2020 Trail Review: Riley Trails

Pretty much the answer to every question is, “Riley.”

“I’m a new rider, where should I start?”


“I want to teach my kids how to ride…where should I take them?”


“A monsoon destroyed every trail in the area, is anything rideable?”


Riley Trails: the sandy, well-drained, easygoing gem of the lakeshore. Four and a half gentle miles winding through a conifer forest, this trail system is probably one of the most reliable and steady of the bunch. It’s where I took my then two- and four-year old boys (two year old on a strider) on a whim one day so they could spin their wheels and I could just let them fly ahead of me and not worry about cars backing out of driveways. We were hooked and they had a blast. Not too much climbing, no super-scary descents, nothing overly technical…and plenty of trees to climb and forts to build along the way (remember that I call it “mountain stopping” with kids). The place is sublime for teaching kids (and new riders) how to handle their bikes, just enough hill climbing to teach proper gear shifting and a few gentle descents that won’t shatter their confidence. But I must mention the sand. In a drier season, there is plenty of sand that will grab your tires and welcome you into its loving arms if you’re not careful, or if you just go through it too slowly. It just perfectly reinforces that there are some instances where speed is definitely your friend.

Riley is primarily back dune about a mile from Lake Michigan, therefore even when a storm lays waste to every other trail in the area, Riley gives it a smug sideways eye.  While it’s not in the same league of technicality of a place like Upper Macatawa, it’s at least one we can reliably fall back on if the weather turns and we absolutely need to ride.  The flatter and less technical personality of Riley is a win when you want to get out for a fast, heart-pumping workout.  Bonus: winter riders can rejoice over the groomed trails for fat biking. Essentially, Riley is the trail equivalent of a favorite pair of elastic-waistband pants that never lets us down.

Ah, but Riley Trails is not just for the two-wheeled crowd. And while sharing is caring, sometimes it also is scaring.  Particularly on weekends when hikers, riders, skiers, trail runners and dog walkers are all over Riley like bark on a tree.  Catching your best time on Strava will likely involve horrifying a lot of people, dogs, and small children and will lead to hairy eyeball critical mass towards the two-wheeled crowd…so channel your inner charm school grad and use your best manners, keep your eyes peeled and your voice strong as you cheerily greet our friends-on-foot well in advance and let them know you’re approaching, how many are in your gaggle, and wish them happy trails.

2020 was NOT a bummer year for our local trails, least of all Riley. Our volunteers and trail maintainers rocked the trail with fresh gravel and logs to fill in and reinforce washed-out areas, smoothed out some of the more gnarly root-y spots, and created a flowy sort-of-berm in a section that had previously been a sandy, awkward sharp turn.  Most recently, Riley joined the sophisticated ranks of bidirectional trails, which makes for a completely different experience for those of us who had never attempted the counterclockwise direction before.  Additionally, there are several other directions you can cut off on that are not specifically marked for mountain biking, but are not off-limits either; lots of people enjoy those trails too, though, and we need to ride wisely.

Again, thank you to our volunteers and to Ottawa County for providing and maintaining this fantastic piece of land that has grown up and gotten pretty darn sophisticated and well marked in the past several years.  Looking forward to seeing more riders cut their mountain biking teeth at Riley Trails in the coming season!

Main post photo: 📷 Chad Van Der Hulst