There are three crucial elements for an area to be a mountain biking destination: Good trails, good weather, and a good community. Prescott, Arizona is quickly climbing to the top of many people’s lists of mountain biking locations, fueled by a rapid growth in their trail system and the Whiskey 50, a 15- to 50-mile mountain bike race that has attracted top pros with a $20,000 prize purse and 1,500 amateur racers with a Wild West themed festival embraced by the entire community.
The growth is backed up with an abundance of trails, ranging from forested singletrack just outside of town to the slickrock of the Willow Dells Loop. Pleasant weather throughout the winter with highs in the 70s in the late spring, combined with a community boasting excellent restaurants, coffee shops, and art make this an ideal getaway for those trying to escape the winter cold.
I had the pleasure of spending a week in the small town while participating in the Whiskey 50 last spring, riding the trails, camping, eating at the restaurants, and sampling the thrift stores that make the Southwest famous. After a winter spent in the snowy mountains, the warm temperatures and welcoming community put Prescott high on my list of places to return when the urge to ride on dirt in the winter became strong.
The town of Prescott is surrounded by the Prescott National Forest on three sides, providing an abundance of mountain biking in the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the U.S..
To the north of town is the Willow Lake area that boasts technical singletrack in the form of slickrock on the Willow Dells loops. Between the two areas, there are trails to cater to cross country riders, gravity riders, beginners, and dare-devils. Located at an altitude of approximately 5,000 feet, the trails are snow-free year round most years. Stop by any bike shop for a comprehensive map of the trails and prepared to be astounded by the sheer number of routes ready to be ridden.
One of the classic areas for trails in the Prescott National Forest is the Thumb Butte area. The area hosts the Whiskey 50, held on classic high-altitude forest singletrack built with mountain bikers in mind. Technical rock gardens and tight switchbacks are interspersed among miles of buffed out, flowing trail with a combination of long and short climbs and similar descents.
Another trail not to miss is located just south of town leaving from the White Spar campground. The 4.4-mile Gold Water Lake trail is the single trail that we were directed to after stopping at a local bike shop and asking the age-old question: What’s your favorite trail around here?
The trail climbs moderately out of the campground before embarking on a roller coaster ride of turns and dips, short climbs and fast descents. While short, the trail delivers more grins per mile than nearly any other trail I have ever ridden.
When looking for a change of pace, head up to Willow Lake to ride the 2.9-mile Willow Dells Loop. The loop meanders along slickrock on the edge of the lake following a white dotted line, much like the Moab slickrock. There are plenty of technical features to keep the most technically adept rider entertained and enough smooth rock to appease those with a moderate self-preservation gene.
Last spring, as part of the festival surrounding the Whiskey 50, the community hosted a showing of Pedal Driven, a documentary showcasing trail builders working with the Forest Service in order to build legal, sustainable trails.
Community members and athletes in town for the race showed up for the screening in the historic theater hosted by the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance. The group had recently applied to turn Prescott into an IMBA Trail Center and was hoping to turn the momentum building in the mountain bike community into more miles of trails surrounding the town. One of their projects: The Circle Trail, which they plan to build into 50 miles of trail surrounding the small town.
At a time when land use issues seem to be placing road blocks in the way of mountain bike development, the Prescott community appears to be embracing both their western heritage and the progressive mountain bike movement.
The town maintains it’s quaint, old West feel with its Whiskey Row main street, complete with a wide variety of cafes, bars, and shops while promoting art, culture, music and mountain biking within the same framework.
When the circus called the Whiskey 50 came to town, the community fully embraced the festival, shutting down their main street for the expo as well as for the race. Everyone in town seemed to respond to the race, and all the traffic issues that it created with closed roads and hundreds of extra people, with an amazing amount of grace and poise.
The locals were clearly proud of their town, proud of their trails, and more than willing to welcome out-of-towners to sample the goods. Mountain bikers in the town believe that the Prescott area is on the verge of becoming the next Moab or Fruita, a mountain biking Mecca, and based on the enthusiasm within the community and the sampling of trails I got to experience, I’d say they are well on their way.
Best Restaurant – The Raven Cafe
142 N. Cortez St. 928.717.0009
Do not miss eating at the Raven. A fully organic, fully green restaurant that uses vegetables from their own garden, meat from local sources, and only toxin-free cleaning supplies, including Dr. Bronner’s soap. There is no better place to get a meal in town.
The burgers are huge, the sweet potato fries crispy, and the menu includes vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free entrees. If the food isn’t a draw enough, the cafe boasts an amazing selection of microbrews; perfect for enjoying while recounting the ride that day. The walls are covered with work of local artists and local music is not an uncommon occurrence at night.
Be sure to check out more destinations to go get your tires dirty
Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO. She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi day self supported racing in the more recent past. She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. All articles by Eszter.