In previous articles we’re talked about the explosive growth of the northeast downhill scene this year. New trails, new races, even whole new bike parks. Berkshire East’s Thunder Mountain is one of the latter.
Regular readers of this site (which should include you…have you liked us on Facebook yet?) will recall that last week we profiled the new-for-2015 Walt’s Woods at Bousquet Ski Area, the other downhill park to open in Massachusetts this year. Together with Jiminy Peak, Thunder Mountain brings that number to three, effectively tripling the number of bike parks in Massachusetts.
While I don’t consider myself a downhiller, it’s looking easier than ever to become one, having spent last weekend, this weekend, and next weekend covering opening day at Walt’s Woods, Thunder Mountain and Windham Mountain respectively. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I’ll go back to doing write ups on the northeast’s more pedally trails, but in the meantime, I’m donning the full face, velcroing my knee pads and dropping my saddle to go take some turns on the slopes.
This week’s hill is Thunder Mountain, situated in the middle of the stunning Berkshire Mountains in gorgeous Charlemont, MA.
The Gronk Flow Trail
The flagship, standout trail that Thunder Mountain will be known for is The Gronk. A blue square, intermediate rated trail, The Gronk showcases Gravity Logic’s involvement and is very much reminiscent of Whistler’s A-Line. For those who aren’t familiar, Gravity Logic is a major trail design firm that built the famous Whistler Mountain Bike Park in the Pacific Northwest. A-Line is their signature jump trail and arguably the most famous DH trail in the world.
Make no mistake, The Gronk is very much a flow trail, characterized by berms as tall as (or taller than) your head. Not just berms, but massive, sweeping ones that let you blast into them full tilt, no brakes needed. The layout is strikingly brilliant and offers excellent transitions from one berm into the next, without skipping a beat.
In between sections of lightspeed berms are nice big DH style tabletops that are a lot like Highland Mountain’s Cat Paw (when I say DH style, I mean flatter take-offs and transitions more suited to bigger bikes than the steeper angles afforded to dirt jumpers, BMX bikes or slopestyle rigs).
Let me take a moment to note than in two days of riding Thunder Mountain, I rode my 6″ hardtail exclusively. At a lot of parks, that probably sounds like a death wish, but I actually found this particular bike wonderfully suited to the majority of trails. Only on a few occasions did I find myself outgunned, and that was strictly on black diamond runs.
But back to The Gronk…a trail bike or more aggressive hardtail is perfect for this trail. A full 8″ rig is not entirely necessary by any means and I found the nimbleness of a lighter bike incredibly advantageous. On The Gronk, speed becomes an addiction. You pedal a little more because you want to go faster, because you want to jump higher, because you want to throw yourself into each and every perfectly sculpted berm as hard as possible, only to emerge unscathed and perfectly positioned for the next one. With no rear suspension I found myself popping off lips more than I would on my fully and that made the experience even more exhilarating.
Quick note: Torrential rains in the days before opening weekend washed out the very bottom section of The Gronk, which appears to have the largest tabletops anywhere on the trail. For the time being, the trail re-routes over to Sugar Line. Gravity Logic was on hand throughout the weekend and I have no doubt we’ll see the rest of The Gronk completed and opened in no time at all.
More Flowy Goodness on Greens & Blues
Aside from The Gronk, there are also Sleeping Jake’s, Blue Pulaski, Powder Blue and Harold’s Blend to round out the intermediate class of trails. Sleeping Jake’s is the pre-cursor to The Gronk, a short section of trail that ends at one of Thunder Mountain’s main junctions. Blue Pulaski and Powder Blue are also short connector trails that bridge the gap between some of the upper mountain’s black diamond trails and lower mountain greens & blues.
Harold’s Blend is the notable outlier. Named for the man behind many of the Charlemont area’s trails, Harold Green, Harold’s Blend is a just that – a blend of flowy corners and more classic (read:rugged) northeast singletrack. This is a longer winding trail that takes a little more time to complete as riders negotiate the loamy tread, off camber sections, wooden bridges and banked corners.
Sugar Line: Beginner-Friendly
On paper, Sugar Line is the only green circle trail on this mountain. In reality, most riders with some amount of experience will find The Gronk equally doable too, but true to its name, Sugar Line has an inherent sweetness that’s less about throwing your body into berms at full tilt and more about cruising down the mountain.
Sugar Line is the smoothest trail by far and also the longest. For experienced riders, you have to pedal almost non-stop to get serious thrills out of it, but this trail isn’t really geared towards them. I’d like to see more parks build trails like this one. They’re good for kids, they’re good for beginners and they’re a non-threatening way to give riders a more mellow introduction to downhill riding. While the seasoned pros might not get much out of Sugar Line, or similar, they do well for the future of the sport.
Black Diamonds, Too!
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably under the impression that Thunder Mountain is nothing more than a giant flow park full of bermed out green and blue trails. And while there are plenty of those, there are also some stellar black diamond trails too. Believe it or not, there are riders who don’t really like flow trails (*cough* Paul Dotsenko *cough*) and that’s OK. I love a good technical trail too and despite my lack of rear cushion, Paul suckered me into riding most of them.
Billy Badger was hands-down my favorite. In the woods to the right of the lift, Billy Badger starts with a trio of flowy berms not unlike The Gronk, but quickly gives way to steeper, more rocky terrain. Not to say that there aren’t berms on Billy Badger, but they’re not the focus point, and are strategically placed to help you keep control in a few turns where you’d have a rough time otherwise. There are several medium-sized drops littered throughout to keep things interesting (some of which can be rolled) and a few off camber sections at the bottom. Paul and I both surmised that we would expect to see Billy Badger in the future Eastern States Enduro race that Thunder Mountain will inevitably hold (we hope!).
To get to Billy Badger you can ride Thunder Cliffs or Back of the Shack, two more black diamond runs. Thunder Cliffs is a really off camber section that I didn’t particularly prefer. Narrow between trees and constantly at risk of sliding sideways, I found it off-putting to say the least.
Back of the Shack however, was a whole different story. I’m a sucker for massive rocks used as trail features. The ones you can ride up on, the ones that form wall rides and rollers and spines that you can ride down. Back of the Shack has just about all of those, and a decent number of roots to boot. Want to put together a technical, challenging run with lots of features? Ride Back of the Shack to Blue Pulaski to Billy Badger.
There was only one trail I didn’t ride and that was The Schist. Like I said, I’m not a downhiller and double black diamonds are hardly the place for hardtails unless you’re Jinya Nishiwaki (spoiler alert: I am not). Other riders informed me that the top was rocky, rooty, loose and wet (that has northeast written all over it) and the bottom was considerably smoother, with tabletops and doubles. Harold informed me that this will be the course used for the Eastern States Cup DH race here in September.
It almost sounds silly to ask – after all, this is a brand new bike park – but to stay competitive in the growing northeast downhill market you’ve got to be thinking ahead. Races…I’m sure we’ll see an Enduro here in the future. The fact that they already have a stop on the ESC downhill circuit is a strong indicator of that. Trails…Harold tells me the mountain is looking to expand the number of ski runs they have on the left side of the lift, which has put a hold on mountain bike trail construction (you’ll notice there’s only one substantial trail on the left of the lift). The map even shows a trail on the right of the lift called Hawleywood, which is marked as being under construction.
Overall, Berkshire East’s commitment is impressive. The trails are the real deal, the bike lift has dedicated bike carriers, the bike shop and staff were friendly and excited. I’m looking forward to coming back for more, sometime very soon.