Sometimes my shins (and psyche) just can’t handle the limestone ledges and gnarly terrain that many of Austin’s mountain biking trails dish up.
So when I heard that 13 miles of beginner-friendly paths at McKinney Roughs Nature Park were opening to cyclists later this month, I tracked down pro mountain biking pal and REI Outdoor School senior instructor Cindy Abbott for a tour.
The verdict? The trails are soft, flowy and beginner-friendly. They dart alongside a river, climb hills, and dip and roll through the woods. They’re challenging (and steep) enough to crank up your heart rate, but not so difficult that you need to be a pro, like Abbott, to navigate them.
Nothing out here, on the edge of Bastrop’s famous lost pines, is as technical as the Barton Creek greenbelt or the Lakeway trail system. It’s more comparable to Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park.
Even better? With a nod to the #OptOutside movement initiated by REI a few years ago, the Lower Colorado River Authority has decided to waive park admission (usually $5 per adult) on Black Friday (Nov. 24), opening day for biking at McKinney Roughs.
In coming months, REI will offer guided tours and mountain biking instruction at the park, but you don’t need to hire a guide or take a class to enjoy the terrain. The park is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Abbott and I met outside the visitors center of the 1,100-acre park, located 13 miles east of Austin. We unloaded our bikes, snapped on helmets and struck out first along the Riverside Trail, which tumbles down a gradual hill to the river.
Abbott, 29, tackles a mountain biking trail like Wonder Woman lassos a bad guy — with enthusiasm, style and power. She kicks up a burst of dust as she heads down the first patch of single-track, going airborne over every dirt berm she can find. On flats, she popped wheelies, while I kept my tires firmly on the ground.
“Man, it’s beautiful,” she says as we pause to catch our breath. “The ecosystem is so diverse here.”
And she’s right — it’s like a Mother Nature mashup here, with pine trees, oaks, prairie grasses and river bottoms all mixed into one property.
The Riverside Trail has delivered us, as promised, to the banks of the Colorado River, which curls past in greenish swirls. Sometimes, visitors spot river otters, osprey and even bald eagles here, so we keep an eye open.
After a few minutes we push on to the Bluff Trail Loop, where we punch up some steep inclines to an overlook. From there, we chug up Coyote Road, wide and bland, before catching Bobcat Ridge for the ride home.
Most of the park’s 18 miles of trails existed when the park opened in 1998. But until now, only hikers and equestrians were allowed to use them. The Austin Ridge Riders Mountain Bike Club has worked closely with the LCRA to open the trails to cyclists. Starting Friday, 13 miles will be designated multi-use trails. More may open to bikes in the future, said Marcus O’Connor, supervisor of programs for LCRA.
“We want people to explore our parks on whatever medium they like,” O’Connor says.
To reduce the possibility of conflicts between user groups, the multiuse trails will be directional, with cyclists riding one way while equestrians and hikers head the other. That will increase the visibility for everyone, O’Connor says. Cyclists who encounter horses on the trail should stop, pull off the trail and allow the animals to pass to avoid spooking them. Trail maps will designate the trails by difficulty level, with trails marked with diamonds the most difficult, squares intermediate and circles the easiest.
“It’s relatively hilly, but the trails are wide and there’s not anything very rocky or technical. It’s mostly dirt,” says Abbott, a pro enduro mountain biking racer and former semi-pro cross-country mountain bike racer who won the 2014 U.S. Cross Country National Championships for Category 1 cyclists. “From a pro mountain biker’s perspective, this is a great resource for people to get into mountain biking. It’s an opportunity to get out in a low-stress environment, on terrain that’s not necessarily characteristic of that Central Texas terrain. It’s all very rideable for beginners.”
McKinney Roughs Nature Park recorded about 20,000 visitors in 2016. Park officials say they hope by opening the trails to cyclists, they’ll lure more visitors to the park.
“We’re excited to get new people out here to explore,” O’Connor says.
I haven’t explored all the trails the park has to offer, but that leaves something for next time. I’m planning to make a trip back soon to ride the Roadrunner, Pope Bend and Yaupon trails.
I think my shins will appreciate the break from that tough limestone terrain they’ve gotten to know closer to home.
If you go
McKinney Roughs Nature Park is at 1884 Highway 71 West in Cedar Creek. Entry fee is $5 per person ($2 for military and ages 65 or older), $12 for equestrians and $5 for cyclists. To check trail conditions and learn about any closures, call the trail hotline at 512-578-7427. The park is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information call 512-303-5073 or go to lcra.org/parks.
We have a suggestion: This Black Friday, instead of going shopping, follow the lead of outdoor retailer REI and head outdoors instead.
For the third year in a row, REI is closing all 151 of its stores, pausing online sales and giving its 12,000 employees a paid day off to (they hope) #OptOutside on Nov. 24. (The stores are also closed on Thanksgiving Day.)
“It’s as much about what we’re doing and our enjoyment of it as getting the public outside,” says Cody Ackerman, outdoor program and outreach manager at REI Austin. “Our goal is really for people to take a break from what had been becoming a very stressful day to enjoy the outdoors together with friends and family and discover something outside.”
Here in Austin, the #OptOutside movement meshes nicely with the LCRA’s decision to waive entrance fees at most of its parks, including McKinney Roughs, the same day. (See a list of all LCRA parks at lcra.org/parks; vendor-operated parks will not be applicable.)
REI started the Opt Outside movement in 2015. This year, the outdoor retailer is launching an online search engine to help people plan an activity. To check it out, go to REI.com/opt-outside and click on an image. That will lead you to information about that activity, plus directions, reviews and advice from REI.