Pathfinder

Try one of these little-known, off-road gems.

Chequamegon National Forest

Where: Between Hayward and Cable, WI, near the state's remote northern border with Lake Superior

The Route: Most do the 32-mile Hayward-to-Cable Birkebeiner Trail. It's open and well maintained, good for scoping wildlife but not a technical challenge. Advanced trails fan out from the "Birkie," the spine of a 300-mile network.

Character: Rolling hills with glacial features like eskers and kettle moraines. Bald eagles, black bears, and timber wolves outnumber humans. Area motto: "No thousand-foot climbs, but a thousand 50-foot climbs."

Highlight: Being at the start line for the Chequamegon 40 with 2,500 other yahoos, including three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, who lives nearby.

Lowlight: Learning that all 2,500 available slots were reserved by March 26.

Advisory: It's pronounced "She-wa-me-gon."

Outfitter: None.

Do-It-Yourself Info: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association, 800-533-7454. Guides introduce riders to the area.

Native Know-How: New Moon Bike & Ski, Hayward, 715-634-8685.

When To Go: Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, Sept. 13-15.

The Circus Ride

Where: Randolph, VT

The Route: The 45-mile, singletrack loop crosses three passes -- including the 2,500-foot Randolph Gap over Rochester Mountain -- on the same trail that was used to bring the circus into Randolph during the late 1800s.

Character: We've never met a cow we didn't like.

Highlight: Cruising the largest collection of unmaintained, go-nowhere dirt roads in the state -- you won't run into any foliage buses.

Lowlight: Wet leaves, wet leaves, wet leaves.

Advisory: Pack a fly rod. The White River is top notch.

Outfitter: None. The route was pioneered in 1993 by the folks at Randolph's Slab City Bike & Sport, 802-728-5747. Rentals $20 per day; they offer tours on request.

Do-It-Yourself Info: The campground at Allis State Park, off Vermont 12 in Brookfield, ten miles north of Randolph, has 28 sites with potable water, flush toilets, and coin-operated showers. $10 per night; 802-276-3175. The Three Stallion Inn is another popular base camp for swapping trail news and tips. Doubles $103; 800-424-5575.

Native Know-How: Paul Rey at Slab City Bike & Sport.

When To Go: The New England Mountain Bike Festival, September 27-30. Includes instructional clinics, group rides, and off-road races.

Kokopelli's Trail

Where: Grand Junction, CO to Moab, UT

The Route: An epic 4-to-5-day, 140-mile ride through desert sandstone, shale canyons, and the banks of the Colorado River en route to Moab's lunarlike, slickrock playground.

Character: Ever see a John Ford movie?

Highlight: Taking in the majestic, snow-capped La Sal Mountains as you climb out of Rabbit Valley.

Lowlight: Realizing that between you and the La Sals are three hard-riding days, tractionless sand, several thousand feet of altitude gain, and not a drop of potable natural water.

Advisory: Wading Salt Creek at mile ten is usually a cinch (it often runs three-to-six-feet deep). But even if you have to carry the bike on your back with water rising to your earlobes, do so. The alternative is a thorny bushwhack through the long (and frequently used) Denver & Rio Grande railroad tunnel.

Outfitters: Kaibab Mountain/Desert Bike Tours in Moab, 800-451-1133; Rim Tours in Moab, 800-626-7335; Backroads in Berkeley, CA, 800-462-2848.

Do-It-Yourself Info: Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association has maps and guides, P.O. Box 4602, Grand Junction, CO 81502.

Native Know-How: The Bike Peddler in Grand Junction, 970-243-5602; Rim Cyclery in Moab, 801-259-5333.

When To Go: Spring and fall only. The Mardi Gras-like Moab Fat Tire Festival is October 22-26.

Methow Valley

Where: East slope of the North Cascades, four hours northeast of Seattle

The Route: The 25-mile Angel's Staircase Loop in the Sawtooth Wilderness leaves Crater Lake trailhead south of Carlton, then takes off for the high peaks en route to Horsehead Pass, Dead Man's Pass, and finally the north-south ridgeline at 8,000-feet. Views extend to Mount Rainier, 100 miles away.

Character: Fast singletrack in the midst of high peaks, lush meadows, and alpine lakes -- a Colorado Rockies experience minus the acclimatizing.

Highlight: Arriving at 7,200-foot Cooney Lake, framed by larches and rocky peaks.

Lowlight: 5,000 feet of climbing.

Advisory: It can snow at any time; winter hits in late October.

Outfitter: Rendezvous Outfitters, a new operation in Mazama, plans to offer the area's first high-country, hut-to-hut riding. To reserve space at either the Gardner Hut at Rendezvous Pass or the Castle Hut in Insulator Basin, contact them at D-Tours Bike & Board Shop, 509-996-3673.

Do-It-Yourself Info: Methow Valley Sport Trail Association, 509-996-3287. The best area guide book is Steve Barnett's Hardcore Methow Valley Mountain Biking ($9, available at area bike shops).

Native Know-How: Sun Mountain Lodge, 509-996-2211, a few miles west of Winthrop, has a good network of singletrack trails and rents GT Karakoram's with helmets ($25 per day).

When To Go: June to early October. The 10th Methow Valley Mountain Bike Festival, October 4-6, includes cross-country races and instruction clinics.

Tellico Gap

Where: Nantahala National Forest, NC, about an hour and a half southwest of Asheville

The Route: A 30-to-40-mile ride on the Tsali trail network that begins and often ends at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. In between it takes in waterfalls, sweeping views of the Smokies, and crosses the Appalachian Trail at 5,200 feet. You start out at 1,700 feet.

Character: Epic big-mountain terrain, with gentler than average weather and almost-civilized trails.

Highlight: Descending Winding Stairs from Queen's Lake to the Nantahala River -- you lose 1,100 vertical feet over three miles of groomed, lightning-fast dirt.

Lowlight: The track to Wesser Bald mountain gains a whopping 900 vertical feet in one mile. Only a few have successfully ridden up the shear, craggy grade that connects Tellico Gap to Wesser Bald and the ridge-running Appalachian Trail.

Advisory: Watch out for the logging trucks in the "Nanny" Gorge (U.S. 19 and 74).

Outfitters: Nantahala Outdoor Center, 704-488-2175.

Do-It-Yourself Info: Jim Parham's Off the Beaten Track, Volume I: A Guide to Mountain Biking in Western North Carolina -- The Smokies (WMC Publishing, $12.95).

Native Know-How: Nantahala Bike Shop, 704-488-2175 (ext. 158).

When To Go: September is ideal, but beware of black bears foraging for berries.

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