I've written before about how re-entering MTB led me to pick up some new skills. This pursuit of new skills has burgeoned into a new hobby - visiting lift-assisted bike parks. Some call it lazy but I call it sessioning - you can get in a lot more technical reps in a day at the bike park than you can in a day on a cross country trail. Also it's ridiculously fun - run after run after run of jumps and berms and twisty singletrack at speed. I highly encourage it, which is why I'm going to start reviewing the parks I go to here, to give you a sense of what to expect if you go, and see if anybody wants to rip around at one with me for the day.
I'll start with Blue Mountain, which is in the Poconos not really close to anything at all but under 2 hours from Philly or NYC, and about 3.5 hours from Washington DC. It bills itself as "PA's largest downhill MTB park" which is technically true but it's only competing with one other - 7 Springs in the western part of the state. But the key dimensions of size - number of trails (27), vertical feet (~1000) - only tell part of the story. For me the key metric is run time vs lift time. Some mountains have 1000' of vertical that are bombed through pretty quickly with steeper and straighter trails, while others create more meandering routes that take better advantage of the terrain and maximize the ride down. Blue does exactly that, with flow trails that criss-cross the mountain or stretch out a descent through bermed switchbacks. My average run time was over 8 minutes, and the high speed quad Comet lift got me back up to the summit in less than 5. For the parks I've been at so far, that's a pretty optimal ratio.
Click the map for a full size view.
At the top of the lift is a large trail map (not to be taken for granted - some parks only have the winter trail map up which is useless for MTB) but on most of my runs there was also someone with a bike in a Blue Mountain staff shirt hanging out, a sort of mountain ambassador there to help people figure out where to go and what to do. The woman at the top of my first run told me that Boulevard is where most people start - a blue flow trail with berms and tabletops. From Boulevard she said to link into Ewok Village which is more of the same but with taller tables. Later in the day she was able to explain things like what features made Miles of Smiles a harder technical trail than Wild Turkey. Personal feedback like this helped prepare me for what I was about to experience, and they also helped me avoid making meh runs that didn't pay off much. Blue is the only park I've been to so far with ambassadors like these and it really added to the experience.
Most parks seem to have a signature machine-built flow trail. Blue's is Boulevard.
I explored a lot of the park but ended up spending most of my day on Boulevard to Ewok Village and also the blue flow trail El Camino, working the jumps (and on El Camino a few nice and not scary tall wooden drops at the top). Over the course of a dozen runs, my Garmin recorded 312 times where I left the ground, which is a ton of reps and a lot of time getting comfortable in the air (152 total seconds in the air according to my Garmin, which also records hang time).
My favorite technical trail was Wild Turkey, which was a nervy blast through the trees and along ridges, with some rocks and drops but not as many roots as typically characterize northeast singletrack. Miles of Smiles is a black technical trail I ran a couple of times also. The drops on the black trails at Blue were higher and are probably better suited for someone with a longer term remaining on their life insurance policy than me but I escaped unscathed.
The bike I ride at the parks is the same I race XC on - a Yeti SB100 which isn't purpose-built for either but sits in between the two use cases and ends up handling both well enough. Travel on the bike is 120mm / 100mm but reviewers who have more experience with bikes of different travel say that it rides like a bigger bike. I only bottomed it out once at Blue and that's when I badly cased a double at speed. The bike handled the tables and drops fine. And I saw plenty of under-sprung bikes there. Sure there are perfect tools for the job, but you can rip around these parks on just about anything and have a blast.
The flow trails at Blue are plenty wide with good dimensions. The berms are steep to accommodate speed and the height, angle and length of the tables are aligned with a natural approach speed dictated by the terrain. Early in the day I found myself scrubbing off a little speed before most of the tables because I am old and conscious of my own mortality, which led to landing on top instead of the downslope. By the end of the day I let it run and was hitting them at around 15-17mph and was clearing them comfortably.
My only gripe with Blue Mountain was with food, or rather a lack of food. At the summit there's a sit down restaurant with table service only. But I would have liked a grab and go option somewhere on the mountain. In the pro shop at the base they said they sometimes get wraps in for the cooler but they didn't know when or if they'd arrive and none came that day. So lunch was a clif bar and a powerade. I definitely plan to return and just have to remember to keep a bag of turkey jerky in the car.