With its ever-expanding network of trails for all abilities, Snowmass Bike Park is quickly becoming a destination for the two-wheeled gravity crowd. Add to that the jaw-dropping mountain views (this is Snowmass in the winter, after all) and the relative ease of loading a bike on a lift instead of having to ride uphill first, and it’s tempting for those curious about downhill mountain biking to go out and rent a bike, buy a lift ticket, and start exploring.

After all, it’s just riding a bike, right?

Not quite. Similar to skiing or snowboarding, downhill mountain biking is a sport that requires a unique set of foundational skills best taught to first-timers by professional instructors. Riding a bike on dirt trails with natural and manmade features is not at all like cruising around the neighborhood back home. And exploring new territory — even with great signage — is always better with a guide familiar with the lay of the land and your ability level.

Summer in Aspen isn’t complete without a mountain bike ride, so here’s how you can ensure a fulfilling first-time experience at Snowmass Bike Park.
1st Timers Guide to the Snowmass Bike Park – Bike Clinic
1st Timers Guide to the Snowmass Bike Park – Bike Clinic

What Is Snowmass Bike Park?

Not every ski area features a bike park in the summer, although more and more once winter-only resorts are adding mountain biking and other warm-weather amenities as summer visitation increases. For those unfamiliar with the term, a bike park is a network of “flow” trails (mountain-bike-specific, downhill trails), often lift accessed, with varying amounts of manmade features such as rollers, jumps, banked turns, and bridges. Snowmass Bike Park currently offers six such trails — with many more to come over the next few years — accessed via the Elk Camp Gondola and Elk Camp Chairlift.

At Snowmass Bike Park, as at other bike parks, trail difficulty is designated just as it is in the winter: green is easiest, blue is intermediate, and black is most difficult. There’s a beginner skills park at the Elk Camp Gondola midway point (or a short pedal up from the base), as well as a larger network of cross-country bike trails totaling more than 50 miles all around Snowmass.
Snowmass Bike Park, Colorado
Snowmass Bike Park, Colorado

Ride with a Pro

The best introduction to Snowmass Bike Park is to take a clinic with a certified Bike Pro. For just $50 (not including bike rental or lift ticket), you can take the Park Ready Downhill Bike Clinic, a three-hour coaching session geared to getting you on the trails with confidence. If you want a custom experience, private lessons for up to four people are available in half-day (3 hours for $335) and full-day (6 hours for $500).
Riding at Snowmass Bike Park
Riding at Snowmass Bike Park

A note to first-time downhillers: the most intimidating part may well be the gearing up. At least for this writer, strapping on all the body armor and donning the thick, padded helmet at Four Mountain Sports had me wondering what I was getting myself into.

I was quickly put at ease, however, by my Bike Pro for the morning, the incomparable Annie Black. Full of contagious enthusiasm, boundless energy, and a genuine desire to help people have fun, Annie led me through the “ABCs” of downhill mountain biking (active stance, braking, and cornering) in a level, paved section of the Base Village Plaza designated for that purpose.

Once you get familiar with the bike (a must if it’s a rental) and the basic downhill techniques, it’s time to test them out in the skills park, which offers several short downhill sections with practice features and two loops with banked turns.
Here’s what I learned from Annie at this point, especially if you’re really eager to hit the trails on your first day: Listen to your Pro, and stay loose! Perhaps counterintuitively, an active stance on a downhill mountain bike requires loose arms and flexible legs, both to absorb the uneven terrain and be able to tip and turn the bike beneath you. It’s a mental thing, too. If you’re nervous or on the verge of freaking out, you will stiffen up and not think through what you need to do to ride smoothly.

But if all goes well, this progression of skill-building means it’s time for your reward: a guided trail ride. From the top of the Elk Camp Gondola, we joined Verde, a wide green-designated trail that flows back to the bottom for 3.8 miles. Starting with a panoramic view of the Snowmass valley, it winds mostly through evergreen and aspen forests (good for staying cool). Although there are few features on this trail, there’s ample opportunity to play with learned skills on the undulating terrain and some swooping turns, culminating in two sharp switchbacks near the bottom. Stopping frequently to rest legs and arms and soak in the beauty of the experience, I followed Annie’s lead as she demonstrated proper technique and shouted tips and encouragement back to me — even videoing one section so I could then see what my stance looked like and improve it for next time.

Ride On!

If you’ve mastered a Park Ready clinic or already have some downhill mountain biking under your belt, you can’t go wrong exploring Snowmass Bike Park on your own. For skiers or snowboarders who enjoy gravity sports, it’s one of the best summer activities in Aspen.

Pick up a Snowmass trail map to get the lay of the land, although it’s also easy to just follow the signs. All Snowmass Bike Park trails begin from the top of the Elk Camp Chairlift or Elk Camp Gondola — and some intersect each other if you feel like switching it up halfway. Expect more jumps and bridges, and steeper banked turns, on the three blue runs than on Verde (although any feature can be taken slowly or walked). The two black trails, Valhalla and Animal Crackers, feature big airs and table tops — these are competition-level proving grounds. Learn more with our trail descriptions.
Given all the protective gear and the hard-charging look of some riders, downhill mountain biking has a bit of an image problem, says Kevin Jordan, Snowmass Bike Park and bike school manager. But it really can be a family sport. “The ride is very much your ride,” he says, and, like skiing or snowboarding, the whole family can ride together, or take different trails — including Snowmass’s extensive network of cross-country trails — and then meet up.

“If you haven’t done this before, we want you to come with us, because we’ll ensure you’ll have a better time, and we want you to come back,” concludes Kevin. “But be careful, like skiing or snowboarding, downhill mountain biking is a gravity-fed sport — and it’s addictive.”

Published August 2018

About the Author

Catherine Lutz
Catherine Lutz

CATHERINE LUTZ

Catherine Lutz is an Aspen-based freelance writer and editor who helps craft stories and content for the Aspen Institute, Aspen Sojourner magazine, Powder magazine, and many others. An avid skier, paddleboarder, and mountain biker, she’s now vicariously experiencing a second childhood through her two young children in one of the best places on the planet to raise a family.

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