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Mountain Biking Across Nebraska

Photos and text by Justin Wambold

The challenge of manuevering over rugged, off-road trails while testing a rider's endurance has made mountain biking an increasingly popular activity.

If its name was taken literally, the sport of mountain biking would be confined to states

Riding the forested trails in Indian Cave State Park is a challenge and thrill.
such as Colorado, Utah or Montana - places that actually have mountains. But, across Nebraska there are a handful of places tucked away on river bluffs and in cedar canyons that offer rides just as challenging and exhilarating as those found in the country's most rugged regions.

Scott Wente, who has been a mountain bike rider for more than a dozen years, said Nebraska has many great places to ride that few people know about.

A common misconception is that Nebraska is flat. Wente said, "Get on a bike. Nebraska is not flat."

Though Nebraska does not have many long uphills or downhills, he said, the state's trails are similar to those found in the mountains. He recounted seeing people drive from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains to northwestern Nebraska just to ride the trails.

You get out there, and other than the fact that you can breathe, you'd think you're in Colorado," he said.

Good trails are not limited to the West, said Wente, who is a service manager for Highgear Bike & Outdoor in LaVista. He believes Nebraska trails are comparable to those found in mountainous states.

"If you would rate Colorado as a 10, you would have to rate Nebraska as an eight or a nine," he said.

Paul Brasby, a former Colorado resident who now lives in North Platte, agreed. He said a mountain bike rider in Nebraska could prepare for almost anything he or she might encounter in Colorado, and enjoy a greater variety of trails while doing it.

"Every 15 minutes you can be doing something different," he said.

Referring to a style of riding rather than a region where it is done, the term mountain biking describes bicycling that requires both physical endurance and technical ability to maneuver over rugged, off-road trails.

Mountain biking requires a specialized bike suited for rough terrain. In

Rick Thompson of Omaha turns a tight corner at Platte River State Park.
comparison to a traditional road bike, a mountain bike has a sturdier frame, uses fatter, softer tires for better traction in dirt and easier climbing over rocks and logs, and often incorporates a suspension system to cushion some of the bumps.

Like road bikes, mountain bikes typically have numerous gears, enabling riders to adjust to incline and terrain changes. Mountain bikes typically have 21, 24 or 27 gears. The lowest gear is usually lower than that of a road bike to assist a rider in climbing steep hills.

According to Wente, a mountain bike need not be expensive. "You don't need a $3,000 mountain bike to go out and have fun," he said.

One thing a person does need, however, is endurance. On a typical outing, a rider will traverse miles of trail with numerous climbs and descents.

While climbing, the pace is usually slow. The experienced rider will conserve as much energy as possible, both for the length of the ride and the inevitability of more climbs ahead.

Even riding flat stretches can be tiring, depending on terrain. If trails are muddy, or dirt is loose, powering a bike through it can be tough.

Climbing a hill often isn't just simply grinding up it; a rider might encounter rocks, loose dirt, tree roots, logs or any number of other obstacles, which require changes in braking, pedaling and weight distribution.

A rider's ability to adapt to terrain is also important when he or she is going downhill because the speeds are greater. On downhills, reading the trail and reacting quickly are pivotal to success.

Though screaming downhill, bumping over rocks and logs, and grinding up steep inclines are the extremes of mountain biking, these elements are neither the rule nor the norm.

According to Wente, mountain biking is great exercise for anyone with a sense of balance, and it is a sport that allows social interaction.

Beginners do not need to travel to remote, rugged areas to ride. Many local parks have recreational trails that are perfect to practice the sport. Riders can also become familiar with uneven and sometimes unpredictable terrain by riding unpaved roads.

The technical skill needed for mountain biking is something that comes only with experience. Even some seasoned road bikers have an adjustment period when they switch to mountain biking because they have not fully developed their bike-handling skills.

As riders become more advanced, Wente urged them to use good judgment for their own safety and to ride within their ability.

"When you ride outside of your ability is when you get hurt," he said. Wente encouraged riders to always wear a helmet, "It will literally save your life."

When riders are ready to make the jump to more aggressive riding, the following locations offer some of the best trails that Nebraska has to offer.

Indian Cave State Park
Located along the Missouri River in southeastern Nebraska, Indian Cave State Park offers numerous trails suited for mountain biking.

Its 3,052 acres of steep hills blanketed by hardwood trees make the park a beautiful setting for bike riding.

"You can almost lose the fact that you are in Nebraska," Wente said.

Because the park is so hilly, it offers opportunities for long, exhilarating downhill runs. Some trails are long and straight, allowing riders to pick up speed; others have many tight turns, requiring a more-controlled descent. Either way, the downhills are thrilling.

But, for every downhill there is a grueling climb that is just as long. Climbs are intense at times, requiring riders who are not in peak physical condition to carry or push their bikes.

Because hikers and horseback riders heavily use the trails, they are well maintained, but some have obstacles such as large rocks, exposed roots and washouts. Some trails can become rough during times of heavy use by horseback riders, but with more than 20 miles of park trails there is plenty of terrain for bike riders to explore.

