Mountain biking, at night

Staff photo by Graham Cullen Leslie Litton, aims her head lamp as she and others prepare for a night mountain bike ride in Gambrill State Park. The group had permission froom the park to ride on the trails, which close at dusk.

It’s nearing 7 o’clock on a November evening. The stars twinkle above the silhouetted treetops in Gambrill State Park. A crescent moon is out.

So are the mountain bikers.

These cyclists are getting ready for the first night ride of the season. Every Wednesday through April, while most of us are inside a warm shelter, a half-dozen or so mountain bikers are thumbing their collective noses at the cold and dark, riding the trail.

They don’t just ride any trail. They ride Gambrill’s legendary Yellow Poplar Trail, one of the more difficult mountain bike trails in the Mid-Atlantic region. It’s difficult even in daylight. The seven-mile loop has 1,400 feet of elevation change.

“This is advanced riding out here,” said Brad Walker, of Hagerstown, as he readied his bike for the night ride. He was not bragging. He was simply stating the truth of the difficulty level.

Mountain biking is not for the faint of heart. To start with, cyclists must be in good physical condition. They need to tough out lung-searing hill climbs, maintain balance and coordination during descents and not be afraid to lift their front wheels over rocks and logs. They need to keep their cool during stream crossings, and be able to jump on and off their bikes with speed and agility.

Oh, and one is not a true mountain biker until one learns to do all that with shoes attached to pedals via cleats. These are known as “clipless” pedals. A cyclist learns pretty fast how to do a quick release in case of a fall or particularly steep hill.

Some of the bikes are rigid, with no suspension, while so-called hardtail bikes have front suspension, which reduces hand and arm fatigue. Knobby tires allow riders to travel over rocks and roots.

The bike rides are sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Off Road Enthusiasts, a mountain biking club encompassing Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. MORE, as the club is known, worked with the park administrators at Gambrill to coordinate the night rides. The Bicycle Escape, a Frederick bike shop, sponsors the rides. Shop owner Tom Rinker often rides along.

Leslie Litton, of Frederick, a store employee, adjusted the light on her bike helmet as she prepared for the ride. Helmets are required, as are helmet lights. Bike lights are recommended.

This was Litton’s first night ride, but she wasn’t worried. She’s a veteran of the Gambrill trails.

David Kegley, of Germantown, has been doing the Gambrill night rides since they began about four years ago.

“I love it because it’s more challenging,” he said.

Ride history

“It started because we needed to ride during the weekdays,” said Todd Bauer, of Gaithersburg, who is part of MORE.

“It gets dark early, and I work until 5,” said Darius Mark, of Frederick.

“It’s impossible to get a ride in once daylight saving time ends,” Bauer said.

About 10 years ago, MORE began sanctioning night rides in Virginia’s Wakefield Park and Gaithersburg’s Schaeffer Farm, part of Seneca Creek State Park. Schaeffer Farm, with its mix of wooded, somewhat hilly trails and farm fields, offers mountain biking for riders with intermediate skills.

Walker has been night riding at Greenbrier State Park for more than 20 years. He leads a Monday night ride for Frederick bike shop Bike Doctor at Greenbrier, in Washington County.

Most mountain bikers, like most people, have daytime obligations. Work, school and families keep them busy. But after dinner in the cold, dark months, these cyclists escape to a local park.

Informal night rides have existed for decades. Mark has been doing them since 1986.

“The lights weren’t quite as good back then,” he said.

Today cyclists of various skill levels can do night rides at Patapsco Valley State Park, Schaeffer Farm, Wakefield Park and other parks around Washington, D.C.

Patapsco now offers six night rides weekly, two separate rides, based on skill level, on three nights. One is for women only. The Patapsco rides require a ride leader and a ride sweep (last rider); the latter mast be first aid and CPR certified.

Besides Schaeffer Farm, casual night rides are held in Little Bennett Regional Park near Hyattstown.

Gambrill rides, however, are the most advanced.

“Life insurance is strongly recommended,” MORE’s forum reads, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, referring to the Gambrill rides.

“Please bring your health insurance card, it comes in real handy when you have to visit the emergency room. Also bring your Road ID or dog tags so we know how to contact your next of kin. Emergency beacon or GPS locator is also good to bring. People have been lost for hours, and we are getting tired of calling for police helicopter assistance in finding people.”

The forum also suggests dressing warmly because, “It tends to be a little colder on the mountain than down in Frederick.”


Cold does not stop these riders. Neither does snow. Pouring rain is about the only weather condition that will cause a cancellation. Eighteen-degree nights only add another challenge, Walker said.

