Photography by Tony Valainis
Two decades ago, when there weren’t many trails in Central Indiana that allowed fat-tire bikes, most local mountain bikers cut their teeth (among other body parts) on HNF trails. Although mountain bikers have a wealth of riding options today, those rough, often ignored backcountry HNF trails remain a popular choice. Why? Think of nearby Brown County State Park as Disneyland—shiny and well-manicured. The HNF is more like one of those ramshackle carnivals that set up in a department store parking lot, where a hint of danger and neglect lurk in the air. As much as mountain bikers love the trails at Brown County, sometimes they want a different experience, a way to test themselves and their abilities.
Nebo Ridge is the granddaddy of Hoosier mountain-bike trails, its north trailhead just 3 miles from the Story Inn. The trail immediately points up and doesn’t stop for more than a mile, where it then undulates, twists, and turns for another 7 miles. Weeds hide the trail at times, making it sometimes hard to navigate at high speed. For weeks after strong storms, riders have to dismount and hike around fallen trees blocking the trail. The upside is that you’ll often have the trail to yourself, save for the occasional whitetail deer. Reaching Nebo’s south trailhead, you can either continue on into the rest of the trail system or turn back around and do it all over again, with that last mile now pointing downhill as a reward for your perseverance.
Indy Cycle Specialist owner Scott Irons on why he rolls in the dark.
I’ve been riding throughout Hoosier National Forest after hours since 1991. I used to ride at night because it was convenient—I’m at my bike shop most days—but over the years, I kept doing it because it’s tranquil, something that not many people experience. In the fall or winter, I’ll catch a glimpse of the moon over a ridge or through the barren trees, and it’s so bright and big and beautiful, it stops me in my tracks.
When I’m riding in the HNF, I’m usually the only one on the trails; very rarely do I see a hiker or a camper. If I do, usually we’ll both stop and look at each other, wondering, What are you doing out here? Most of the time, it’s just me and the animals. The woods are filled with life. I once saw four rattlesnakes on the trails during one hot summer night. I’ve seen plenty of bats and flying squirrels, too. My lights attract insects, and I’ve had bats smack me in the chest as they’re gobbling up the bugs.
You don’t have much peripheral vision because of the darkness, so it really forces you to focus on what’s happening directly in front of you. You also need to come prepared if things go wrong. I’ve had to walk out of the woods six or seven times over the years because of cut tires, broken frames, or failing suspension bolts. But a half-dozen times in more than 25 years isn’t a bad average.
The most adventurous cyclists have been riding gravel roads through the Hoosier National Forest for years. But that number has been creeping steadily up recently, as bike riders flock to safer, less heavily trafficked roads.
“Even though it’s more remote, I feel much safer out there,” says Mary Penta. “The more I hear about cyclists getting injured or killed by drivers, the more I want to stay off of paved roads and just ride the gravel ones.”
Riders can pedal along for four or five hours and see only a couple of cars the entire time. What’s more, a whole network of shared-use trails connects the roads, so there’s always somewhere new to ride. Word of warning: Gravel roads can change a lot throughout the year. A road might be smooth and fast one week, but by the next, the county has dumped a bunch of new, chunky gravel down, doubling the time it takes to ride it.
Looking for some rugged outdoor fun, but backpacking just seems too slow? Cyclists can load their bikes with gear and camp wherever the trail takes them. Here’s what local bikepacker Greg Dyas brings along on his adventures—and why.
- Revelate Designs “Mag-Tank” top tube bag – “The Mag-Tank has a great magnetic clasp that makes it easy to operate one-handed at speed, essential for a top tube bag.”
- Ortlieb Seat-Pack and Handlebar-Pack – “The Ortlieb bags are all solid—light, but still nicely waterproof.”
- King Cage bottle cage – “The King bottle cages are titanium, so they’re light and strong. And as a bonus, they’re made by a small U.S. manufacturer.”
- Salsa “Cutthroat” bike – “Even after it has been weighed down with all this stuff, it’s only 55 pounds, which is pretty good. You want a bike that’s sturdy enough to handle the trails, but light enough that it’s not like pedaling a truck.”
- Therm-a-Rest “NeoAir XLite” air mattress – “I like these for their padding and resiliency to weather.”
- Big Agnes “Fly Creek UL1” tent – “For its weight, this tent is amazing. Great, light one-person shelter. Keeps bugs and water out, and stands up to a lot of use (and abuse).”