The wheels have been rolling for Harrisonburg’s cycling scene for many years now and progress for two-wheel safety, education, and access has been made on many fronts. One example is the new “sharrows” you see each time you go down Main Street in downtown Harrisonburg. Improvements like these are a major reason why Harrisonburg was named a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists this past year.
To add to the recent Harrisonburg bicycle movement, the city was named an IMBA Ride Center last November by the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). This new designation will certainly help put Harrisonburg on the national cycling map. To make this new Ride Center designation that much more special, Harrisonburg is only one of two cities in the country to be designated as both an IMBA Ride Center and a Bicycle Friendly Community. The other community to earn both of these awards is Park City, Utah.
One key component to measuring the off-road bicycle success of a community is to evaluate the opportunities citizens and those visiting the area have for mountain bike access within a one-hour drive from town. To begin looking at the off-road opportunities around Harrisonburg, one does not even have to explore that far. The newest trail system, the Rocktown Trails at Hillandale Park, is only two miles and a safe bike ride from downtown Harrisonburg. At just under 5 miles in length, the mountain bike trails at Hillandale Park are relatively short compared with other local trail systems, but they do offer great riding opportunities for all levels of riders, including kids.
The Rocktown Trails demonstrate a growing cooperative trail-/community-building relationship between the Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Department and the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC). This trail system started in 2006 and has been designed, built, and maintained by volunteers of SVBC. It continues to grow through volunteer trail work days and help from Parks and Rec.
To experience a much larger and diverse trail system, one needs only to travel east of town to the Massanutten Western Slope Trail System – a mere seven-mile drive/ride from Harrisonburg’s Court Square. This trail system is another great example of an ongoing positive working relationship between SVBC and local land managers. Stretching more than 15 miles, this trail system is located on private property owned by Masssanutten Resort and has been a mountain bike destination since the early 1990’s when the resort first hosted the Massanutten Hoo-Ha race.
Over the years, the trail system on the Western Slope has grown along with SVBC’s relationship with the resort. This extensive trail system has not just grown in length but also in the sustainability and quality of the trails. For the past 15 years, it has mostly been maintained by volunteers of SVBC who accumulated over 10,000 volunteer hours working on this trail system. Access to this trail system does require a Western Slope pass, which can be obtained by being a Masssanutten property owner, signing up as a member of SVBC and making a $50 annual donation to the Western Slope trail fund, or volunteering 8 hours per year towards the maintenance of the trails.
The largest and most extensive trail system in the Harrisonburg vicinity is the George Washington National Forest; these trails also have a long history of off-road, two-wheel fun. Folks have been exploring these public lands by fat tire bike since balloon tire bicycles first hit the area in the early 1900’s, but the extensive growth of mountain biking in the National Forest did not start to take off until the 1980’s.
The majority of trails in the National Forest are open to mountain biking but not all trails suit every style and level of rider. Most of the trails in the National Forest are known as “back country” trails due to their remoteness and challenging terrain. This does not mean there is not a trail for you, but it does require more research to assure a safe and positive experience. To help maintain and provide signage for the 100+ miles of National Forest Trails within 45 minutes of downtown Harrisonburg, the National Forest relies on volunteer groups like SVBC. The Coalition has not only provided tens of thousands of volunteer trail work hours on maintaining the trails, but has also brought valuable funding to the trails. In the past five years alone, SVBC has brought in over $250,000 in grants to aid in the maintenance and sustainability of this valuable resource.
While in Harrisonburg, you will find out quickly that the city’s downtown is the hub for the cycling community. Just south of the city’s center at Court Square, you will find Shenandoah Bicycle Company, offering riding information (maps, cue sheets, and local knowledge) and a knowledgeable staff happy to help direct you on a ride, from a few mile ride around town or a deep back woods single track excursion. If you are looking for a guided road or mountain bike tour, the guides at Shenandoah Mountain Touring can customize a trip for you, based on your skill level, equipment, and desired type of ride.
On the west side of Court Square is Court Square Theater which hosts several cycling movies a year, usually as fundraisers for the SVBC. If you do live in the Valley or happen to be visiting during the second Monday of the month, stop by Clementine from 7:30-9:30 pm for the monthly SVBC social and find out about the latest information in the local cycling scene.
For years, downtown restaurants have provided great meals and beverages for cyclists, and more importantly, the perfect social atmospheres for any pre- or post-ride gathering. If you are looking for a full-course breakfast to start your ride, then make sure you visit The Little Grill Collective, whose menu even has some entrees named after the early mountain bike pioneers, such as the “Cunningham” and “Breezer”. If you have a large group looking for post-ride eats and drinks, Dave’s Taverna or Capital Ale House provide plenty of seating and a great beer selection, as well as great outdoor rooftop seating.
Many folks who come to explore Harrisonburg by bike often travel with their partner or special someone. If this is the case for you, then be sure to take advantage of the accommodations and delicious dinners at the Joshua Wilton House Inn and Restaurant. The owners are cyclists themselves and are happy to accommodate your cycling needs.
Whether you live in the area or are just visiting Harrisonburg and have the opportunity for some mountain bike fun, you will understand why the “Friendly City” has been designated an IMBA Ride Center!
Thomas Jenkins is co-owner of the Shenandoah Bicycle Company and a member of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition.
All photographs courtesy of Thomas Jenkins.