When I recently mentioned to a non-riding friend that I was headed to the Kingdom Trails for a mountain bike trip, he asked if I was excited to be getting away from the family for a few days. Away? No, no, no, my friend – they’re coming with me, and we’re ALL going riding!
Situated in the town of East Burke, deep in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, this trail network is like nothing most mountain bikers have ever seen. Over 100 miles of singletrack for all ability levels crisscrosses the landscape, thanks to the kindness and generosity of 97 local landowners, who have allowed trails to be built and ridden across their properties.
I’ve been riding Kingdom Trails for over a decade, but this would be my first trip with my family in tow. On a sunny afternoon in August, my wife and I loaded our three children, (ages seven, five, and two), five bikes, and enough gear to outfit us all, and headed north to go experience one of the true gems of the North American mountain biking scene.
Our two older children were enrolled in a mountain bike camp run by KC&E Adventures, a company which came highly recommended from both friends and Internet reviews. Our five year old was enrolled in their 2-day “Youngsters Kingdom Trails” camp while his seven year old brother would be in their “3-day Kingdom Trails, Vermont” camp.
KC&E runs these camps weekly from the end of June through the end of August. Each day runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and consists of 1 hour of instruction and a ride focused on that day’s skill, with lunch included at the end. KC&E also offers group lessons, private lessons, and guided tours for adults, which we plan to take advantage of on our next trip!
Between my own observations and the kid’s excited banter at the end of each day, I can’t recommend these camps enough.
My kids were already decent mountain bikers, but in just a few days time, I saw their confidence increase, their body position on the bike improve, and even their ability to read a map stepped up (no small feet for the incoming Kindergartner, who technically still can’t read, yet knew where he was on the map!). The boys also raved about the lunches, which is always a plus in Mom and Dad’s book!
WHERE TO STAY
Despite being a small town (permanent population: 81), East Burke offers a good variety of lodging options, from cute Bed & Breakfasts to trailside AirBnB offerings, campsites, and slopeside condos at Burke ski mountain. We rented an AirBnB off East Darling Hill Road (one of the main roads around town) which was less than two-tenths of a mile from the Kitchel trail, one of the network’s best known black-diamond flow trails, and a great entrance into the trail network.
For those that prefer to be waited on hand-and-foot, the Wildflower Inn or the newly re-opened Inn at Burklyn, a historical, neo-classical-style grand mansion built in the early 1900s which has been fully restored in period fashion. (“There’s not a single board, screw, or item from Home Depot in here,” the owners are fond of saying). Both get good reviews from the mountain bike community.
As much as I tried to describe to my family what it’s like driving into East Burke for the first time, it’s truly something that must be seen to understand. Rounding the corner on Vermont Route 114 coming into downtown, mountain bikes – sometimes hundreds of them – suddenly come into view, and they’re everywhere.
Leaning up against the Welcome Center. Parked outside the local convenience store. Covering the lawn of the ice cream shop. There are mountain bikes on car roofs, mountain bikes hanging out of the beds of pickup trucks, and, of course, mountain bikers riding said mountain bikes as far as the eye can see. It’s at this moment you realize, “This is mountain biking heaven!”
Ample free parking is provided at various locations around town and towards the edges of the trail network, and C.A.B.S (Community Area Bike Shuttle) is a free shuttle service that runs during the summer months. When the shuttle is operational, it runs Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m (4 p.m. on Sundays), with pickup and drop-off locations around town.
In addition to bringing mountain bikers from the ski resort (where the bike park trails are located) to town, it’s also a great way to get some extra downhill miles in when the legs are feeling heavy, as you can shuttle to the top of East Darling Hill and descend on singletrack back into town.
Speaking of town, everything you need for your trip can be found in downtown East Burke. For cold drinks and a rotating cast of food trucks, hit up the legendary Mikey’s Tiki Bar, conveniently located adjacent to one of the larger parking areas in town. Restaurants from tacos to pizza to something more elegant can be found, all within walking distance of the main parking area.
When glaciers moved through this area 10,000 years ago, they seemingly had mountain bike trail builders in mind, stripping the terrain of large boulders and leaving soft, moldable loam in their wake. This soil composition has allowed the trail builders to carve flowy trails with plenty of fun berms and rollers that dip, dive and climb back through the hard and softwood forests, meander alongside the rivers, and deposit you atop green meadows with views that push deep into Canada and the surrounding countryside.
