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Local Flavours: The Complete Guide to Riding in North Conway, New Hampshire

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Note from the Author: This is a complete guide to riding your bicycle in North Conway, NH. It’s not an attempt to circumvent current restrictions or guidelines when it comes to travel within the United States. We’re currently in the midst of a still global pandemic, so while you may or may not be able to plan a trip here next week, the good news is that everything we’ve presented with this Local Flavours will still be relevant whenever it is appropriate to spend some time abroad. In the meantime enjoy the views, take some inspiration from what they’ve been cooking up, and please stay safe out there. These trails and rad people will definitely be ready for you when the time comes.

I am not normally one to engage in hyperbole. It’s like when your friends are taking you for a ride on their local trails for the first time and you’re on a grunt of a climb when they tell you that you’re only 5 minutes from the top. 15 minutes later you’re cursing them between breaths as the top of the climb is nowhere in sight. Okay, that might not technically be hyperbolic, but it’s quite annoying and to the point, a bit misleading. More often than not, a rider’s excitement toward a particular section of trail, or entire region, can lead them to make some statements that might prove to be a bit misleading about their experience or the expectations of the folks they’re speaking with. It’s important for me to establish that with you, because what I am about to say is not hyperbolic, and I’m as surprised as anyone to hear it come from my mouth. I think that North Conway, New Hampshire is home to the best trails on the east coast.

I should add a few notes to that statement as well. First, I hate the “east coast” qualifier there. I’m still processing my week in town and I may ultimately conclude that it has my favorite trails in all of the Lower 48. I did wreck on Kandagnar as we tried to squeeze one more ride out of my first full day in town, and it came at the cost of a sprained wrist and shoulder. Don’t worry, the tree I nuked was just fine. The point being that my riding was limited to that day and that day only. However, my eyes worked just fine and what I saw while staying strictly behind the lens was enough for me to recognize that this stuff is right there with the goods in the PNW at the very least. Second, I recognize that the statement I made is entirely subjective, and it comes with me recognizing that the kinds of trails and riding that I prefer might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I like it steep, loamy, raw and rowdy, and North Conway has more of that than any other place I can think of outside of BC. Finally, making that kind of a claim isn’t meant to create any kind of consternation about all of the other amazing places we have to ride bikes, or spark a vitriolic debate about the merits of your trails versus another. Just the opposite. I’m a firm believer in the power of inspiration, and think that surprises like North Conway are serving up a feast of inspirational terrain and riders. Sound good? Are we all cool? Good, because damn, this place is the truth.
Brice Shirbach // Local Flavours
Age: 38
Location: Wilmington, DE, USA
Supporters: Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Pearl Izumi, 9point8, Julbo, Shimano, Stan’s No Tubes, Deity Components, Dialed Health, Loam Coffee
Instagram: @bricycles
Favorite Trail in North Conway: Charlie Don’t Surf
Preferred Terrain: Steep ‘n loamy.

North Conway is truly paradise for those who are looking to call a mountain town home.

A Bit About the Region

Long before European settlers landed on these shores and eventually named this carrot shaped territory New Hampshire, the Pequawket, Abenaki, and Wabanaki Confederacy indigenous people called what is now the Mount Washington Valley home. Flanked to the west by the Presidential Mountain Range which includes Mount Washington, and to the east by Maine, North Conway is home to 2,300 people according to the last census taken a decade ago. The Saco River, its name derived from the Abenaki meaning “land where the river comes out”, flows from nearby Crawford Notch, through town and eventually into Maine before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean via the Saco Bay.

North Conway is well known for several outdoor and recreational pursuits, most notably skiing during the Winter months with 4 different resorts a stone’s throw from downtown, and of course the legendary backcountry of Mount Washington is also nearby. In fact, Olympic and World Cup DH skier Leann Smith hails from the area and still calls it home. Mountaineering and rock climbing have long been recognized as world class, particularly at Cathedral Ledge, one of North Conway’s most notable landmarks.

