Riding the wooden wall at Duthie. Photo courtesy Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance
Evergreen Mountain Bike Festival: Saturday–Sunday, June 9–10 (more info below)
Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance: A nonprofit that offers camps, classes, trail guides and resources, as well as trail-building
Sweetlines: Coaching, classes, camps and a girls' junior racing team
Compass Outdoor Adventures: Group events, and also bike rentals — they'll transport bike rentals to Duthie or other trailheads
Crank Sisters: An all-women riding group with group rides, training classes and events
Mountain biking is a sport where grown-ups can be kids again while kids get to be a little more grown-up.
That was the thought that floated through my head as I followed my son down a wildly fun trail called Deuces Wild at Issaquah's famed mountain bike park, Duthie Hill. I was the caboose of our pack of four. My 8-year-old son was outpacing me, and also having a blast.
It was my son's first time mountain biking. I'd tried the sport once or twice before, some 20-odd years ago, riding a trail that was far too challenging for my fitness and skill level (around zero). It was only after seeing some pictures of the trails at Duthie, and realizing how much my son would probably love it, that I decided we should give it a try as a family.
Plus, I realized, biking in the forest away from the danger of cars — that's a parent's dream, right? And I could always walk my bike.
So on a recent afternoon, the two of us ventured forth to Duthie in the company of a knowledgeable friend and his 7-year-old son.
My kid wasn't super eager to go, but any reluctance disappeared as soon as we got on our bikes and started down a dirt trail. He saw bumps. And swerves. And little jumps. I could almost see the connection being made in his mind: "This is gonna be fun!" And we were off.
Local hot spots
The Seattle area, not surprisingly, has long been a center for mountain biking, with plenty of bike-friendly trails in areas like Tiger Mountain and Saint Edward State Park. But the opening of Duthie Hill in 2010, a partnership between Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and King County Parks, was a landmark moment for the community.
Located in Issaquah on the Sammamish plateau, the 120-acre park was designed from the outset for every kind of rider. There are up-and-down cross-country trails that absolute beginners (like us) can ride, some with exciting downhill portions as well as berms and bumps, on up to more technical "freeride" trails with log trails, big wooden jumps and other features.
The design of the park makes it pretty easy to find your way around. Trails all loop back to a large central clearing that has two pump tracks (a circular track with bumps that more experienced riders can do without pedaling), as well as seating, picnic tables, a shelter and pit toilets. So you can take a break while others continue riding, or watch the action as more advanced riders finish a lap. A large trail map is posted, and each trail (most are one way) is clearly marked by level.
"[Duthie] has a lot of riding in a small area," says Bryan Rivard, senior marketing manager for the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, which will hold its annual, beginner-friendly mountain bike festival June 9–10 (more info below).
Duthie has also become a center for mountain bike education. Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance leads regular camps and classes there (tip: sign up early). Kat Sweet, who owns a mountain biking coaching business called Sweetlines, runs camps and clinics at Duthie, and coaches a girls' junior racing team.
Mountain biking for everyone
Through their programs, and their involvement in Duthie, Kat Sweet and Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance share a mission: making mountain biking more accessible.
"Even the name mountain biking sounds intimidating, like you’re going down a gnarly mountain. That’s not actually true a lot of the time," says Sweet.
That reputation is slowly changing, says Rivard. Families in search of active, unplugged time with kids in nature, with some thrills thrown in, are increasingly drawn to the sport.
"It's very family friendly," says Rivard. "There's a funny tipping point where the kids will get better than mom and dad."
What to bring and skills to practice
"Intimidating" was definitely my thought about mountain biking before we went. And what about the gear? Wouldn't we need a lot of it? Actually, no. It turned out that my son's kid-sized bike with knobby tires and a few gears was fine; and I could borrow a slightly-too-small mountain bike with front suspension from a friend. Add in helmets, water and snacks, and we were ready.
Kat Sweet gave us this short list of essentials, as well as "nice to have" gear, for a novice ride:
- For adults, a mountain-specific bike with knobby tires and front suspension fork is best, as it's more forgiving on bumps. But for a first time out, if you're doing beginner trails, any bike that can handle dirt trails is okay.