Working farms, herds of cows, and traditional New England small towns dot the landscape. One of the iconic structures of the Kingdom Trails is “The Chapel,” a small, privately built Chapel built by the family who also own the adjoining farmland and Stepping Stone Spa. Open daily to the public, it’s a great place to stop for a snack, rest, or just to enjoy the serenity and peace in one of the area’s most beautiful settings.
To attempt to describe individual trails would almost be impossible, given the number and breadth of the offerings. After dropping the kids off at camp, Mom, Dad, and the two-year old on a Mac Ride set out to explore.
On Day One, we crossed Darling Hill Road from KC & E Adventures, before skirting the edge of “O’Reilly’s Backyard Trails” (more on those in a minute) to descend down a mix of blue and black trails. “New T,” “River Run,” and “West Bench” were favorites that day, proving almost immediately to my wife, who is new to mountain biking, why I had assured her she would enjoy the trails.
“I can’t believe how well built these trails are,” she said after the first few miles. “The berms are so much fun!” After completing our ten-mile loop, we ended back at “The Hub,” a small spot service coffee, beer, and snacks. Sitting on the deck admiring the expansive views, sipping a locally brewed Heady Topper beer, and reliving our ride proved to be a great way to end that part of our day.
FOR THE KIDS
The Kingdom Trails truly has something for everyone, from mellow green trails perfect for beginners, to double-black diamond downhill trails only suited to high-level experts running full body armor, full face helmets, and triple-crown forks. For kids around ages five and up, and big kids that refuse to grow up, they have a pair of skills parks featuring berms, pump tracks, drops, skinnies, rock gardens and more.
Located across the street from KC&E Adventures, “O’Reilly’s Backyard” proved to be a huge hit with our kids. They started with the skinnies and rock gardens before quickly discovering the jump and berm lines, most notably “Anna’s Big Air”, “J&M Berms”, and “Lou Lou’s,” the latter two perfectly sculpted and manicured flow trails.
Starting with the beginner “J&M Berms” and returning to the top via “Kevin’s Climb,” “Lou Lou’s” is the intermediate version, descending farther down the hill amidst bigger berms and rollers. Back to the top, the kids quickly discovered “Danny’s Drop,” a pair of wooden drop features about 24” and 36” off the ground, respectively that rolled into a perfectly built berm.
Initially fearful, we walked the features, then rolled our bikes up to them, talking about body position and the importance of looking ahead as the bike left the ground. With a few deep breaths, both boys saddled up and successfully hit the smaller drop, coming back up the hill with huge grins on their faces. The next hour or so was spent repeatedly dropping Danny’s, and having as much fun as I’ve ever seen them have on their bikes.
Not to be outdone, the Village Trails are located in downtown East Burke, behind the East Burke Sports parking lot. One great feature of this skills park area is the inclusion of a Balance Bike Path for children ages three to five. Our two year old squealed with delight as she rode her 12” Co-Op balance bike over the gentle rollers and around the berms. The trail builders even put in some skinnies at ground level, allowing little sister to feel just like her big brothers as they tested their balance on various features.
With the two-year old back on Dad’s bike, we descended down to “Coco’s Way” and “Pump Track,” both featuring more Kingdom Trail’s signature flow. We enjoyed a trail snack at one of the picnic tables located inside the pump track while the kids rode around in circles for hours, trying the trail in both directions, sessioning one of the many jumps, and generally having a great time.
WHEN TO GO
The Kingdom Trails are open as weather permits in May, and generally close before VT Deer Hunting season which is in early November. They reopen for groomed fat biking on 28 miles of trails, Cross Country skiing on 7 miles of trails, and snow shoeing on 35 miles of trails, as weather allows after Christmas.
As with other popular mountain biking destinations, weekends more crowded than weekdays, but the sheer size of trail network means even on a busy weekend, it’s not too hard to find some peace and quiet!
More information about the Kingdom Trails can be found at www.kingdomtrails.org
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Del Sole has been an avid cyclist for over 20 years, and is now sharing his love of the sport with his wife and three children. A Marketing Director by day, in his free time he can be found riding bikes, working on bikes, looking at bikes, talking about bikes, and generally geeking out over bikes. In the winter, he spends his weekends teaching skiing and encouraging his kids to “send it” off every jump in sight.