How much fun can the Blue Clay Bike Park trails really offer a mountain biker? You might be pleasantly surprised - I was!
Located just north of Wilmington, NC and barely 8 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, these trails are obviously nowhere near a mountain. Even coming from the Raleigh area where it's hard to find a hill with more than 100 feet of elevation change, I was worried these trails would disappoint.
Truth be told, a large part of the mountain biking experience is spent enjoying the small stuff: leaning into the left and right curves, feeling the rush of a quick drop, attacking the short climbs you can almost coast up if you carry enough momentum.
I was skeptical about the Blue Clay Trails. I'd known about these trails for years but just never made the effort to ride them. But I recently found myself with an opportunity to visit. We were spending a few days at the beach and I only had a few work items on my to-do list. I could fit in rides at three trail systems within an hour of where we were staying. Blue Clay was the furthest away, so I decided to ride it first.
The Blue Clay Bike Park parking area is located at 34.322417, -77.892551. The street address is 3840 Juvenile Center Rd, Castle Hayne, NC 28429. Look for the white water tower as you drive down the road - the parking lot will be on the right, just before the water tower.
The Park is part of the New Hanover County Park system and is open from 8 am until sunset. The park property includes a 19th-century landfill. The pile of trash was covered with dirt to form a fairly broad mound about 15-20 feet high, an unusual topographic feature in this area. The pine trees growing on the mound are now pretty mature, disguising the landfill and making it look like any other small, forested hill.
The parking area is a basic graveled lot, but it does have a few picnic tables for visitors to enjoy. There is also a portajohn and a 'changing stall' so you don't have to do the towel-wrap thing beside your car. That's a nice touch as I suspect most riders will come off these trails wringing wet with sweat at least nine months of the year.
The Blue Clay Bike Park listing on MTBProject.com is up to date with the individual trails and a ride listed. The folks with Cape Fear SORBA maintain the trails and a website with more information about them, including current conditions.
The Blue Clay Trails are laid out with two main overlapping routes. Follow the green blazes for the 1.6-mile Beginner route. Follow the blue blazes for the 6.1-mile Intermediate route. There are a few connectors that let you short-cut a route to get back to the parking lot.
There are also a few extra 'challenge' sections you can include or bypass. Most notable is the 0.4-mile long Root Loop, which lives up to its name!
A small pump track is located near the parking lot, but it doesn't appear to get much use and hadn't been worked on recently. I'm not coordinated enough to make the 'pump' action work, so I didn't spend much time on the track.
Most of the intersections are clearly marked with signs and/or paint blazes on trees. With so many connectors and overlapping routes, I wasn't surprised to find three or four intersections where I was momentarily confused about which way to go. Following the most direct path from where I just came seemed to work out every time.
Being so close to the coast, I expected the soil to be loose sand. Perhaps the namesake 'clay' content of the soil here keeps that from being the case. I found the trail tread to be quite firm and in great shape. The trail maintainers obviously work on the trails often. The mini track hoe parked nearby in the woods was evidence of on-going work.
The next thing I noticed was the curves. Once you leave the open field under the power lines and turn into the woods, you'll be hard-pressed to find a straight stretch of trail. One of the joys of riding on two wheels is leaning through the curves. These trails offer a sustained practice session for working on your lean technique.
You also get to balance your lean technique with tree-dodging - two contradictory actions. Despite my 6'2" height and XL bike frame, I somehow managed to avoid clipping any trees and taking a dirt nap.
The entire Beginner route and first half of the Intermediate route are roughly at the same elevation level. The trail designers did take advantage of the few low ridges of dirt in this area to create a number of short drops and climbs, but those are far outnumbered by the horizontal curves.
Most of the trail tread was surprisingly smooth and root-free, considering the thick forest growth. The bypass-able loop named 'Root Loop' is the exception. They weren't joking.
The Intermediate route eventually crosses over a paved road to reach the landfill mound. This section offers more challenging trail marked with black direction arrows.
The Intermediate trail winds all over the landfill mound. It's relatively low as hills go, but I think this mound will change your mind about this being a 'flat' trail. The trail snakes up and down the sides of the hill, repeatedly. My pictures make the terrain look a lot flatter than it really is.
The lack of long downhill sections means you have to keep pedaling to keep moving. You can make the ride as much of a workout as you want by pushing your pace.
A dozen or so small wooden bridges cross over the creeks and waterways that run through the property. The trail builders even included a few rock gardens on climbs, of course, to add to the challenge.
My Two Cents
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the Blue Clay Trails. I rode the Beginner route and then the Intermediate route and ended up with just shy of 8 miles. These trails were a lot of fun to ride and I felt I improved my lean technique while there. I got in a good workout and explored some new trails. Any day on a bike is a good day, right?
I visited in April and had great weather. I suspect riding here in mid-summer is somewhat different. The trails should be the same, but the heat, humidity, insects, and wildlife might add extra dimensions to the experience!
I will definitely come back to ride the Blue Clay trails again!