To reach Indian Cave State Park from Brownville, travel south 10 miles on Nebraska Highway 67, then east five miles on S64E. The park is open year-round for primitive camping and from April 1 to November 1 for modern camping. Camping facilities include 134 RV pads with electrical hookups, 10 nonpad sites with electrical hookups, and 130 nonpad sites without electricity. For information call (402) 883-2575, or go online to outdoornebraska.org. A current Nebraska Park Entry Permit is required.

Platte River State Park
What this park lacks in size, it more than makes up for with good trails and easy access from the state's population centers.

Located on the Platte River between Lincoln and Omaha, this 515-acre park offers 14 miles of trails only a short drive east from Interstate 80 exit 426.

Platte River State Park's trails are similar to Indian Cave's - single-track,

The foliage becomes a blur as Scott Wente of Omaha rides downhill at Platte River State Park.
dirt routes winding through deciduous trees. The difference is that Platte River's hills are not nearly as big, making for shorter climbs and shorter descents.

Because the terrain is not extremely steep, riders need less endurance to ride these trails. "Someone can go out and ride for an hour, and at the end of the ride they will be tired, but not dead," Wente said.

Some spots on Platte River trails require very good technical riding skills. The trails are narrow in places where they cut between trees, and their numerous tight corners are challenges to maneuver. Obstacles, such as exposed rocks and roots, dot the routes.

Mountain bikers may use both hiking trails and horseback riding trails in the park. The hiking trails are open to cyclists year-round, but riders should watch for hikers.

The horseback riding trails are open to mountain bikers on a limited schedule. When horseback riders are using the trails - usually during the summer months - bikers may ride these routes only before 9 a.m. and after 4 p.m. During the rest of the year these trails are open to mountain bikes all day. Signs alert cyclists when the trails are closed.

According to Wente, all Platte River Park trails are similar, but the hiking trails are narrower with tighter turns, and the horse trails have more loops, rather than just out-and-back routes.

The trails in the park are not individually marked, but because they are used often it is easy to see where they are. Riders are asked to not make new trails.

Because of its location, Platte River State Park is a popular place for bicyclists to ride, and recently it was the site of championship races sponsored by the National Off-Road Biking Association.

Park managers have used the Global Positioning System to map the trails. Riders may pick up these maps at the park office.

To reach Platte River State Park from Interstate 80 exit 426, which is about half way between Omaha and Lincoln, travel east on Nebraska Highway 66 about five miles. The park is open year-round. The park offers 31 camper cabins, 21 cabins and tepees for rent. Other amenities include a swimming pool, lake and a restaurant in summer. For information call (402) 234-2217, or go online to outdoornebraska.org. A Nebraska Park Entry Permit is required.

Chadron State Park, Fort Robinson State Park, Pine Ridge National Forest Although not well known across the country, the Pine Ridge area of northwestern Nebraska is home to some of the best mountain biking terrain anywhere.

Located within a 40-mile radius, Chadron State Park, the Pine Ridge District of the Nebraska National Forest and Fort Robinson State Park offer more than 70 miles of marked trails and enough unmarked livestock trails to satisfy any mountain biking enthusiast.

"There's nothing stopping you except your lungs and your imagination," said Fred McCartney, who has been riding the area since 1990.

Created with cooperation from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the U.S. Forest Service and local agencies, the trails in these areas are mapped, marked and outfitted with amenities.

The trails are marked in several ways. The most common markers are white diamonds and blazes. The diamonds are placed on posts or trees, and the blazes are cuts in trees. These markers are placed so a rider can see two at any point. The idea is that as a rider passes a marker he or she should be able to see the next one.

Some trail amenities are jump-ups and erosion control devices. The jump-ups are ramps that go over fences, allowing riders to pass from one section to another without stopping to open and close gates.

Area maps are available at park offices and a detailed, weatherproof map may be purchased at the Chadron Chamber of Commerce.

Though riders generally group these Pine Ridge areas together, each is individually managed and has its own set of regulations.

The two state parks offer distinct trails that are marked for mountain biking. Riders must stay on the marked trails, and any trails not marked are off limits.

The Pine Ridge District of the Nebraska National Forest is different. In areas located east and west of Chadron State Park there are marked and unmarked trails on U.S. Forest Service land. At present all trails are open to mountain biking. Riders are urged to use caution when on unmarked paths, most of which are livestock trails.

The Soldier Creek Wilderness Area, located west of Fort Robinson, is not open to mountain bikers. The forest service is currently reevaluating its travel management system in the Pine Ridge, and may change its trail-use regulations. Changes might limit the trails open to mountain biking. For current information, call the U.S. Forest Service office in Chadron at (308) 432-0300.

The terrain in Pine Ridge state parks and forest service land looks more like Colorado than most of Nebraska. Passing though rugged canyons and stands of ponderosa pines, trails in these areas can be difficult and unpredictable.

