World-Class Mountain Biking: Don’t Sleep On Tennessee’s Tannery Knobs
In the middle of historic Johnson City, Tennessee, world-class trail developers have crafted a collection of smooth, fun, and technical mountain bike trails for all types of riders, including beginners.
Northeast Tennessee is known for its unparalleled year-round fishing along the South Holston River, incredible whitewater rafting through the North Nolichucky River Gorge and the world’s largest rhododendron garden at Roan Mountain State Park.
Now, the Southern Outdoor Recreation Center is vying for a reputation with mountain bikers, and we agree they deserve a nod. At the base of the Appalachian Mountains, Johnson City recently created a premier trail system for mountain bikers – in the heart of downtown and a metropolitan area of 67,000 people.
Dubbed Tannery Knobs, the city-run park criss-crosses 40 acres of dense and lush maple, oak and sassafras bushes in the highlands of the same name. The trailhead is 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 the opportunity to mountain bike the entire Tannery Knobs trail system. I was impressed with the buttery single track, strategically well-designed trail system, and incredible access.
Based in Gunnison County, Colorado, I live in one of the best mountain biking locations in the world with over 750 miles of developed mountain biking trails. However, I had never ridden anything like Tannery Knobs.
This mountain bike center is unique, in part because it’s built like a centerpiece of a city. Today, many bike parks are developed at ski resorts located on the outskirts or a long drive from their sister urban areas.
The progressive, well-rated (read: non-sandbagged) trails are specifically designed for mountain biking.
Despite the fact that the topography offers less elevation change than the Rocky Mountains to the west, these trails are built in a loop system, so riders can rack up vertical gains and losses during a session. .
In June I hiked almost every trail twice for a total of 6.8 miles and 1115 feet of elevation gain. (I didn’t ride the pump track.)
Why? Temperatures hovered near 90 degrees Fahrenheit plus humidity, although I wasn’t hot as the trails are almost entirely shaded (except for the pump track). Here is a cheat sheet for the trails in the area.
- The simplest : Breakfast Club, 0.6 miles (hikers allowed)
- More difficult: Baby flow, 0.25 miles
- More difficult: Mountain Express, 1.3km
- More difficult: Chairlift, 0.5 miles (hikers allowed)
- More difficult: Panorama, 0.85 miles (hikers allowed)
- More difficult: Posse’s Club, 0.4 miles
- More difficult: Cumberland Braps, 0.3 mile
The initial start of each track is set with the most important characteristic of that track’s rated difficulty level, to give riders a clear and precise expectation of what the full track will be like ahead.
All trails have a designated direction for traffic. Some allow foot traffic, while others are reserved for bicycles.
How to Climb Tannery Knobs
Drive northeast from downtown to climb Dennis Drive or Chamber Drive, two short paved approaches that steepen up a bit – the ascent is about 250 feet – to the trailhead at the top of the Tannery Knobs crest.
You can also cycle from town to warm up. If you rent a bike and helmet from Trek Bicycle Johnson City, the cruise to the top of Tannery Knobs is nearly a mile.
There is a parking area and signage with a clear map, list of trail names, and designated difficulty level. A paved pump track is a great place for kids, beginners and advanced riders. The most expansive views of the city are at the top, where the woods open up.
The trails are all relatively short segments allowing cyclists to make quick loops. MIX AND MATCH YOUR FAVORITE: It’s easy to change it up depending on how you feel on every ride.
Each course is rated as easiest, hardest, or most difficult. The terrain is a mix of smooth, flowing sections and obstacles such as berms, table tops, tight switchbacks and rock gardens.
The directional segments lead to two dedicated trails for runners to climb: the Breakfast Club climb, which is considered the easier route, or the Panorama climb, which is considered more difficult.
Trail names reflect special ties to the community. “Breakfast Club” is a green trail, named after the Breakfast Club sandwich that is served at Penny Man’s Diner, a local family business.
Certified by the Professional Mountain Bike Instructors Association and former collegiate cross-country racer, local Trek Bicycles employee Samantha Miranda rocks on a bike. I met her to ride Tannery Knobs and learn about the trail system.
During the development of Tannery Knobs, trail workers would fetch the iconic club sandwich (a masterpiece of BLT, sausage, eggs and cheese) every day to kick off the day’s construction.
The Breakfast Club is a great trail to relax, warm up, or get comfortable riding a mountain bike for the first time. The flow trail has a slight gentle descent over smooth dirt with a handful of slightly elevated rollers. The section is U-shaped, so it starts and ends at the same place.
After the Breakfast Club, we moved on to the Mountain Express, an intermediate level trail.
Similar to the 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 slick rocks to descend.
Another short and fun intermediate trail is Baby Flow. The design features a jump line with steep tabletops that convert to berms.
By the time we were done with the easier and more difficult sections, we were ready for the more challenging trails, both of which offered a variety of obstacles.
First we hiked the Posse’s Club, which has the hardest start of all the trails and is at the edge of the parking lot. The entrance is a blind switchback into a steep face filled with large boulders and a few different line options. After the immediate landing zone, riders roll straight into a large rock drop followed shortly by a second drop.
Motorcycle groups often visit this place and that can also be a problem. We had fun with the mental challenge of delineating and visualizing our lines. After walking up and down the entrance several times, we completed the entire trail.
Cumberland Braps is one of my favorite trails in Tannery Knobs. The start is from a trail center in the woods instead of the parking lot, which you can access through Breakfast Club.
The entrance is a steep and thick descent followed by tight turns. The start of the higher hairpin bend threads a steep rock face below and above. A few of the trickier spots include short rocky climbs.
The route connects with the ascent of the Panorama, which is more technical with exposure, rocks and roots, tight turns and sections with overgrown vegetation. The last push to reach the parking lot is the rockiest and most continuous climb of Tannery Knob, so be prepared.
More trails at Tannery Knobs
The development of Tannery Knobs was led by Josh Collins, trail specialist at IMBA Trail Solutions and service technician at Trek Johnson City Bike. According to Collins, it aims to help direct several other trails at Tannery Knobs.
A new main trail will be beginner level and will allow cyclists to gradually climb dirt from the edge of downtown to the top of Tannery Knobs, delivering cyclists into the trail network drop zone. The trail will also help cyclists avoid climbing the steep, paved climb to the trailhead.
Centrally located and with a wide variety of trails, beautiful climbs, and scenic views – if you find yourself in East Tennessee, put Tannery on your shortlist.