Since our first attempt at a pre-Brown County Breakdown “Shakedown” ride was such a fiasco, we decided to try again. On Saturday, Dave and I planned a ride in the Hickory Ridge trail system in Hoosier National Forest. Accompanying us was Doug, a longtime friend of Dave’s.
Hickory Ridge is a multi-use system of about 20 different trails, totaling 46 miles of trail. Until Saturday I had only ridden 3 of the trails; it’s a shame I haven’t explored more of it. But since these trails see a lot of horse traffic, and there are so many great mountain biking trails in this area that don’t allow horses, a lot of times those seem more appealing. That, and the Hickory Ridge trail system is very remote. It took probably an hour for us to get to the trailhead where we started.
First, we rode a loop involving trails 9 and 2. This was the first time I had ridden either trail.
We started near a Horse Camp, and passed quite a few people camping with horses on our way in, and some horsemen riding down the road. As we were getting ready, three people on horses came out one trail and rode onto the other one that was right by us. They said they had been riding all day (it was 3:00 pm).
We got our bikes ready and headed out. Doug rides an old (mid-90s?), steel Trek mountain bike. I was impressed with how well he was able to ride on that old, heavy bike. I forgot my jersey and had to ride in a cotton shirt. I figured I’d be miserable.
Doug and I were both having some mechanical issues, though, so we stopped to fix them. He had to adjust his saddle, and my front brake wasn’t working very well. I’m still learning all the adjustments I can make on my disc brakes, but I’m getting better. I was able to figure out the problem.
Once we started riding, we had some fun downhill riding pretty much immediately, with several opportunities to catch some air. A great way to start a ride, as it really got my heart pumping, in a more pleasant way than starting with a long climb, as some trails do. Within minutes, we were already filthy from the dust (the trails are very dry) and we were doing our best to avoid the horse droppings in the trail, but hitting some is inevitable. It’s all part of riding on the Hickory Ridge trails, and I try to look at dodging feces as a little extra challenge.
After riding for a bit we entered a large stand of pine trees. I always love pine forests, so I really enjoyed this section. The trail was wide and the riding was easy for a while, but we were moving at a good clip. In some ways having an easier ride was nice as it allowed me to appreciate the forest a little more, rather than having to focus only on the trail ahead of me.
After a fun, curvy, flowing descent, we had stopped to rest by a creek (currently dry) and a small bluff.
After discussing how dry everything was, and bracing ourselves for the tough climb ahead, we pushed on. But we were no match for this hill. It was long and steep and while there were a couple of switchbacks, it was just too steep. Our rear wheels spun out as we tried to climb. This would be the first of several hike-a-bike sections we’d encounter, but we expected it. These trails were designed with horses in mind, not bikes, and some sections simply aren’t rideable.
We reached a place where we could ride again and got back on our bikes. We enjoyed another fast descent, and a shorter, but still very steep climb. I started to notice a pattern. Big climb, big descent, creek crossing, repeat. But the length and steepness of hills varied quite a bit, and each descent got a little sketchier, narrower and twistier, and more technical, especially toward the bottom, where there was a lot of erosion. The bottoms were characterized by steep terrain, dropoffs, and roots and rocks. The fact that the creeks were dry made things a little easier, but the creek bottoms mostly consisted of babyheads and other loose rocks and were still very challenging to cross.
Next we had a very long, hard climb. This one was doable by bicycle, but just barely. The trail went into a long, meandering climb alongside a deep gorge.
The descent that followed was the best one yet. We were careening through the woods, weaving back and forth, bouncing over logs and rocks, and snaking our way between the trees. The bottom required careful brake modulation to shave speed but still allow us to roll over thick roots followed by dropoffs. Tricky stuff, but a lot of fun!
After some easy riding for a few minutes, we took a break in a large stand of pines. Doug pulled all manner of snack food out of his pack. I tried some of the dried pears he brought, cooked at home from pears off a tree in his yard. Delicious.