"You always gotta be wide awake," warned Herb Petersen, owner of Mountain Mania bike shop in Chadron. "Go to sleep and you'll pay your dues to the dirt gods."

Petersen has lived in Chadron for over 40 years and helped create and promote

With the sun glinting over the next ridge, Herb Petersen of Chadron navigates a narrow trail in Chadron State Park.
the trails in the area. He said on any outing a rider might encounter terrain elements that offer challenges, such as dirt, mud, rock, sand, tall grass and pine needles.

He said grass and pine needles are surprisingly difficult because they can be extremely slick on the trail. Grass also obscures obstacles.

Trails sometimes change from day to day. A trail that was clear one day could have a tree across it the next or be washed out by an overnight rain. Petersen said riders should ride with vision, not memory.

Because the Pine Ridge is a large area, Petersen said riders sometimes get lost. "You may only be 200 to 300 yards from where you started, but it looks like the other side of the moon," he said.

He suggested that riders pick a reference point and stay familiar with it over the course of a ride.

"Ride for about fifteen minutes and take a look," he said.

Riders may also want to take a compass or GPS unit and inform someone of where they plan to ride.

Because the Pine Ridge is not near population centers, these trails are lightly used. Wente said the isolation is a reason people will come from Colorado to ride these trails.

"You can go out there and ride all day long, and the chances of seeing someone are slim to none," he said.

Chadron State Park is nine miles south of Chadron on U.S. Highway 385. The park offers 70 camping pads with electricity and 22 cabins. For information call (308) 432-6167. Fort Robinson State Park is three miles west of Crawford. Overnight facilities include 100 camping pads with electrical hookups, 35 cabins and 22 lodge rooms. For information call (303) 665-2900, or go online to outdoornebraska.org. A current Nebraska Park Entry Permit is required.

Potter's Pasture
Potter's Pasture arguably has the best-maintained mountain biking trails in the state.

Located in the loess hills of south-central Nebraska near Brady, this rugged pasture consists of 1,300 acres of privately owned land that has been set up for mountain biking.

In the early-1990s, Steve Potter of Gothenburg purchased the land to use the existing livestock trails for mountain biking.

With the help of Patty Evans, owner of Cycle Sport bicycle shop in North Platte,

Steve Potter (front) pauses with a group of riders at Potter's Pasture near Brady.
Wente, who lived in North Platte at the time, and many other local riders, Potter developed the canyon-laced land into a prime mountain biking spot.

Potter, an avid cyclist who had previously organized races along the Platte River, said he wanted to give people a place to ride.

To maintain the trails, Potter leases the land to ranchers, who use it to graze cattle. For at least six months of the year, cattle keep the grass down, and more importantly keep the trails worn.

Riders do the rest of the maintenance and trail building, which includes mowing, repairing trails and trimming trees.

Potter and other riders have mapped the primary trails. Their map includes trail names, and a color-coded system to rank trails by their difficulty. Trail names are also posted throughout the property.

This system gives the area the feel of a ski resort, which Potter said came naturally because of a ridge running through the property. Many trails branch from the ridge,

Buck Hood of North Platte grinds his way up Six-Man trail. He is one of only six people who have made it to the top nonstop.
allowing riders to choose which way they want to go down. This helps beginners because there is almost always an easy way down.

Potter said this naming system allows riders to communicate where they are going and which trails they are going to ride. It is also a way to personalize the area because many of the trails are named for the regular riders.

The map is frequently updated with new trails. "We haven't even tapped the potential of trails," Potter said. "All we have is the skeleton." This skeleton consists of 20 to 30 miles of trails that cut across grass-covered hills and through cedar-filled canyons.

Trails for all skill levels are available, but most are in the intermediate range. Because there is usually an easy way and a hard way to get from one place to another, beginning riders can travel alongside intermediate riders.

Many climbs require considerable endurance and technical ability. For example, Six-Man trail is extremely difficult. It got its name because only six people have been able to climb nonstop all the way to the top.

Some downhills are short, dropping quickly into the canyon bottoms, some wind through the cedars, and some are long, open hillsides, allowing riders to pick up speed. All are exhilarating.

Beginners must adjust to the width and depth of the trails. Because cattle created the trails, they are narrow and in most cases are deeply worn. Riders who fail to stay in the center find their pedals and tires scraping the sides of the trails. Regular riders said some newcomers are skeptical about the conditions, but the narrow, gouged trails just take time to get used to.

Potter's Pasture was the site of an early season National Off-Road Biking Association race. Potter said race officials thought highly of the area, but they said it was too difficult for an early season race and would be better suited for a later race.

Cyclists relax around an evening campfire after a day riding at Potter's Pasture.

Potter encourages mountain bikers to ride on his property, insisting that the land is for everyone to enjoy.

"I am merely the caretaker," Potter said.

Potter has organized rides - sometimes complete with campouts - that attract biking enthusiasts from across Nebraska and beyond.

For directions and information about Potter's Pasture, contact Patty Evans at Cycle Sport in North Platte at (308) 530-1897.

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