“Your CamelBaks freeze,” he added, referring to the hydration system most mountain bikers carry.

“It gets a little slick sometimes,” he said. Surprisingly, ice is rarely a problem. “This area repels water easily.”

Gambrill’s rock and hardpan soil prevents water from pooling on the trails to cause ruts and mud. Erosion rarely occurs.

“These trails are done correctly and they are sustainable,” Litton said. “We can ride after a rain.”

Technical clothing that wicks away the sweat helps riders stay warm into the single digits.

“It’s the wind that bothers you,” said long-time cyclist Joe Whitehair, of Frederick.

“We don’t stand around much,” Bauer said. “Once you get going, it’s pretty good, except maybe for your hands and feet. Everyone’s different there, depending on your circulation and all.”

Flat tires, and they do happen, are changed quickly when temperatures drop below freezing.

Riding at night is peaceful, and snow makes the trail seem almost magical, Bauer said.

“You’re on the trail, and it becomes completely different,” he said. “Everything is still. You’ll ride by the overlook and the woods light up with the city lights. That’s when it becomes breathtaking.”

the ride

The cyclists pedal past the city of Frederick overlook shortly after climbing the first hill on the Yellow Trail. Then it’s a quick pass by some boulders before they descend into the seeming darkness, as the trail drops elevation.

The riders form a linear blur of lights in darkness, deftly maneuvering their wide, chunky bike tires over rocks, logs and fallen leaves. They do all this while staying on a trail that twists, turns and is little more than a foot wide in places. They dodge the occasional tree branch, and pedal up hills with the ease of a child sprinting in a game of tag.

Lights do help illuminate the blazes which mark the Yellow Trail, but these riders already know the route. They already know where the big rocks and roots are.

As they adjust their helmet lights before beginning the ride, the cyclists are unconcerned about the trail difficulty. Anyone who attempts the Gambrill rides should become familiar with the Yellow Trail in daylight. “Most of the people who come out here for the first time don’t come back,” Whitehair said.

The pace at Gambrill is fairly quick. “It’s a faster pace,” Bauer said. “We keep moving.” Falls happen, but riders learn how to fall. “You just roll over the rocks,” he said.

The rewards are great. “We’ve seen bears, owls,” Walker said.

“It’s pretty cool when an owl swoops the trail,” Bauer said. “We see a lot of little eyeballs, and we don’t know what they are.”

The helmet lights are 700 lumens, providing a pretty bright light. Some cyclists put lights on their handlebars, but a helmet light is a must for night riding. “The light is where you’re looking,” Bauer said. Cyclists follow the adage, “Look where you want to be.” The body (and bike) naturally follow.

Also, helmet lights make it easier to fix a flat.

The rides usually take about two hours; mechanical problems can add an extra half-hour, Whitehair said. Two hours for a 7-mile trail with hills and rocks might seem quick, but some riders add in another element.

Whitehair and Walker ride single-speed bikes. That means they don’t shift into an easier gear to ride up a hill, or a stronger gear to power down a hill.

“We joke that we have three speeds: sit, stand or walk,” Whitehair said.

“We’re usually faster than the geared folks,” Walker said.

“Most of us here race,” Whitehair said.

They don’t race at Gambrill, however. These riders are just happy to ride in the night.

(12) comments


FredeickTrails you are ignorant. The hunters can't possibly be safe shooting when illegal trails and bikers are riding through trails in the middle of the mountains. We know the legal trail system and I bet we know the terrain better than you do. The problem is that bikes moves fast and make similar noises to deer moving in herds. We ready our guns and are prepared. We get our blood pumping and ten over the ridge comes a group of bikers miles away from any legal trail. We are responsible but it will and can be possible that someone will get shot or hurt beyond an intended target as well. You shouldn't be in the shed illegally. It's called illegal activity. I do not support poachers or dumping of carcasses either. Guess what? DNR enforces our laws. You get nothing for breaking the laws. Go up in a Saturday right now in the summer. Bikers everywhere riding in plain sight on illegal trails where a cop could walk right up and bust them. I'm talking hundreds every weekend. You guys are destroying it and I'm not going to sit by and let it happen. It is a WMA first and foremost and is not going to be more important than that ever. So either abide or lose your privileges. By the way, I post under my real name. I'm not a coward hiding behind an anonymous screen name!


