In the middle of historic Johnson City, Tenn., world-class trail developers designed a collection of fluid, fun, and technical mountain bike singletrack for all types of riders including newbies.
Northeastern Tennessee is known for unparalleled year-round fishing along the South Holston River, incredible whitewater rafting through the North Nolichucky River gorge, and the largest Rhododendron Garden in the world at Roan Mountain State Park.
Now, the outdoor recreation hub of the South is vying for a reputation among mountain bikers, and we agree that they deserve a nod. At the base of the Appalachian Mountains, Johnson City recently created a top-notch trail network for mountain bikers — in the heart of downtown and metro area of 67,000.
Dubbed Tannery Knobs, the city-managed park weaves through 40 acres of dense, lush maples, oaks, and sassafras bushes on its namesake highland. The trailhead sits at the top of the hill, at an elevation of 1,900 feet, overlooking the central business district and rolling hills.
The mountain bike park was built in just 2 years after the land was donated in 2016.
Tannery Knobs: What Makes the Trail System Unique
This summer, I had an opportunity to mountain bike the entire trail system at Tannery Knobs. I was impressed by the buttery singletrack, strategically and well-designed trail system, and incredible access.
Based in Gunnison County, Colo., I live in one of the premiere mountain bike locations in the world with more than 750 miles of developed mountain bike trails. Though, I’d never ridden anything like Tannery Knobs.
This mountain bike hub is unique, in part, because it’s built as a centerpiece of a city. Many bike parks today are developed at ski resorts that are on the periphery or a long drive outside of their sister urban areas.
The progressive, well-rated (read: not sandbagged) trails are purpose-built for mountain biking.
Despite the fact that the topography offers less elevation change than the Rocky Mountains out West, these trails are built in a loop system, so bikers can rack up vertical gain and loss in a session.
In June, I rode nearly all of the trails twice for a total of 6.8 miles and 1,115 feet of elevation gain. (I didn’t pedal the pump track.)
Why? The temps hovered at nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit plus humidity, though I didn’t feel hot because the trails are nearly entirely shaded (with the exception of the pump track). Here’s a cheat sheet to the trails in the area.
- Easiest: Breakfast Club, 0.6 miles (hikers allowed)
- More difficult: Baby Flow, 0.25 miles
- More difficult: Mountain Express, 0.8 miles
- More difficult: Chairlift, 0.5 miles (hikers allowed)
- More difficult: Panorama, 0.85 miles (hikers allowed)
- Most difficult: Posse’s Club, 0.4 miles
- Most difficult: Cumberland Braps, 0.3 miles
The initial start of each trail is established with the most prominent feature of that trail’s rated difficulty level, in order to give riders a clear, accurate expectation of what the full trail will be up ahead.
All of the trails have a designated direction for traffic flow. Some allow foot traffic, while others are bike-only.
How to Ride at Tannery Knobs
Drive northeast from downtown to ascend Dennis Drive or Chamber Drive, two short, paved approaches that steepen a bit — the ascent is approximately 250 feet — to the trailhead at the crown of the Tannery Knobs ridge.
You can also bike from town for a warmup. If you rent a bike and helmet from Trek Bicycle Johnson City, the cruise to the top of Tannery Knobs is close to a mile.
There’s a parking area and trail sign with a clear map, a list of trail names, and the designated difficulty level. A paved pump track is a great spot for kids, beginners, and advanced riders alike. The most expansive views of town are on the summit, where the woods open up.
The trails are all relatively short segments for riders to make quick loops. Mix and match your favorite: it’s easy to change it up depending on how you’re feeling each ride.
Each trail is rated as Easiest, More Difficult, or Most Difficult. The terrain is a blend of smooth, flowy sections and obstacles like berms, tabletops, narrow switchbacks, and rock gardens.
The directional segments funnel to two dedicated up-tracks for riders to ascend: the Breakfast Club ascent, which is rated as the Easiest way up, or the Panorama ascent, which is rated as More Difficult.
The trail names reflect special ties to the community. “Breakfast Club” is a green trail, named after the Breakfast Club sandwich that’s served at the local, family-owned Penny Man’s Diner.
Certified by the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors Association and a former collegiate cross-country racer, local Trek Bicycles employee Samantha Miranda rips on a bike. I met up with her to ride Tannery Knobs and learn more about the trail system.
While developing Tannery Knobs, the trail workers would go every day to get the iconic club sandwich (a BLT, sausage, egg, and cheese masterpiece) to kick off the day’s construction.
The Breakfast Club is a great trail to ease in, warm up, or get comfortable on a mountain bike for the first time. The flow trail has a mellow, slight descent on smooth dirt with a handful of slightly elevated rollers. The section is U-shaped, so it starts and ends in the same spot.
After Breakfast Club, we graduated into Mountain Express, an intermediate-level trail.
Similar to Breakfast Club, this section has rollers but they are more frequent, in quicker succession, and steeper. There are plenty of velvety banked turns and a handful of smooth rocks to descend over.
Another short and playful intermediate trail is Baby Flow. The design includes a jump line with steep tabletops that transition into berms.
By the time we finished riding the Easiest and More Difficult sections, we were ready for the Most Difficult trails, which both offered a variety of obstacles.
First, we rode Posse’s Club, which has the most difficult start out of all of the trails and sits at the edge of the parking lot. The entrance is a blind rollover into a steep face filled with chunky boulders and a few different line options. After the immediate landing zone, riders roll right into a big rock drop followed shortly by a second drop.
Groups of bikers often session this spot and it can be a hangup, too. We had fun with the mental challenge of scoping out and visualizing our lines. After we hiked and descended the entrance a couple of times, we finished the whole trail.
Cumberland Braps is one of my favorite trails at Tannery Knobs. The start is from a trail hub in the woods instead of the parking lot, which you can reach via Breakfast Club.
The entrance is a steep, chunky descent followed by sharp berm turns. The start of the uppermost hairpin turn threads a steep rocky face below and above. A few of the trickier spots include short rocky uphills.
The route connects with the Panorama ascent, which is more technical with exposure, rocks and roots, sharp turns, and sections with overgrown vegetation. The last push to reach the parking lot is Tannery Knob’s rockiest and most continuous climb, so be ready.
More Trails at Tannery Knobs
The development of Tannery Knobs was led by Josh Collins, a Trail Specialist with IMBA Trail Solutions and a service technician at Trek Bicycle Johnson City. According to Collins, he aims to help spearhead several more trails at Tannery Knobs.
One primary new trail will be beginner-level and allow riders to gradually ascend on dirt from the edge of downtown to the top of Tannery Knobs, delivering riders at the drop-in zone of the trail system. The trail will also help bikers avoid riding the steep paved climb to the trailhead.
Centrally located in town, and with a great variety of trails, nice climbs, and sweeping views — if you find yourself in eastern Tennessee, put Tannery on your shortlist.