As a boy, Skye Schillhammer could often be found riding around his hometown of Darrington in search of trails to ride and jumps to soar. Back then, the possibilities were limited, so Schillhammer soon left to seek his two-wheeled adventures in other locales like Spokane and Bellingham.
It may be too late for a young Schillhammer, who is now 27 and a professional mountain biker based out of Bellingham, but the trails he yearned for as a 13-year-old have finally come to Darrington.
The North Mountain trail project — a joint effort between Department of Natural Resources, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and the Darrington community — recently opened the first portion of its network of trails. The skills park is a small portion of what promises to be one of the showcase mountain biking trail systems in the state.
“It is absolutely amazing,” Schillhammer said. “It’s great to see Darrington start to build a new identity as an outdoor recreation destination. The trails are a start of something good for this community. A lot of people I know are excited to go there and check them out.”
The first part of the North Mountain trail system is what’s referred to as a skills park. The set of looping trails are about 4 miles long and range from beginner level to expert. The 15 trail sections and connectors range in length from a tenth-of-a-mile to a half mile and give riders a chance to both hone their technique and challenge themselves.
“It’s a good sprinkling of difficult trails with moderate and easy ones in the skills area,” said Mark Lovejoy, who, as the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance project manager, has overseen the design and construction of the trails. “It’s the kind that will get riders ready for the type of trails that will be on the upper mountain.”
Lovejoy, who has built extreme downhill tracks in British Columbia and Bellingham, said that he couldn’t divulge too many details about the upper mountain trails yet, but promised that they won’t disappoint hardcore riders.
I’m not a hardcore rider. I’m no Skye Schillhammer. I enjoy riding when I can, but my skills are rusty and my bike is ancient. That said, I really enjoyed the skills park. I got warmed up on the beginner trails and broke a bit of a sweat on a sweltering August afternoon.
As I crossed North Mountain Mainline Road and transitioned over to the more demanding trails, the words of Lovejoy rang in my ear: “There are difficult parts to the skills area, and it’s important that people know they can walk their bike if they feel unsure.” He still walks his bike from time to time.
The moderately difficult trails were great fun and left me huffing and puffing as I wound up through the trees and gained a bit of elevation.
When I arrived at the Backcut Trail, rated “very difficult,” I dove in, knowing that I’d have to walk my bike in places. That proved to be true, but not as much as I expected. The trail is ruttier with more jagged rocks and exposed roots than the less difficult trails — in fact, hitting a couple of knobby roots sent me to the ground twice — but the trail is built well and was quite fun.
The trails have obviously been planned out with riders in mind, giving them a chance to build up as they move through the park and plenty of options to take different tracks and challenges in the upper portion of the skills park. The signage is clear and concise, and most of the tracks are one-way, which means no dodging wrong-way riders.
The skills park is the first of its kind on DNR land. Lovejoy, who was born and raised in Arlington and runs Garden Treasures Farm, learned the skill of trail building from longtime trail builders in Canada. When designing North Mountain’s skills park, he said that he wanted his 4-year-old son, Dante, to be able to ride some of the trails as well as expert riders.
The North Mountain trails system is unique in Snohomish County. To get the kind of technical rides that the skills park now offers, and the upper portion will eventually, local riders had to go to Galbraith in Bellingham or Duthie Hill in east King County. I’ve ridden Pilchuck Tree Farm in Stanwood, Little Mountain in Mount Vernon and Paradise Valley in east Snohomish County, and all three are primitive compared to the new and shiny North Mountain trails.
Schillhammer, who was part of Spokane’s mountain biking community as it grew into a major scene over the past five years, said he hopes that Darrington can use the North Mountain trails to catapult itself into people’s minds as a mountain biking mecca.
“I was lucky that I had a dad who showed me the outdoors and pushed me,” said Schillhammer, who works for Transition Bikes in Bellingham, “but not everybody has that. There could be a kid out there like me who really needs these types of trails. That’s how this can be sustainable.”
North Mountain Bike Skills Area
The skills park is intersected by North Mountain Mainline Road about a mile from Whitehorse Park and has parking for two to three cars at the trailhead. Riders can also park in downtown Darrington and ride the nearly 2 miles to the trailhead. Maps at the trailhead and signs throughout the trail system help to guide riders.