- Kids should ideally have a bike with knobby tires and a few gears. Their bikes should also have hand brakes, essential for evenly braking on the downhills. (You will see kids on balance bikes on the small pump track at Duthie.)
- An essential for everyone is a properly fitting bike helmet.
- Nice-to-haves includes knee pads (she recommends "G form pads") and gloves to protect the hands. Flat shoes, such as Vans, are better than running shoes for kids.
Sweet also shared some skills tips for kids:
- Practice going downhill while standing up with on the pedals with evenly weighted feet and slightly dropped heels.
- Keep elbows out for stability.
- "Always look ahead, don’t read the tread." She calls this "laser cat eyes," looking ahead to where you want to go next, rather than down at your front tire.
- Learning to brake evenly, with both brakes, is critical. "We call it s'mores braking," she says. Instead of smashing the s'more (the brake), you gently squeeze it.
- Remind kids that mountain biking includes walking. "We call it hike-a-bike," says Sweet.
- Finally, start on easy trails and build up. Treats can be helpful for encouraging kids to make it up the hills.
From Deuces Wild to Voodoo Child
For our trek, we brought along treats but didn't need them. The payoff of downhill thrills was enough to keep the kids going. With my friend guiding, we started on a beginner cross-country trail called Bootcamp, which was relatively smooth, but with small bumps and bermed curves. As with many of the trails at Duthie, there were optional advanced features on the trail, such as a 50-foot log ride (!).
After a bit, we "graduated" to Deuces Wild, a downhill trail with two tracks next to each other, called a slalom trail. It starts at the top of a ramp ("Look down, Mom!," my son shouted with glee) and riders can choose one of two lines to go down. The mostly downhill ride included plenty of bumps and curves, and even a small rock area. We did it single file, with space between us, and all loved it.
We finished with an intermediate trail called Voodoo Child, a rootier, bumpier freeride trail that I walked much of. This gave me a chance to appreciate the late afternoon sun filtering through the forest, and to take a long look at the park's famous wooden wall ride that is often depicted in photos.
I was worried that my son, who has become more of a daredevil in his school-age years, would get in over his head. But while he talked a big game ("I'm going to do that next time," pointing to a big jump), he seemed to be picking up some mountain bike philosophy as he went: Commit to the downhill so you can get up the uphill, look ahead to see where you're going next, and always keep your feet on the pedals. Also: There's no shame in getting off and walking.
Where to try mountain biking
In addition to Duthie, a number of new trail systems and mountain bike parks have opened that are geared to all levels. Below are recommendations from Kat Sweet and Bryan Rivard.
- Raging River State Forest: This 17-mile trail system that just opened in the North Bend area.
- Torguson Park: This new 35,000 square foot mountain bike park in Snoqualmie boasts an all-ages, all-abilities track, and a separate balance bike track for young children.
- Soaring Eagle State Park: A square-mile network of twisty, rooty trails, well marked, in Sammamish, and just a mile from Duthie
- Black Diamond Open Space: A 10-mile network of mostly flat, cross-country trails.
- Saint Edward State Park: 25 miles of tracks, with trails and features of all kinds, in Kenmore.
- Swan Creek Park: Located just a few miles from Tacoma, this park has 3 miles of trails, including a family-friendly cross-country trail.
Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance has a fantastic online trail guide as well as a postcard you can download with 13 beginner and intermediate trails listed on it. King County has a printable trail map of Duthie and Evo, a local outdoor retailer, offers an online trail guide.
If you go... Evergreen Mountain Bike Festival
When: Saturday, June 9, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, June 10, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Where: Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park, Issaquah
Cost: The festival is free to attend and watch, and to ride the trails on your own. You can also buy a "festival clearing pass" for $40 ($20 for members of the Alliance), with which you can demo differnt bike models all day as well as take part in clincis and guided rides. Kids 10 and under get the pass for free. The festival is Evergreen's largest fundraiser, supporting trailbuilding and maintenance projects — such as Duthie Hill — across the state. (Preregister to skip the line when you get there.)
More info: Festival site
What's on during the festival:
What to bring: Duthie has no potable water outlets, so bring plenty of water (and snacks, of course). Bring a bike, ideally with hand brakes and knobby tires, and a well-fitting helmet.