While outlet shopping has certainly provided a boost in recent years, the heart of North Conway is still full of artisan sensibilities, with loads of mom and pop shops, micro coffee roasters, and classic New England inns and outdoors shops lining the northern portion of the White Mountain Highway, which effectively serves as North Conway’s “Main Street”. If you were to grab a seat on the patio of Frontside Roasters during peak tourist season, you’d likely enjoy some people watching if that’s your sort of thing. Of course, you’d also take note of the growing number of full suspension mountain bikes attached to cars with license plates from up and down the northeast. Those people are here for the same exact thing that we are: the unbelievably brilliant trails that are scattered throughout North Conway and the mountains that surround it.

Getting to North Conway

The thing about traveling to this part of the country is that it won’t take you long to notice the lack of interstate highways available to motorists. The densest collection of the interstate system in New Hampshire can be found in the southern portion of the Granite State near its capital, Concord, and points south. Anywhere north of Lake Winnipesauke will be serviced by state and county roads, which means speeds often range from 25 mph to 55 mph on the same two-lane road depending on the community you’re driving through. New Hampshire’s low population density and beautiful landscape make for decidedly scenic driving nonetheless. Portland, Maine is the closest population center, located 62 miles to the southeast with a :90 minute drive time to North Conway. Other cities and respective drive times include: Boston, MA (2:40), Montreal, QC (3:45), Providence, RI (3:30), and New York, NY (5:30).

The nearest major international airport can be found in Boston, at Boston Logan International Airport, although the Portland International Jetport is about an hour closer, albeit much smaller and with generally higher fares.

While there are notable scenic train tours in the area, including the North Conway Scenic Railroad and the Mount Washington Cog Railway, there is no actual passenger service to or from North Conway. There is bus service which brings you to the Eastern Slope Resort in the heart of downtown serviced by Concord Coach Lines. Please check their website for COVID-19 related updates.

The Best Trails to Ride in North Conway

It’s all so good here that I don’t know where to start. As heavy as many of the lines can be in North Conway, the truth is that there are trails here for virtually every type of rider, from beginners to pros and park rats to backcountry gurus. I mentioned earlier that there are plenty of lift served options that are reasonably close, including Cranmore Resort which will is entering its first year as a lift-served option as well as Highland and Attitash, but for the sake of this list we’re going to stick to trails and network within North Conway proper, as there’s more than enough in town to keep the grins going for a week or more.

Hurricane Mountain

Think Squamish but with less crowds. It has incredible dirt, loads of extended fall line options, gaps, slabs, and high speeds. Hurricane Mountain is actually connected to Cranmore Mountain Resort via a ridge, which is where most of this trails drop down from. The White Mountain Bicycle Coalition is working with land owners there and expect to begin working on a new connector trail by the start of August.
Key trail – Kandagnar: What a trail. It’s brilliant from start to finish. Early on the pitch is enough to keep the speeds high and the fingers off of the brakes while the constant bumps, lumps and corners keep things loose before the terrain dives down and the first of many chutes and gaps take over. Definitely recommended for advanced riders and up.
Key trail – Charlie Don’t Surf: This might be one of my favorite trails…ever. It starts at the top of Cranmore Mountain and features unbelievably good dirt, loads of natural hits, and takes you through a variety of zones of the mountain. The fall line section through the fern meadow towards the bottom is breathtakingly good. Keep your eyes peeled for some Barred Owls in these woods!
Key trail – Hurricane: Formerly known as Smoothie, it’s a super fun and playful downhill with machine built sections at the top before the trail transitions into a more natural state about midway down. The line of sight is awesome throughout, and the Easter eggs are plentiful for more advanced riders.

