Whether you’re an expert rider and have been a hundred times or a newbie, riding Kingdom Trails puts you in the zone.
BY ZEKE NEUBAUER, PHOTOS BY ALI KAUKAS
For the best new places to eat, drink and stay in the Northeast Kingdom, check out “Burke Gets Even Better: A Weekend Away in the Northeast Kingdom.”
Bob Dylan hums his Mediterranean Homesick Blues on the radio. It’s been more than two hours of driving from Manchester, Vermont, up across the state to the Northeast Kingdom. Ali and I smile at one another as we see the sign for East Burke. We are finally going to ride Kingdom Trails.
It’s easy to assume everyone who lives in Vermont and rides a bike has been to Kingdom Trails by now. But that’s not the case. Ali was born and raised in southern Vermont, exploring the local woods and swimming holes. A professional photographer, she shoots everything and anything that catches her eye, which has led her all over the world. She surfs and does yoga but just picked up mountain biking last year and has been loving it. She likes to weave through trees, push her physical and mental boundaries and enjoy the magic of being surrounded by nature.
I grew up in southern California riding anything I could—mountain bikes, dirt bikes, skateboards, surfboards— and finding rocks to climb and cliffs to jump off. Anything to have some fun and stay out of trouble.
I’ve ridden mountain bikes for most of my life, mainly in California where it’s all about big, dry, slippery jumps and hills. I’m excited to try my luck in the notorious Northeast Kingdom with its rich wet soil, tight trees and fun riding.
The day before, we loaded our little silver Honda Element with all the goods; two mountain bikes, camping gear, coffee and of a jug of maple syrup. The essentials. Our trip had no set plan. The outline was simple. Show up, ride bikes, swim in fresh water and camp. Just find our flow and see where it takes us.
We pull into the small town just after 8 a.m. A peaceful main street runs through the center with the Northeast Kingdom General Store on one side and a gas station on the other. A few homes and a handful of small businesses line the quiet streets. Beyond that there isn’t much. It’s early morning and as we wipe our eye boogers away, we start to see mountain bikers bobbing and weaving across the street and down every little ally way.
A friend has linked us to a guide and we have arranged to meet at the Kingdom Trails Center. We get out of the car, stretch our morning legs and head in. Instantaneously, a young woman comes down the stairs into the store.
“I’m Lilias, you guys ready to go ride?” she says excitedly. She’s already in her riding gear, helmet on her head, ready to walk out the door, hop on her bike and go. We look at one another, standing with coffees in our hands, dressed in sweatpants and sandals, and we all three have a laugh.
We gear up and lay the trail map out in the grass outside, and she explains the 100-mile trail system and fills us in on her connection to the Kingdom Trails.
Lilias Ide has been part of the Kingdom Trails Association for over ten year and her family is tight in the community. Her brother, Knight, is a legendary trail builder of the area. Both grew up mountain biking all over the Northeast Kingdom. They have helped build the network and grow the local mountain bike community, working with the more than 90 landowners to gain rights and building what has become one of the best-known trail systems in the US. In the last few years, the scene has exploded.
Trails to Heaven
The three of us jump on our bikes and ride through town, making our way up across the bridge, over the river and start ascending East Darling Hill Road.
Lilias looks back, smiles, and quickly hangs a sharp left into an opening in the trees. Suddenly we’re thrown straight onto Herb’s Trail, perfectly groomed for climbing. The line is silky smooth, weaving us through the trees along the mountain side. We shift down a gear and start cranking up the trail. Rolling, winding and pumping over rollers as we climb, I find the line is so engaging I forget I’m riding uphill.
As we climb the final leg to the top of Darling Hill, our view opens up to an insanely Vermont scene: A classic red barn surrounded by grazing cows and green hills rolling endlessly to the horizon. We pass the barn and ride across the open fields. Tall and magnificent, Burke Mountain is on our left out across the valley and Lake Willoughby, sitting between its two glacier-ripped mountain walls, is tucked somewhere into the hills to the right. Above us, as far as the eyes can see, glowing silver clouds roll across the endless crisp blue sky.
We make our way over the mountain down the backside and drop into a fun, groovy tree line, called PoundCake. Across bridges, zig-zagging between trees, picking up speed carving through the forest floor, we are racing to keep up. Lilias is light on her toes, but rides with power too.
