Ever pine for pastures beyond your local trails?
These secluded stretches of singletrack will take you into the final frontier of mountain biking.
Words and pics by Dan Milner.
If throwing a leg over a bike and heading out on a ride is our escape from the mundane, then riding bikes in remote places is the icing on the escapist cake. True, this kind of commitment isn’t for everyone —these trips throw a heap of different pressures and stresses at you— but the shift in pace and enforced refocus towards the simpler things in life can become a drug.
Being in places that raise questions like ‘where do we sleep?’ ‘Is this edible?’ ‘Can I fix my crank with a bit of wood and a zip-tie?’ delivers rewards that can be enlightening, even to those that don’t already list tofu and downward-dogs in their daily routine.
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Remote locations are about experiences as much as the riding itself. It’s the unknown ahead, the true sense of adventure and the opportunity to learn both about somewhere new and about yourself that lures riders to these places.
No internet, no iPhone Snapchat, no distractions; just you, the bike and a wild place to ride. As the world around us shrinks and ‘remote’ just gets nearer with every new airport that’s built, there are still some very ‘out there’ places to go ride.
Some are the kind of locations that demand very real commitment to reach even before the riding begins, and in others the sense of inaccessibility is instilled out on the trail.
1. Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
If you remember Geldoff’s Live Aid charity in the 80s, then Ethiopia’s image of starvation and famine will make it seem like an odd choice for mountain biking. But in reality, today’s Ethiopia is a different place, and this East African country boasts one of the continent’s most gob-smacking places to ride: the Simien Mountains National Park.
Reached by a one-hour flight from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Gondar, and a subsequent five-hour bumpy bus ride north to the park’s HQ at Debarq, the 200km Simien Mountains have begun to sneak on to the tourist’s radar of late, largely due to the opportunity they offer to spot wildlife like Gelada baboons, leopards, ibex and wolves.
But if whispering in Attenborough-like tones isn’t your thing, this rugged, canyon-strewn landscape is criss-crossed by footpaths that not only connect the many remote hillside villages, but offer days of adventurous riding too.
The largely vehicle and road-free route means singletrack is everywhere, trodden into the dirt by centuries of human and pack animal traffic, meaning you only need decide which villages to ride between and let the challenges begin.
And they come thick and fast. As most of the park sits above 3,000m altitude and tops out at the country’s highest peak, the 4,550m Ras Deshan, climbs are masochistically lung-busting, but the views and descents are worth the nausea.
Ethiopia is seeking tourism, but with trekking yet to develop here (let alone biking), the trails vary from buff flow trail to rock gardens so long and steep they are as mentally exhausting as they are physically tiring. If you’re not ready to head here on a DIY trip then secretcompass.com offers a 12-day MTB itinerary, camping in villages and hauling gear by mules.
2. Tilcara Trail, Northern Argentina
There are few trails that pack in as much variety as this 92km-long thread of singletrack in Argentina’s desert north. Unambiguously named, the Tilcara Trail straddles the mountains that separate the high desert around Tilcara and the deep, verdant jungle of the Calilegua National Park to the east.
The Incas used it to transport forest fruit and wood up from the jungle in the east, and salt and llama meat in the other direction, and today it still represents the shortest and only option for accessing the couple of tiny villages hidden among these formidable mountains.
Ridden as a three or four-dayer, what the trail lacks in length it makes up for in sense of remoteness. A long 1,000m climb out of the Tilcara valley, usually starting at the Garganta del Diablo (Devils’ Throat) gorge, claws its way up to the 4,200m high point of the trail, that sits nestled between 5,000m high peaks.
Over the next two days, the rocky trail threads its way across wild mountains, throwing in tough climbs and fast and furious descents until finally dropping down, as a ribbon of red clay singletrack, into a thick tangle of jungle.
The hills here are vast and the river gorges deep. There are few trail junctions to lose your way, which is lucky as the jungle not only hides jaguars and a dozen other biting, killing and stinging animals, but its thick, impenetrable vegetation has swallowed up various lost hikers and, according to local reports, a UFO as well.
Used only by a handful of horse-riding villagers and groups of Argentinian hikers, the trail delivers a true feeling of remoteness, helped by the basic refuge accommodation on night one, and an almost equally as basic homestay on night two. Dodging the rainy season means riding this in May to September, but necessitates packing warmer clothing for the altitude too.