West Side

Whitehorse Ledge and Cathedral Ledge are the primary zones on the West Side, and this area is home to some absolutely stunning rides and views. Access to many of the trails is via Cathedral Ledge Rd, which you can take to the top for some stunning views of the Mount Washington Valley before dropping in, or cut off midway up for various singletrack connectors.
Key trail – Bryce Path: This isn’t a long trail, but it is one of the gnarliest descents you’ll find in all of New England. It starts on slab before taking a steep and deep dive into the woods, and is relentlessly technical and jarring. High risk, very high reward.
Key trail – Half Day: I could wax poetic about the dirt on most of the trails between those found on the West Side and those found on or around Cranmore, but Half Day in particular is something special if you have an affinity for brown pow. It’s an au naturel playground, with barely a straightforward camber to be found, and more roost than I can describe without the use of joyous expletives. Take some time to take in the view from Cathedral Ledge before you drop in.

Marshall Creek Preservation Area

This is definitely the family friendly zone in North Conway. While there are certainly a few moments to get creative and make some shapes, the trails here are much more purpose built and feature a very friendly gradient for new riders. The trails are well marked and there’s plenty of signage as well, so you can easily combine any number of trails for any number of routes depending on your energy level and time.
Key trail – Shumway: This is a main draw for the Marshall trails, and for good reason: it’s a machine built rollercoaster. There are a few optional features, some high speeds and nice corners to keep you smiling throughout the mile long descent.
Key trail – Muzzy’s: Muzzy’s is super short and super sweet, and could be an ideal trail if you’re looking for a trail you can rinse and repeat on as you build up confidence to carry more speed in and out of corners, and look to take your tires off of the ground with greater frequency. It has a similar feel as Shumway, but maybe with a few more optional side hits.

Mount Surprise

This section isn’t well represented on Trailforks, so until they do get more trails online, your best bet is to reach out to WMBC for assistance in navigating the trails. That said, there is some impressive hike-a-bike terrain that really elevates the level of offerings from North Conway to world class status. This is the type of terrain that will help you understand the impetus for modern long travel enduro bikes. Parking for access to these trails is currently a work in progress, so for now locals ask that you park at Cranmore and pedal over, or just start your adventure from town. Look for future trail developments in this zone in the coming years.

Cranmore Mountain Resort

Chris Lewando was contracted by the resort to build three beginner friendly options as the mountain embarks on its first year of offering lift served riding for North Conway. While the trails weren’t officially named while I was in town, I did have a chance to sample some of the goods, and the work Chris has done deserves a round of applause. While definitely beginner friendly, the trails have more than enough easter eggs available for more advanced riders looking to make some shapes and have fun on the way down, and each trail is actually quite different from one another, a harder task than it would seem to be on paper. Hopefully this is just the beginning, because Cranmore has the terrain to support the kind of bike park that would compete with the Killingtons and Highlands of the world.

The pitch coupled with the extended vertical relief found in North Conway is very rare for legal trails outside of the PNW.

Weather:

Did you know that the “world’s worst weather” is a rather dubious superlative currently held by the granite monster that holds eternal watch over North Conway and the surrounding area, otherwise known as Mount Washington? The top of the 6,288.2 foot summit aside, Spring, Summer, and Autumn are actually quite nice in North Conway. Low lying trails around town typically begin to open up to mountain bikes in mid-March, with the higher elevation trails opening about a month or so later. Average high temperatures range from the mid-40’s(F) in March to as high as 81(F) in July. The season typically runs until the snow starts to fly by the end of November. At times the Presidential Range will often stop storms in their tracks while other times causing them to stall out over the Mount Washington Valley, so if you’re planning a Summertime trip, be prepared for anything in the mountains.

Bike Advice:

There is something for everyone in these here parts. Venerable freeride playground Highland Mountain Bike Park is just an hour or so to the south, and one of the east coast’s rowdiest race venues in Attitash Mountain Resort is just 15 minutes to the west of town. Both are very much downhill bike appropriate. However, you could easily spend a week in town and not feel particularly compelled to leave the natural playground that surrounds North Conway.

