2020 Trail Review: Upper Macatawa Natural Area

If 2020 was a sad trombone playing on an endless loop, Upper Mac rose from its muddy ashes and was the angelic hallelujah chorus in response.

Anyone who knows Upper Macatawa Natural Area knows that it is yang: don’t-stare-too-long-at-the-drop bench cuts; fun, make-you-cuss piles of roots; steep climbs and flowy berms that are all chained together in roughly five miles of triumph (depending on Strava’s mood that day).  And then there’s its yin, the side of Upper Mac that we all yuk about: its clay/mud base that barely holds its own after a brief rain shower and renders it an unholy mess of mud and water and wide “greasy spots” that never….quite…dry.  Facebook says Upper Mac is closed. Still. Again.  There’s a reason that we joke that her riding season lasts for a week in July.

But not this year!!  Like a sweet, unexpected gift handed straight to us from an otherwise stingy 2020, Mac was all yang as she threw down a full riding season from April through early December.  I ventured out there with friends in early April – which seemed utterly laughable, given that our first ride there isn’t usually until June. Granted, with leftover winter leaves and debris and moisture, it wasn’t what dreams were made of, and I think my condition report mentioned feeling tarred and feathered. But it was only the beginning of a fantastic season.

As one of the area’s more technical trails, Upper Macatawa is well suited for riders with a bit of experience mountain biking and who are comfortable maneuvering their bike on a tighter singletrack.  Whether you’re heading in clockwise or counterclockwise (the sign at the trailhead is clear which direction to head on which day), you pretty quickly encounter a narrow trail with tight turns and a healthy drop-off into a woodsy ravine.  Short bridges traverse the gaps and are a great way to practice “your bike goes where your eyes go.”  It was a full season of needing to say out loud to myself “eyes to the other side the bridge…!” before I became really comfortable riding over them without hesitation.  You will find yourself on a woodsy ride with a handful of hairpin turns, patches thickly gnarled with roots, and fast berms.  There are the “usual spots” that we all report on that are almost always at least a little tacky with mud if not filled with water and delightful to splash through when they are, especially in the lower areas of the trail…but this year even “the usual spots” remained dry and were largely a non-issue.  

A few changes, improvements, and maintenance issues were addressed in 2020 – a handful of areas that were covered with roots that often grabbed tires and wrecked momentum suddenly became root-free.  Some people cheered over these changes; others saw these as opportunities to practice skills and were disappointed to see them go.  Flagstone was hauled in to begin reinforcing parts of the trail that render it unrideable when we have a normal amount of precipitation.  The bottom of the hallmark “dip” (a quick and relatively steep down-and-up around mile 4 in the clockwise direction, about 1 mile in CCW) was filled in and made for a much smoother send.  2021 will be a great season to ride as the trail volunteers continue to shape the trail.

Is Upper Mac for beginners?  Perhaps beginners should wait until they are comfortable with their bike, shift comfortably, and are able to focus their eyes ahead of themselves on the trail (again – your bike will go where your eyes go) and are not overly distracted or nervous on the bench-cut or narrower parts of the trail.  The sense of satisfaction I have seen from newer riders after they have completed the trail is priceless, though; many people are intimidated by Upper Mac, and coming out on the other side feels like a fantastic accomplishment!  How about kids?  I started my boys at Upper Mac when they were about five and seven years old but were pretty adept on their bikes, fearless on downhills, and well practiced with shifting…and they loved it.  Granted, mountain biking with kids is what I laughingly call “mountain stopping” – we’d take those uphills and turns pretty easy, but now at eight and ten they ride it pretty aggressively….so why not give it a try with your kids?  They’re usually braver than we are!

The volunteers who maintain Upper Mac deserve a great deal of applause and respect.  Thank you so much for such a great season!