My stomach dropped as I swooped down one berm and up another, steering my bike down the dirt roller coaster that was the aptly-named Sidewinder Trail at the Kingdom Trails in Vermont. It would have been way too easy get too much speed and go flying out of control, but I reminded myself to reign it in – the last thing I wanted to do was get hurt before my vacation was over. At the bottom, all I wanted to do was climb back up and do it again, but the sun was setting and my ride back to the campground was patiently waiting. Time to make my way back to the parking lot and save some for tomorrow.
As one of the most talked-about mountain bike destinations on the east coast, the Kingdom Trails have been on my short list for a while. I finally got the chance to see if they live up to the hype.
The Kingdom Trails boast over 60 miles of singletrack, not including the Burke Mountain Resort lift served gravity trails, which add yet another element to an already-great trail system. Most of the trails are clustered on the western side of the town, but there are also a few that connect to the resort to the east and also expand northward.
Parking is located either in downtown East Burke (it’s a small enough town that you really can’t miss it) in a giant gravel lot that is also the site of an outdoor tiki bar and food trucks that are hopping on just about any summer evening, or at a number of different locations up on Darling Hill. Some of the Darling Hill locations require a small parking fee, while others are free, first come, first serve.
The trails are mostly fast and flowy, especially juxtaposed with my usual central Pennsylvania rocky fare. But that doesn’t mean they are boring. Features like massive berms and optional jump lines on the descents and countless wooden bridges of varying widths keep things interesting for riders of all abilities, yet all of that is walkable or there is a go-around line. A number of the trails rated as “difficult” (noted by a black diamond) also feature rooty sections that keep you on your toes, especially if it’s wet.
There’s plenty of climbing to be had if that’s your jam, by either climbing up Burke Mountain or zigzagging up and down Darling Hill as many times as you wish via the countless trails that drop down to the river and climb back up to the top of the ridge. If that’s not your thing, you can stay on flatter ground either at the top or the bottom of the hill.
The thing that struck me the most at the Kingdom Trails was ability for riders of different skill levels to all ride together and have fun. While there are definitely challenges to be had, many of the trails are just pure, swoopy, scenic fun that everyone can enjoy at their own pace. If some of the group wants to do a longer, harder ride, it’s easy to meet up in town later at a pub or the ice cream stand, or convene in the middle of the woods for a snack at the Market Cafe, a stand serving wraps, cookies, lemonade and more that is set up at the top of the aforementioned Sidewinder descent (though filling your belly and then riding down Sidewinder is not necessarily recommended). There’s also a pump track and skills area for kids and adults alike that is in town for easy access.
Fun aside, these trails are pretty amazing for another reason: They are entirely on private land, and 79 different landowners came together to agree to open up their property for recreational use. It’s pretty hard to get 79 people to agree on anything, much less to let thousands of people they don’t know use their land.
A Vermont statute that prevents private landowners from getting sued for injuries or incidents that happen on their land is a big piece of why this arrangement can work out. The other piece is economic gain – not for the individuals (landowners receive no monetary compensation for allowing the Kingdom Trails to exist on their property) – but for the community as a whole. Without the Kingdom Trails and Burke Mountain, East Burke would be a no-man’s-land. But with the influx of tourists who now flock to the area for outdoor recreation, the little town is booming, so much so that plans are being put in place to expand the trail system outward and provide more parking in remote areas to reduce congestion in the downtown.
The agreement that Kingdom Trails has with its landowners is little more than a handshake agreement – property owners can back out at any time – so it’s critically important that the Kingdom Trails staff and trail users be respectful of the arrangement. If it weren’t for those 79 people who believed in the common good, these trails wouldn’t exist.
Overall, the Kingdom Trails were worth our 9-hour drive to spend a long weekend exploring the area, though we could have used a couple more days to hit some trails we didn’t get to as well as the Burke Mountain gravity trails. Oh well, I guess we needed to save some for next time. And with future plans for expansion, it sounds like there will be even more new trails to ride.
Know if you go:
- The Kingdom Trails are a “pay to play” system. Trail passes are $15 per day, which goes towards trail maintenance, new trail projects and paying the salaries of several full time employees to execute said projects.
- Lodging: There are a number of different lodging options depending on your style, from camping to rental homes to hotels. The Kingdom Trail website has a nice comprehensive list.
- Trail conditions are updated daily on the Kingdom Trails website.
- Winter activities: About 25 miles of trail are groomed for fat biking in the winter in addition to being open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.