North Conway has trails that could certainly be enjoyed on a dedicated XC bike, particularly in the Marshal Conservation network of trails, but if there’s one bike you’re going to want to have to maximize your time in town, it’ll be that raked out, long travel enduro rig. Even on shuttle missions, you’re going to need to do a bit of pedaling as you traverse ridges or punch up climbs before topping out. Of course it’s the steep, high speed, very rough, and very rowdy descents that you’re here for and it’s exactly the kind of terrain most long travel trail bikes were built for.

Local Clubs and Advocates:

The White Mountain Bicycle Coalition (a.k.a. Ride NoCo) have been and continue to work their tails off exploring new zones, building new trails, resurrecting old ones, and establishing relationships with various land managers to make this magic happen. This isn’t a big town in terms of population, so there’s not an especially large pool of people to pull from as far as membership goes which can obviously lead to limited resources. Still, that hasn’t stopped these guys from doing something special here, and even if you don’t call this place home there’s nothing wrong with becoming a member yourself to show them some support.

North Conway is a mountain town paradise in the heart of the Mount Washington Valley.

Happy times reign supreme in these parts.

Accommodations and Food:

Tourism is a very big part of North Conway’s economy, so you can bet that there are a plethora of lodging and restaurant options in town per capita. Lodging ranges from spacious, high end options, to family friendly themed hotels, to quaint B&B’s, all the way to rustic camping in the National Forest. I stayed at the Eastern Slope Resort, which put me within a short walking distance of Frontside Coffee Roasters and other local favorites, and a short pedal away from some of the best trails in the region. I had plenty of space for my bikes, all of my gear, plus the kitchenette came in quite handy for hot coffee in the morning, and a cold cider at night. You can find a complete listing of available lodging options in town here.

NOCO’s food scene was stronger than expected considering the rural and remote-ish setting. There’s a strong sense of artisan sensibilities, particularly in downtown with places like Frontside Coffee Roasters, who provide small batch coffee roasted in town, as well as delicious sandwiches and baked goods, leading the charge. Of course being a coastal New England state means that seafood is a win, and you can keep your diet as clean as you like with vegan and gluten-free options as well.

Breakfast:
Grab a coffee and a breakfast sandwich from Frontside Coffee Roasters before your all day adventure.
Peaches has you covered as your source for all-day American breakfasts & lunches in bright, homey environs with a patio.
The Blueberry Muffin is an old fashioned eatery located in the Yankee Clipper Inn.

Lunch:
The Stairway Cafe serves breakfast and lunch all day.
Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers is an “indie” take on American fast food where you can build your own burgers and dogs using locally sourced ingredients.

Dinner:
The Flatbread Company cooks up earth-oven fired pizzas with locally sourced, organic ingredients.
I love me some Thai food, and Bangkok Cafe serves it up nicely, plus they’re big supporters of the mountain bike community.
American staples plus sushi? You got it at Delaney’s Hole in the Wall, a local favorite for drinks and dinner.

Local Bike Shops:

Protune and MTN Culture is the go-to for professional grade service, applicable riding gear, and knowledge, and is just a few minute’s north of town in Jackson.
Stan and Dan’s is a well known ski and boot fitter, and also have a solid road and mountain bike sales selection.
The Bike Shop is the Mount Washington Valley’s oldest bike shop.

Other tips:

1. Hike Mount Washington: Yes, the Cog Railway is a huge tourist attraction here, but if you’re up for it, the hike is well worth the extra time and energy. Views into Vermont, Maine, and Canada are abundant, and spending time in the alpine east of the Mississippi is pretty special.
2. Embrace Your Inner Monkey: In addition to world class trails throughout its property, Cranmore Resort is also home to its Aerial and Mountain Adventure Parks. Swing from the trees in our Aerial Adventure Park, zoom down the Mountain Coaster, arch high into the sky on the Giant Swing and zip on the Soaring Eagle Zip Line year round plus so much more!
3. Take a dip in Echo Lake: Situated at the base of Cathedral Ledge, Echo Lake State Park offers up plenty for the family, including swimming, hiking, rock climbing, and fishing.North Conway mountain biking trails




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