If you need an excuse to ride this truly epic trail, then help is at hand through local mountain bike guide Franscisco, who will arrange mules to carry overnight kit and pick you up at the other end.
3. Colorado Trail, USA
At first sight, a 782km-long waymarked trail through Colorado’s Rockies seems an odd inclusion into a list of the world’s most remote rides, but its lung-punching altitude, changeable weather and the kind of risk factors that would leave health and safety inspectors weeping, make it easy to feel exposed, alone and isolated on many of its 28 stages.
Winter snow can loiter until July, reducing the riding season on the Colorado Trail to a short couple of months before the blizzards return in late September, and the presence of bears, wolves and mountain lions demands you continually watch your back, both on and off the bike.
Remote and basic campgrounds are plentiful, often situated near roads at stage trailheads, making this trail a great opportunity for using a back-up vehicle for hauling gear.
Once out on the trail though, you’re on your own and few sections signify this as well as the stretch between the Kenosha Pass and Goldhill — a committing 30-mile long slither of prime singletrack that sits squarely above 3,000m, with few options for cutting the ride short if things go awry.
Passing through seven bike-prohibited wilderness areas means you’ll need a plan to cut these from your trip if you’re aiming to bag the full Colorado Trail, but with 21 other stages to choose from you’ll not feel short-changed.
As you head further south, towards Durango and into the San Juan mountains, the altitude creeps higher, the mountains get steeper and more rugged and the sensation of remoteness notches up another level. See coloradotrail.org for more info.
4. Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan
Afghanistan is at war and nobody in their right mind would try to ride bikes there, right? But even in this troubled country there is a remote panhandle of terrain squeezed between Pakistan, Tajikistan and China that is as peaceful as the Surrey Hills. Well, almost.
Sparsely populated and offering little of interest to either the Taliban or the allied forces, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor represents the true final frontier of mountain biking. With the roads from Kabul unsafe, just getting here takes four days of overland travel from Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe.
Once immersed in the Wakhan, you can leave the area’s solitary dirt road behind and enter a wild landscape strewn with horse trails that have historically formed part of the Silk Route to and from China.
This is horse and yak country, a land of semi-nomadic sheep-herders, and a place you can guarantee you won’t see another mountain bike, or wheel in fact. Trails wind across vast plateaux that are shadowed by the towering peaks of Pakistan’s Hindu Kush, to lead you up and over snow-covered passes higher than Mont Blanc.
The riding is tough. The trails vary from buff dirt to tyre-swallowing sand and the weather is unpredictable, even in the height of summer, when snowmelt swells the rivers and makes crossing them an extra challenge.
But it’s hard to beat the harsh, rugged beauty of this much forgotten corner of the planet, where locals seem to ‘survive’ rather than live. Yet they are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. You’ll be invited into a yurt to drink tea, gag on rancid yak yoghurt, and share a laugh as they try to ride your bikes.
You’ll grin along amazing flow trails and cry as another 5,000m pass looms into view ahead. Yes, the Wakhan is a challenge to reach and a challenge to ride, but the rewards are a lot more wholesome than sheer bar-talk bravado afterwards. While about 100 trekking tourists visit this area per year, the Wakhan still has to make it on to mountain bike guiding companies’ itineraries.
We rode a pioneering expedition here in 2013, guided by secretcompass.com.
5. Pindari Glacier Trail, India
It’s a steep, tumbling chaotic mass of ice — the Pindari Glacier — set high in the Indian Himalayas that is this amazing trail’s namesake and provides an unarguable end point of this remote trail.
Here, at Zero Point, the path disappears onto a mass of seracs and crevasses ahead, but by the time you reach this narrow ridge of moraine at 4,300m you’ll be more than happy to about-turn for a full three-hour descent.
With so much of Himalayan riding focused on Nepal, it’s easy to forget about India’s Himalayas, but this far-flung corner of the Uttarakhand region boasts a wealth of great trails, from the steep, forested foothills to this remote valley tucked under the mighty 7,800m high Nanda Devi.
Getting here takes a little effort, starting with a seven-hour train ride from Delhi and then another four hours or so by jeep. Travel in this area isn’t for the faint-hearted, and definitely not something to try in the July-August monsoon season.
