There’s little to compare with the rush of shredding down a steep hill at breakneck speeds on a mountain bike. As a way of getting close to nature, exploring out-of-the-way villages, and trekking through isolated canyons, it really can’t be beat. It’s also one of most economical and eco-friendly ways to see the world while burning calories (instead of gasoline) and getting into great shape. The following destinations stand out as some of the most exotic and thrilling rides on the planet.
Slickrock in Moab, Utah, U.S.A.: Many trails here take riders past red and gold cliffs that were once home to the Anasazi people—their cliff dwellings can be toured at nearby Canyonlands (www.nps.gov/cany) and Mesa Verde (www.nps.gov/meve) National Parks. You can choose from rides that feature spectacular vistas of the Colorado River, preserved dinosaur tracks, woodlands of piñon pine and juniper, or just spend the day soaking up the mellow culture of downtown Moab. www.discovermoab.com.
Volcanic Trails on La Palma, Canary Islands: Spain’s Canary Islands are a paradise year-round. La Palma, the northernmost island, is known for its incredible natural scenery. Towering Roque de los Muchachos, a volcano that lords over the island at almost 2,400m (8,000 ft.), also gives the island some outstanding bike trails. Expect to see enormous calderas, indigenous plants like the Canarian pine, plunging ravines, and from every vantage point, the sapphire blue Atlantic. www.spain.info.
Wildlife Reserves on the Galápagos Islands: This string of volcanic islands is home to some of the rarest and most amazing wildlife on earth. Most of the animals are utterly unafraid of humans, making it like a petting zoo for adults. The volcanic craters that dot these islands, such as El Junco, where the local frigate birds flock to find fresh water, are ideal destinations. Historic towns and plantations round out your mountain biking tour. www.galapagospark.org.
Mountain Villages in the Piemonte, Italy: This ancient land offers some of the best mountain biking on the continent. If you like to take it easy and drink in the culture (and the phenomenal wines), a number of tours concentrate on ancient hill towns and the rich farms and forests of the Po Valley. When you’re ready for more adventure, head uphill toward the Italian Alps, where historic forts loom atop steep hills, and tall bridges span vast canyons. www.italiantourism.com.
Off-Road in Cappadocia, Turkey: There are few mountain biking destinations more exotic and beautiful than this region of Turkey, home of the annual Cappadocia Mountain Biking Festival. The area is known for its abundance of off-road trails that wind through an otherworldly landscape. Bizarre rock formations like “fairy chimneys” dot the plains and hillsides, and isolated villages with frescoed churches, ancient Roman ruins, and vineyards are yours to explore. Look out for the hotels, homes, and villages that are carved entirely out of rock. www.cappadocia.travel.
Pearl Pass in Colorado, U.S.A.: This ride is legendary among mountain bikers, who first attempted the nearly 40-mile (64km) crossing in 1976, riding only jury-rigged cruisers with fat tires. Starting in Crested Butte and finishing in Aspen, the ride took those intrepid adventurers a couple of days of huffing and puffing their way on unpaved jeep roads over this 12,705-foot (3,800m) pass. Their initial feat has become an annual event, usually taking place in late summer. This ride is rugged, steep, and has unpredictable weather, but riders are rewarded with spectacular scenery. www.visitcrestedbutte.com.
Singletrack in Wales: What they might lack in vowels (Cwm Carn, Clywyds, Gwydyr Forest), the mountain biking trails of Wales more than make up for in epic singletrack adventures. In recent years, Wales’ lush forests and open, rolling hillsides have been developed as mountain bike trail centers, many of which have bike rental shops and other amenities. Some of the most popular and challenging singletracks are Coed Y Brenin, Afan Forest Park, Coed Llandegla, and Nant yr Arian. www.mbwales.com.
Dodging Cow Pies in the Texas Hill Country, U.S.A.: The rocky, semi-arid terrain and sunny climate of the Texas Hill Country makes for perfect mountain biking—just watch out for the cow pies, as some of the best rides are on working cattle ranches. Hill Country State Natural Area is 5,370 sq. miles (13,908 sq. km) of cow-free biking bliss, offering overnight camping, fishing, and swimming. Mountain bikes shred their way through oak woodlands, canyons, spring-fed creeks, and rocky, rolling hills—and it’s all on shared equestrian trails (a whole different flavor of trail pie). www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
The Dalat Highlands, Vietnam: The cool pine forests around Dalat are the perfect place to breathe fresh mountain air, kayak through clear lakes, and trek past the mountain villas built by French colonists back when the region was still known as Indochine francaise. The mountain biking is world-class, with climbs ranging from mellow, afternoon hill rides to multi-day journeys deep into the heart of the highlands, down to the coast, or to national parks in the area. Try to visit during the dry season from November through April. www.phattireventures.com.
Willow Creek Trail, Bass Lake, California, U.S.A.: This is not a starter trail—if your quads are solid meat, your lungs are bulletproof, and you hunger for white-knuckle shreds down a technical, complex trail, then maybe you’re ready for this advanced black diamond plunge. Bikes with less than five inches of play in the front suspension will reward riders with a long, bone-jarring ride through hell, so come prepared with your best equipment. Expect the unexpected here: hairpin turns and switchbacks, wet, slimy rocks in clear, dry weather, loose slides of granite gravel, and drop-dead gorgeous views of the region’s mountains. www.yosemitebicycle.com.