail
is lightly watered down twice a day to keep it smooth and “tacky” and
give bikers a firmer grip on the trail.
Northstar’s growing reputation as a mountain biking
center is attracting a number of out-of-state and Southern California
Chris Harrell, a photographer from Big Bear, CA, who
was visiting with his teenage son and daughter, said his family usually
bikes at nearby Mammoth but gave Northstar a try this summer.
“There is a lot more here than I thought,” he said.
“We are trying all the trails and really enjoying it. This does require
some technical skill but we are handling it.”
Fellow biker Rod Jaeger noted that downhill biking is
“really a full body workout” because bikers use their arms, legs,
shoulders and back as they twist and turn down the trails.
As he talked, he eyed the new slope side Ritz Carlton
hotel which features an extensive spa (open to non-guests) where people
drop in after biking for massages and jet-infused hot tubs.
During the summer, Northstar is set up pretty much
like a winter resort. Guests use a trail map where the runs are marked
easy, intermediate or advanced. New this summer is the Bends and Bumps
clinic where low-level riders go to learn to corner and ride bumps and
jumps on the new Big Easy teaching terrain. Private lessons also are
Besides renting bikes, all four resorts also rent body
armor which includes helmets and shin guards, elbow and knee pads along
with chest protectors. When fully garbed, the bikers resemble warriors
from the latest action-adventure flick. Guests can, of course, bring
their own bikes and other equipment.
The resorts do not run all of their winter lifts
during the summer. Riding rates vary. Squaw Valley, for example, charges
adults $39 for a full-day lift ticket while kids 12 and under pay $22.
Lift tickets at Northstar are $42 for adults and $27 for children 9
The various resorts have varying operating schedules
so check their schedules. Some of the die-hard bikers will be on the
peaks until late October when the first dustings of winter snow
typically start to drift across the Sierra.
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