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Mountain Biking in Brown County State Park

~story and photos by Boris Ladwig

Paul Tackett rides along the Walnut Trail in the Brown County State Park.

Mountain bikers Paul Tackett and Alyn Brown grinned as they steered their bikes around a slight left turn at the beginning of the Walnut Trail in Brown County State Park on a recent pleasant spring afternoon.

The cyclists had just taken a break at a lookout spot near the trailhead to admire the park’s beauty. They debated whether to take the Walnut Trail, for advanced riders, or go all in and tackle the double black diamond-rated Schooner Trace, probably the park’s most challenging trail, which has gained fame on YouTube.

They opted for the Walnut Trail in part because they had been delayed at the lookout point. Tackett had planned to be back home in Indianapolis at 5 p.m., and he already knew he was going to be late.

The mechanical engineer comes down to Brown County about two to three times per month, to enjoy the trails, the park, the camaraderie, and the exercise.

“I think it’s the best mountain biking in the Midwest by far,” he said.

He has ridden in lots of places, including Utah and North Carolina, and planned to head to Italy this fall. He said he even tells people in other states that they’d be pleasantly surprised if they came to south-central Indiana.

Brown, an intellectual property attorney who lives in Brown County, goes a step further in his praise for the local park.

“One of the best anywhere in the world,” he said.

Brown has ridden as far away as Spain and Costa Rica.

But he may be biased: Brown said he and his wife moved from Indianapolis to Brown

County to be closer to the trails. And he serves as president of the local Team Nebo Ridge cycling club.

Brown and Tackett used to be neighbors. And Brown said he and his wife found themselves coming to Brown County two to three times per week, for the restaurants, pubs, music, art, and trails. About two years ago they simply decided to move down here.

“It’s been fantastic,” Brown said.

Tackett and Brown praised the variety offered by the local trails.

“There’s really something for everybody,” Brown said. Eli Major, interpretive naturalist at the park, and an avid mountain biker, said the park offers nearly 40 miles of mountain biking trails, ranging from beginner to expert.

The area’s natural beauty and central location set the park apart, he said. The woods and hills provide spectacular scenery and the right topography to make for rides that range from easy to very tough. Meanwhile, proximity to major population centers including Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Chicago provide millions of people quick access.

Mike Sanders, of South Bend, recently came to the park with his wife and son. The family had camped at the park a few years ago and learned about the trails. This time, Sanders and his son brought along their mountain bikes.

Sanders chatted during a quick break at a lookout point north of the park office. He and his son had ridden about 20 miles during their visit. He described the trails as fun and occasionally demanding.

“You test your skills here for sure,” Sanders said.

He said his favorite trail is Weedpatch, a 2.4-miler for riders with intermediate skills. Sanders said he liked the really long downhill section with tight switchbacks.

Daniel Martinelli participated in a guided ride on a recent Tuesday. He lives in the Detroit area but has come to south central Indiana frequently in the last few months for work in Columbus. When he researched potential activities in the area, he learned about the park and made sure to bring his mountain bike in early spring.

His favorite trail, Bobcat, also features lots of downhill sections, but still proves challenging.

“Beats you up a bit,” he said.

Martinelli and other riders in his group whipped around a sharp turn recently, some hooting with delight as their rear wheels kicked up dust.

The guided rides are organized by Brown County Bikes, 185 S. Jefferson St., in Nashville, which sells bikes and related gear and provides lessons for anyone from beginners to professional racers.

Kate Nolan, the shop’s co-founder, is a professional mountain bike instructor, and also one of 25 instructor trainers in the world who can certify teachers. She also teaches mountain biking at Indiana University.

Nolan said she has coached as far away as Whistler, British Columbia, but said Brown County is a great place to ride for beginners and professionals.

She said she rides in the park multiple times a week.

Mountain biking is a full-body workout, Nolan said, but it also exposes people to beautiful scenery, plant life, wildlife and, depending on the time of day, can offer time for reflective solitude.

“I ride the whole park,” she said. “I really love it.”

Mountain biking access to the trails costs $20 per year or $5 per day. Nolan and all other riders in this story strongly recommended that people wear helmets. The price of mountain bikes can vary widely, but they cost at least a few hundred dollars at the low end.

For people who aren’t sure they want to spend that much upfront, Major, the park naturalist, leads a free beginner’s course—though a $20 donation is recommended—twice a month from May to September. Bikes are provided.

Brown County Bikes offers bike rentals for $95 per day, and if you end up buying a bike, you can credit the rental fee toward the purchase. Nolan also offers private classes that cost $150 for two hours, $300 for a half day and $500 for a full day, though she said a two-hour class is a good starting point for beginners.

Major said Brown County also is in the enviable position to have a dedicated mountain biking community that volunteers often to add new trails and clean existing ones of fallen branches and other debris, and to repack the soil on trails if they have been washed out by weather and use.

Major said that while some people deride Indiana as a flyover state, you won’t hear any state park enthusiasts say that.

“We have people travel for hundreds of miles to come to our trails,” he said.

YouTuber Schooner Trace: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBdj_GZJQxQ>

State Park: <https://www.browncountystatepark.net/assets/files/brown-co-trail.pdf>

Team Nebo Ridge: <https://tnr.clubexpress.com/content.aspx?page_id=0&club_ id=151380>