And when you finally leave the relative ‘safety’ of your jeep to attack the Pindari trail, you’re launched straight into a steep climb over the 3,000m high Dhakuri Pass.
For the next day or so, the trail is unique, thanks to the 1830s British colonial commissioner G.W. Traill, who had the foresight to have it paved. Now the old flagstones are in various states of repair, rendering the trail a mix of buttery smooth riding and nadge-tech rock gardens.
After Khati village, the trail winds its way alongside the Pindari river, climbing through a series of small villages that are little more than a couple of buildings and tea-stalls, before emerging above the treeline for the final grind up to Zero Point.
The fact that a solitary religious pilgrim lives and runs a tea-stand a half hour before the end of the trail does not detract from the smug sense of accomplishment and very real feeling of remoteness bestowed upon you once you reach the Pindari Glacier.
A vast wild landscape and huge, well-earned descent awaits for those that are willing to make the effort, and to help you get there, you can be guided by mountainbikekerala.com
6. Upper Mustang, Nepal
This ancient kingdom in Nepal takes the established bike guiding area around Nepal’s Annapurnas and turns the remoteness dial up to 11.
The Upper Mustang appeared in Red Bull’s groundbreaking film Where The Trail Ends, but while it left Bearclaw and his freeride-focused buddies scratching their baseball-capped heads in frustration, it actually boasts one of the most rewarding trails you could ever steer a tyre along.
Starting out in Kagbeni, it threads its way north to the Tibetan border for five days of riding through some of the most incredible landscapes on the planet. Think towering 7,000m peaks, plunging canyons, 4,000m high hike-a-bike passes and enough tech to make you glad you brought six inches of travel.
In-between lie miles of amazing flow trail with basic teahouses placed just where you need them for curries and yak wool blanket accommodation. After 100 miles of humbling adventure, you roll into the regional capital Lo Manthang, a 14th century Buddhist walled town where life seems to have dodged change for centuries.
Raging winds and dust storms have kept Lo Manthang free of an airport, meaning the only way out again is to retrace your tyre tracks, heading along a trail that not only packs just as much fun when ridden in reverse, but yields a whole new set of views of the 8,000m Annapurna range as well.
While a recent ‘road-building’ project through the area has upped tourist numbers, the pavement is still well separated from the trail for most of its route. Having only opened its doors to foreigners in 1992, visiting the Upper Mustang requires a 10-day permit ($500) that, like porters and a guide, can be arranged at travel agencies in Kathmandu or Pokhara.
7. Torres Del Paine, Chile
The vast 450,000 acre Torres del Paine National Park has become the go-to park in Chile for travellers wanting a sniff of glacial ice and a chance to test the waterproofing qualities of their new walking boots.
But despite its mass popularity having rendered much of the park’s main hiking circuit a complete ball-ache to try and ride, it still has a small handful of trails around its fringe that lie below the hikers’ radar.
The Park’s location, on the Chilean side of Patagonia, means it is battered by the most character-building weather that blows in from the Pacific, something that will test your tent’s sturdiness and your resolve alike.
But in-between these seeming moments of madness, this remote corner of Chile offers rewards like no other: threads of singletrack that weave alongside glacial-blue rivers, tumbling glaciers that calve icebergs into lakes, and impossibly steep towering peaks make up the landscape around you.
Add herds of llama-like Guanaco, occasional cougars and soaring eagles to the mix and you have a recipe for a rewarding ride that delivers a wholesome feeling of being somewhere very remote.
Snow in winter, a gusting unrelenting wind in summer, and temperatures that rarely climb above 15°C at any time of year keeps Torres del Paine off most riders’ bucket lists, and if truth be told, the riding here is limited to a handful of trails on the park’s fringe.
Deep, fast flowing cold river crossings mean that the horse is the local’s vehicle of choice. But what this location lacks in variety, it makes up for in seclusion. And when you’re done riding, there’s plenty more to do and see, from rafting and kayaking to wildlife watching, climbing and hiking.
Torres del Paine sits 3,100km from Chile’s capital Santiago, but the closest town, Puerto is a 60km, two-hour bus ride away. The park is inundated with accommodation in the main hiking areas, from refuges and hostels to posh four-star hotels, and has several campgrounds for the psychologically sturdy.