After that we had a bit more climbing, and a stint on a gravel road during which we passed a huge hornet nest.
We reentered the woods and after a few minutes of easy riding, encountered a steep descent that gave us just enough speed to swoop up the hill back to the parking lot.
After that ride, we loaded the bikes in Dave’s truck and drove over near the 19/18 access points for the second loop of our ride. There were other, closer trails that we could’ve ridden, but Dave and I have done the 19-18-20 loop a couple of times before, and it’s a blast. On our way there, we took some crazy, narrow, curvy, hilly gravel roads and had one stint following a paved road on a ridgetop with great views of the surrounding views. We could see over to where the Nebo Ridge trail comes down, and it was cool to see that huge ridge from a distance. I wish I had my camera handy.
In the map above, we started at about the rightmost point. We parked by Salt Creek and started on a gravel road, which climbed for probably around a mile.
We turned onto trail 19, which is still mostly climbing. There were a few flat/downhill sections, but overall it was a lot harder than I remembered. The trail surface was rough and chewed up by horse traffic, and there was still a lot of debris on the trail surface from Ike’s winds. Still, it was a fun ride, but it helped knowing that all the climbing was going to pay off.
After maybe 20 minutes on trail 19, it unceremoniously spit us back out onto a gravel road. We followed this for a few minutes and passed some deep ravines along the way. Dave pointed out one of his favorite campsites, which is in a stand of pines on top of a hill.
We turned onto trail 18, which is where the climbing really starts to pay off. The trail descends, gradually at first, and has a gravel surface for a while. As you ride the trail gets steeper and steeper and the surface changes to dirt. It’s a tricky situation, though, because as you pick up speed you encounter more and more twists and turns, and the trail surface gets more rugged. There are quite a few opportunites along here to catch more air, although by this time I mostly tried to keep my wheels on the ground, as I needed the agility and traction to quickly maneuver around or over obstacles.
The trail also gets continually more eroded. In places it’s almost like a chute, which can actually be a good thing, as this effectively means the turns are banked, and you can really fly through them and lean into the turns. As you descend and near the bottom of a ravine, the trail takes a sudden, sharp left turn, drops down a little further, and then steepens and throws you into a switchback to the right. It’s a fun, challenging ride.
Right as he reached the bottom of the ravine, Doug’s front break stopped working. Fortunately it happened in the last few feet of the descent, and he maintained control. We were able to do a trailside repair and get moving again without incident. Phew.
After the long, awesome descent, we had some flat but still tricky riding. It was quite eroded, and there was a ton of debris on the trail and a creek crossing. Next, you guessed it, more climbing. This was a loose, eroded hike-a-bike section partway up a long hill and then getting back on the bikes to finish the climb. It sure felt like we did a lot of climbing that day.
We got on trail 20, which I believe was mostly flat, with a bit of descending. A short, but fun trail, and a great way to end the ride.
We returned to Dave’s truck and looked at Salt Creek while we wound down and packed away our stuff. We rode back on the gravel road, over to Tower Ridge Road, which took us to 446 and back to Bloomington. A great ride, that felt like a lot more than the 20 miles or so that it involved.
I was struck by the beauty of the Hickory Ridge trails, the ruggedness of the area, and as always, I really enjoyed the do-anything atmosphere of Hoosier National Forest. The trails are a nice change of pace from the perfectly-designed and maintained Brown County State Park trails and give you more of a backcountry experience. Both types of trails are fantastic, and I feel lucky to have both nearby.
I wish I had more time to explore more of Hickory Ridge. But since we are moving soon, I probably won’t make it back there again before then, unless I am feeling particularly energetic on the day of the Brown County Breakdown.
A side note: I thought I’d be miserable in my cotton T-shirt, but most of the time I didn’t even think about it. It makes me wonder if all the money I’ve spent on jerseys was really worth it.
Anyway, it was a great day of riding. I always enjoy riding with Dave, and Doug was a lot of fun to ride with as well. I can already tell the Breakdown is going to be awesome this year.