jgrose - Every year MORE and many mountain bikers recommend all trail users (hikers, trail runners, bikers, etc) avoid the Watershed during rifle and muzzleloader seasons. Some users don't get the message, some choose to ignore the message. Wearing white during deer season is not smart, but then many people who aren't familiar with hunting don't know any better. On the other hand, as a hunter you should know that is 100% your responsibility to know not only your target, but what is behind the target (including trails which could potentially have humans on it). By the logic in your posts, as a hunter you are guilty of allowing poaching and the dumping of deer carcases in the watershed. Of course, that doesn't make sense and no one would expect you to act as law enforcement for poaching, so why would you expect other watershed trail users to bear similar responsibility? We are each responsible for our own behavior and beyond that, can work to educate other users but laying blame on responsible trail users is pointing the finger in the wrong direction.


Moon Otter - The Catoctin Trail's erosion issues have to do with poor trail location on fall lines. Trails that require water bars and check dams are not constructed properly. Proper trail alignment eliminates the need for these devices. In fact, check dams are intended for reclaiming abandon trails and runoff areas and should not be part of normal maintenance on active trails. There is plenty of good trail construction information from the US Forest Service at the link below (please note the section on check dams). MORE has worked with the City, DNR and PATC on many Catoctin Trail projects. The recent Catoctin Trail realignment north of Delauter Rd (to eliminate severe erosion issues) was spearheaded by MORE and completed with over 600 volunteer hours in 2013 (PATC came out and worked with MORE on several of the days).

Regarding Gambrill State park, no additional staff is necessary and MORE has successfully operated these rides since 2006 under an agreement with MD DNR. When trail conditions warrant, the rides are canceled as we are well aware of the freeze/thaw cycle as well as the need to avoid trail use in wet and muddy conditions.


Several of the people named in this story are most likely cool individuals, but you can't tell me that none of you ride the illegal trials. You are guilty of allowing this to continue. Secondly, if anyone really cared about the shed they would be going out to get these creeps for their illegal activities. Take this guy for instance: Don Morningstar. Check out his page and look at the about section. He even labels his pictures and videos with the illegal trail names. IceBerg, Viper, IceBerg II, Volkswagen, etc. Give me a break. It is obvious. Why don't they just take pictures of themselves robbing people in the street? Maybe then our police would do something about it. Pathetic.


Several of the people named in this story have been working with the city and DNR for many years in Gambrill and the watershed. MORE partnered with the PATC on the last two reroutes of the Catoctin Tral (Blue) with MORE, the mountain bikers, providing the bulk of the volunteer labor on both projects. Yes, the PATC has put in a ton of work along that trail. But, to say that they are the only stewards of the land is inaccurate. MORE has provided 7,000 volunteer hours to the parks and trails in the DC metro area in 2013. Gambrill and the watershed have seen volunteers from our club on a regular basis for close to 20 years. Every project we work on in that area is approved by the land manager (DNR) and the city of Frederick. We invite the PATC to our work days, and share our tools in a common cache. These are just a few of the reasons why we were "rewarded" with these rides.

Moon otter

It seems to me that it is all just fine and dandy that the bikers have taken over the Frederick Watershed with their illegal trails. It seems to me that the MD DNR who has been given the duties of caring for the watershed have turned a blind eye. What is even worse is that the City of Frederick officials have done the same. For 25+ years I have hiked the Catoctin Trail and only hikers were allowed on it but as soon as the bikers arrived the trail has degraded immensely over the years. Bikes do more damage than feet. Hikers (volunteers) through PATC have put in waterbars and check dams to help maintain the Catoctin trail tread and yet a bike will rip out these devices over a short period of time. PATC is the one who put the Catoctin Trail in and has maintained it over the years just to have the bikers ruin it..
To make matters worse the illegal trails located in the watershed are causing degradation of habitat for amphibians and other wildlife as well impacting wet areas and critical habitats. I don't mind them biking in Gambrill State Park but who pays to have paid staff (state park staff) to be there late at night? The bikers or taxpayers? It seems to me that the parks should be closed at sunset. 8am -sunset park rules state. In fact now that the ground is in the freeze thaw state, bikes do more soil erosion damage at this time of the year than any other time of year except during the rainy periods. It would be nice if the bikers would use only the old fire trails and not build illegal trails into critical habitats. DNR and City of Frederick please wake up and take care of your watershed before it is to late.

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600 miles of trails? Quite an industrious bunch! [wink]

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It sounds like j. rose might know who is setting the potentially lethal booby traps on the trails.

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Oh, the Humanity!!![ohmy]

Comment deleted.

What's 'rifle arson'?

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