Right off the bat there were a couple of things about my visit to the Louisville Mega Cavern bike park that had me awestruck. First, other than a couple of employees, I was the only person in the massive 320,000-square-foot space. (It was a weekday in late September, so school and work were in session.) Second, I was riding under 40-foot rock ceilings 100 feet below the Louisville Zoo inside a former limestone mine. Not something you get to experience too often.
Open since early 2015, the subterranean bike park here is a hidden gem consisting of a few million pounds of soil sculpted into 12 miles of interconnected trails, berms and jumps in several rooms. There’s a beginner-friendly loop that circles the perimeter, perfect for kids, helicopter parents or those looking to catch their breath between rips. Intermediate trails snake through the rooms, flowy and punchy, some with rock and wood features and parallel lines for spur-of-the-moment races.
A couple of pump tracks sit a short pedal away from the main attractions: the jump and slalom lines. Most of the obstacles here are advanced — hip-jumps, tabletops, rhythms, double and triple jumps — but there are milder versions for us mere mortals. Since I knew I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, I tried a couple of the harder runs; nothing like white-knuckling it over a 10-foot spine jump, wheels hardly leaving the ground, to make you realize how unsuited you are for the Crankworx World Tour.
But you can start small and work your way up. In fact, that’s kind of the point with today’s growing array of bike parks: to allow progression and help reduce intimidation for up-and-coming dirt jumpers and freeride mountain bikers. In most new parks, jump lines range from small to extra-large, with kids’ zones and cross-country skills areas for those who aren’t ready (or willing) to fly. Many new bike parks even incorporate multi-use areas for trail runners, hikers, casual cyclists and families, creating common ground for all outdoor enthusiasts.
While we don’t have a designated bike park in the St. Louis area (Figure 8 bike trail in South County is as close as we come right now), there are some excellent facilities nearby, in Louisville and Chicago as well as in smaller towns like Terre Haute, Ind., and Springfield, Mo. Here’s a quick guide to a few of the Midwest’s best bike parks, and what you can expect to find at each one.
Big Marsh Bike Park
Big Marsh, which opened in late 2016, isn’t just an exciting new bike park, it’s an environmental remediation success story. The park is carved out of what used to be an industrial wasteland about 30 minutes from downtown Chicago. But now, instead of steel slag heaps, it offers resident and visiting bikers 48 acres of dirt-filled, feature-rich fun. The lineup includes large and small pump tracks, a flow trail, jump lines (small, medium and large), a terrain park, and a cyclocross course with Belgian stairs and red shipping containers that serve as the start/finish shoot. More is on the way; Big Marsh consists of 287 acres of open space in all, and additional phases will add a perimeter cycling trail, multi-use trails and extra miles of single track. Right now, the space is undergoing habitat restoration, with bird species returning that haven’t been seen at Big Marsh for more than 20 years. The hope is that funds will come together for further expansion in 2018. bigmarsh.org
Griffin Bike Park
Terre Haute, Indiana
This is the only park we know of that has a water skills area, where you can ride across a 200-foot floating trail (with a turn in it) and hit a 4-foot kicker that launches you into the lake on a buoyed bike. Griffin currently offers 20+ miles of trail and seven specialized riding areas, including a terrain park with dual slalom track, jump park, pump track and kids track; and a basic training skills park with progressive obstacles like berms, teeter totters and wooden rollers. The core trails include a perimeter route and beginner, intermediate, advanced and expert networks. Eight more miles of trail are coming in — slowly, since riding season is in full swing, say the developers. The additions will consist of a multi-modal lake loop accessible to strollers and wheelchairs, and expanded miles for advanced and expert riders. Griffin Bike Park is named in honor of Sgt. Dale Griffin, a native son who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009 and often rode through the same woods where the park is located. Terre Haute is on the way to Nashville, Ind., making it a great waypoint on your next trip to the much-ballyhooed trails in Brown County State Park. griffinbikepark.com
Louisville Mega Cavern Bike Park
Most of the relevant facts about this underground labyrinth of purpose-built trails are included above, so rather than a rehash, here are some tips if you plan to visit. Summer is the “wet season,” when the cave walls seep and drip, which can impact riding conditions, so schedule your trip for when the weather gets cold. Whenever you choose to go, the temperature inside the cave is almost always going to be 60 degrees, so dress appropriately. The age limit for riders is 7 years old; however, unless the child is at least 12, a parent or guardian must be present on the course at all times — and every individual on the course must be riding a bike and have paid the admission fee. In other words, if you plan to bring a kid under 12, plan to pay to ride with him or her. Louisville Mega Cavern also features a guided electric bike tour of the mines, as well as a crevasse-spanning zip-line course and an aerial ropes course. louisvillemegacavern.com
The Railyard Bike Park
The Railyard opened in epic fashion last fall as legendary riders Hans Rey, Ryan Leech and Danny Macaskill put on a skills demonstration there during the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) 2016 World Summit. Located blocks from the Arkansas-Missouri railroad, the centerpiece of the park is an old rail car that riders roll through. There are eight total jump lines, from beginner to expert skill levels, so riders can practice and build up their skills. The slopestyle area is loaded with features like curved wall rides, dirt berms, flat wall rides, rollers, jump boxes and drop offs. A kids’ zone is perfect for strider bikes and beginner riders, and even has its own tunnel to zip through, as well as log rides, rock bridges, a curvy ladder bridge and a pump track. The Railyard is located in downtown Rogers, just a short drive from the mountain biking mecca of Bentonville, Ark., and connects to the Lake Atalanta trail system. facebook.com/TheRailyardAR/
Two Rivers Bike Park
Nestled near the confluence of the James and Finley rivers — hence its name — Two Rivers boasts 14+ miles of trail rolling through 400 acres of Ozarks terrain. The trails here are multi-use (and free!) for mountain bikers, runners and hikers, with heart-pumping climbing and drop sections, rock features, built-in curved walls and other optional obstacles. A new beginner’s bike park was completed in 2015, as was a professionally designed 18-hole disc golf course tucked beneath the dense stands of old growth forest. This latest phase emphasizes the park’s mission to be a place where all outdoor enthusiast can find enjoyment, and perhaps try something new. The trails here are signed much like ski slopes, with beginner trails marked white, intermediate trails marked green or blue, and the most difficult trails requiring special biking skills marked in black. The park provides shuttle runs on Saturdays, so downhillers can maximize their energy by working with gravity rather than against it, and Two Rivers is also the home of Singletrack Mind, an annual festival that hosts hundreds of cyclists, runners and enthusiasts every year. trailspring.org/two-rivers/