As a student at Penn State living in State College, I drastically underestimated the size and enthusiasm of the mountain biking community in Centre County. After some research and an interview with a leader from NMBA, it’s fair to say that there has never been a better time to get into mountain biking.
After learning how to host a Zoom meeting, passing (I hope) an Economics 304 exam, and many phone calls and emails, I finally got a chance to Zoom-interview the vice-president of the Nittany Mountain Biking Association. Aaron Pantzer, a former Penn State graduate and resident of Boalsburg, took up mountain biking in 1991 when he received his first mountain bike the summer before his freshmen year of college. Like so many other freshmen at Penn State, he lived in East Halls and used his newfound passion for mountain biking to meet other people.
“When I got here at Penn State that’s how I really got into mountain biking more; there’s so many great places to ride. I lived in East Halls, so I had pretty good access to trails. That’s how I really got into biking in the Centre County area; you come to Penn State and you meet so many more people into mountain biking.”
Since then, he has watched as all kinds of biking has grown in popularity throughout central Pennsylvania. The growing interest lead to the creation of numerous organizations spanning every subset of biking. There’s NMBA, which handles mountain biking, but there’s also the State College Cycling Club (road biking), Penn State Cycling Club (students), Happy Valley Women's Cycling, and many others. All these groups are willing and eager to help biking beginners get their feet wet. Many host group rides of varying distances and difficulties (but check their websites! Covid-19 has affected their normal schedule).
“We have really great cycling communities. There’s a group for everything; there’s even different subgroups in just the mountain biking community for people who are into downhills or are just laid-back riders.”
Aaron’s main interest is mountain biking, and after hearing some of the interactions he has had with nature, I can understand why. From close encounters with rattlesnakes to riding through a herd of 100+ wild horses at Pilot Butte in Wyoming, Aaron has experienced both the fear and beauty that nature evokes.
There’s no doubt that the mountains and scenery littered throughout Centre County provides one of the greatest mountain biking experiences in the state. The hundreds of miles of trails in the county can entertain experienced mountain bikers living in the area for a lifetime, and Aaron loves to visit the trails often.
“I probably go 3-4 times a week. The accessibility is so great here, so I’m able to go quite a bit. That’s the advantage of living here: if you’re mountain biking you can get to the forest very quickly no matter where you are in Centre Country.”
Centre County is surrounded by state forests, parks, and gamelands. There is Rothrock State Forest to the south, Bald Eagle State Forest to the east and north, Black Moshannon State Park to the northwest, and Sproul State Forest to the far north. Aaron conceded that these landmarks and really just the entirety of Central Pennsylvania is too rocky and steep for a beginner looking to get into mountain biking. . . until recently.
In June 2019, there was a community meeting at Tussey Mountain Lodge to discuss the progress being made in the creation of mountain biking trails at Harvest Fields, on the property of Cavalry Baptist Church and Harris Township (near Rothrock State Forest). The idea was the brainchild of Josh Stapleton, one of the church’s members and an avid road biker. He and his children wanted to get into mountain biking, but like most beginners, they were having trouble getting started on the challenging mountain biking trails at the local state parks and forests.
His idea was approved by church leaders and embraced by NMBA, and so began the process of fundraising and converting the land into three miles of easy-to-ride biking trails. NMBA approached a nationally renowned trail designer and former State College resident, Jeremy Wimpey. He navigated the regulations and approvals process and drafted the trail system that went to bid and was won by the trail-building company Dirt Artisans. After only five months of fundraising, in September 2019 they hit their fundraising goal of $100,000 and could start digging in spring!
After a delayed start due to Covid-19, construction began in late June 2020 and was completed by mid-September. The official ribbon cutting was October 3rd, and Aaron compared it to the famous Field of Dreams quote: “If you build it, they will come.”
“As soon as this opened and word got out, people have been riding on it and it’s very popular. There are a lot of kids using it, teams are out there practicing, families are out there riding, people of all ages. It’s really great. It’s really a success. Everyone is amazed that within two years this went from an idea to trails.”
Aaron told me that in the past five years, a competitive youth mountain biking league has emerged and high schools are forming teams. PICL, or the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League, hosts races and provides training for young ambitious mountain bikers across the state. Everyone is hoping that the new Harvest Fields Community Trails will meet their regulations and be a staple course in the mountain biking community for years to come.
The new Harvest Field Community Trails are perfect for anyone who wants to try mountain biking. “That’s why they were built, with beginners in mind,” Aaron says. “They are built so that it’s pretty smooth. It’s really fun, like a rollercoaster, winding and twisting, and it has great “flow” to it.. They did build a few challenges if you want to push yourself. They’ve got a pile of rocks or another obstacle, but you don’t have to do that, there’s a way over it.”
Despite Aaron’s praise for these new trails, some other beginner-level mountain biking trails he approves are at Raystown Lake, the Alegrippis Trails System, Scotia Game Lands (always double check that the trails you're using are open to biking), and Sunset Park. “Those are great places to start,” Aaron recommends.
If you are looking to experience mountain biking in Centre County, there are a lot of resources and people available to you. State College is home to some great bike shops that I visited for the writing of this blog. Places like Eddie's Bicycle and Hockey Equipment, The Bicycle Shop, and Freeze Thaw Cycles are owned and managed by people who love biking and know a lot about the local area. NMBA and all of the organizations I mentioned in the beginning would jump at the opportunity to help an aspiring biker. The entire biking community is very interconnected, and if your first contact can’t answer your question, they will refer you to someone who can, so get out there are experience the thrill of Centre County mountain biking!
Written by EJ McQuillen
Edited by Griffin Relford