Leading the way, she periodically checks back on us with a little grin on her face, just to make sure we’re still there. We traverse the hillside linking endless lines and eventually get spit out to an opening, where we make our way up to the Kingdom Trails hilltop shop. Lilias parts ways, as she has business to attend, and drops us at the bike shop for some lunch. We thank her, grab a black bean burger and some water and take in the beautiful Vermont summer day.
We’re soon greeted by Lilias’s partner, Mike Mader. Mike stands tall and strong and greets us with a big welcoming smile.
Leading us to his favorite trails on that side of the mountain, he drops us down into Heaven’s Bench, where we get our rhythm going. Mike is a blast to follow. He rides with intensity and finesse, hopping out of corners and gliding over root sections, ripping through each section, putting the bike where it needs to be. I follow his exact lines, which seem to put me in every perfect position for that section or the upcoming section. The trails drop us down alongside the Passumpsic River.
As we climb from the riverbed, I try to catch my breath as Mike starts talking technique. He passes on tips to Ali, who is fairly new to mountain biking. He explains how braking before coming into a corner as opposed to braking while in the corner allows the wheels to fully grip the turn and lock you in. It also helps swing you out of the corner and carry momentum for the next section. Instead of braking midway through the corner and losing all your speed. Carry your speed, lock into the corner and keep momentum.
It’s finding that flow that makes all the difference, I begin thinking as we reach a highpoint on the trail. As I’m playing with the thoughts, Mike suddenly hangs a right turn back into the woods and I snap from the thoughts back into riding mode. We’re on Kitchel, the fast rhythmic flow trail, and we barely can keep up with Mike as he pumps over the rollers, carves the groomed berms and stylishly floats the jumps.
The trail eventually spits us out on the main road, and we make our way back to the car, where Lilias is hanging out. We come to a stop, and before we can say anything, she tells us to load the bikes in the truck. We’re going to shuttle to the top of Burke Mountain to have a final downhill ride—a sunset run from the peak.
“It’s fun man, you’ll like it,” is all Mike says to me with a smirk.
Ali offers to shuttle the truck back down from the top. We load our bikes into Lilias’s beefed up Toyota Tacoma and head up the toll road to the summit.
As we drive up the summit, I can’t help but smile. You can feel the energy of everyone. Excited, blood flowing, minds at peace with the way the day has played itself out. My mind drifts as I watch the passing trees, and I think back to a conversation with Mike from earlier.
We discussed this state of mind we drop into when we ride. This space where you don’t have time to think, you just purely react. He compared it to surfing, something Ali, Mike and I all can relate to.
“Like surfing, you’re putting yourself in all the right places. Finding those pockets, those little spots where you find speed, and connecting them all together with the rhythm of the wave.”
We reach the top as the evening sky explodes with color. This is where the momentum of our day has put us: the peak of the mountain, the peak hour of the day, right in that sweet spot.
Ali waves to us as she watches the sunset put on a show. We wave back and let out a big loud hoot to each other, cranking down the trail.
I thought I had seen all that the Northeast Kingdom had to offer, but not even close. Burke Mountain has incredible diversity. We instantly are flying down a rock garden, crossing streams and squeezing through tight trees. You have to be on your A-game, everything comes quick. As soon as I adjust to the tightness of the trail it opens up and we are flying down open terrain, going as fast as we can. Eyes watering from the wind on our faces, we suddenly carve a left and link over to a fire road and traverse the mountain.
My heart is racing and can’t stop smiling. We turn right and drop into the Enchanted Forest. Carving lines through endless deep rich soil, leaning our bikes into every corner and the perfect dirt just holds all the pressure you apply. We link into Jester Trail, the perfect day- ending line. It’s an endless run filled with S-berms, jumps, curved wall rides, decision makers and bridges.
We are finally spit out at the bottom of Burke Mountain and my hands can hardly hold onto my grips anymore.
Heading back into town we pass the Passumpsic River and have a plunge into the cool, refreshing running water, rinsing off the day’s dirt and sweat. After we dry off, we decide that after a full day of riding a cold pop is essential and head to Mike’s Tiki Bar, the gathering hub of town. We enjoy a cold beer and listen to a live band play some tunes. Everyone around seems to have a smile on their face and an icy drink in their hand.
The day is done. After leaving town we set up camp under a star-filled sky. We throw our tent up and get a warm dinner ready. We don’t say much as all our bodies crave is a decent meal. Sitting back in our camp chairs, we can see the silhouette of Burke Mountain looking against the starry sky. Looking at one another we grin. Tired legs, bodies exhausted, cheekbones sore from smiling all day.
Ali lifts her cup and says, “I think we found the flow.”