Larry Myers

Cover Image for Palos MTB Trails for New Riders

Palos MTB Trails for New Riders

When you are new to mountain biking Palos can be both awesome and intimidating. With the right approach it's a great place to learn.

If you want to ride a mountain bike in Chicago you are likely going to find yourself at the Palos Forest Preserve. It’s the largest trail system in the area, and a relatively short drive from the city. As a new mountain biker Palos1 has a good mix of beginner and intermediate trails, and it’s difficult to accidentally end up on one of the difficult trails. I’ve successfully managed to shake off the new rider anxiety, and have a good sense of the best way to enjoy your first rides on the trails.

Where to start?

There is plentiful parking and well kept porta-potties at the Maple Lake East lot. It provides two short beginner trails as a warm up before getting access to the rest of the trail system. If you go on a weekend I’d recommend going early, as it gets crowded by 9am. Getting on the trails early also means you won’t have to worry about right of way with the bi-directional trails.

Trailforks has the best map to follow. If you ride with your phone I’d recommend installing the app, it can be a bit confusing your first few times out.

What equipment do I need?

Just about any mountain bike will be fine for Palos. I would recommend using a bike with 29” wheels and a dropper post. Palos is full of tree roots and small rocks, and larger wheels roll them without losing speed. The dropper post will make it easier to lower your center of gravity on the short steep descents. Otherwise you can wear normal clothes and your existing helmet and you should be ready to ride. Hardtails make up most of the bikes you’ll see on the trail, but plenty of people ride full suspension bikes as well.

I’d recommend taking a water bottle with you, as well as a basic repair kit. While the trail system isn’t that large, having to walk a few miles back to the car because you can’t deal with a simple mechanical issue on the trail isn’t fun. I always have a multi-tool and a flat repair kit with me.

Riding without Falling

Falling off your bike isn’t fun. It’s going to happen at least once, but there are ways to make sure you can minimize the amount of bumps and bruises on your rides.

  • Ride with flat pedals, even if you’ve ridden clipless pedals forever on a road bike. I’ve used both at Palos and find flats far more confidence inspiring with all the elevation changes and tight switchback turns.
  • Trust your instincts. It’s okay to get off the bike and walk a section you aren’t comfortable riding. Better to do a short hike down a rocky descent than go tumbling over the bars.
  • Once you pick a line commit to it. Most of my early falls were because I tried to change my mind at the last moment.
  • Control your speed on the downhills, and maintain speed on the climbs. (12 speed drive trains are a big help here.)
  • Almost every jump and drop has a bypass. It’s okay to avoid features you aren’t comfortable with.

If you take it slow and let your confidence build over the course of several rides you should be able to keep the falls to a minimum. I found this helpful as a new rider, and it made it easier to return week after week because I wasn’t nursing a sprained wrist and bruises.

An Easy Loop

RideWithGPS Route

Trails: Maple Lake, Hickory Smoked, Bullwhip, Pipeline, Grass Hill

For your first ride at Palos you can stick to the beginner rated trails and still see a good portion of the western half of the trail system. While Bullwhip is rated as intermediate, it’s a definitely one of the easier trails at that rating level, and is a lot of fun to ride. On the way back Bullwhip northbound is mostly downhill, and can get pretty fast. Make sure to tap your breaks and take care on the berms.

The Intermediate Trails

Once you’ve got some experience with the trail system you can take on the intermediate trails. I’d recommend starting with Stonehouse and the Cemetary Hill Loop.

While a lot of fun, I find the Campground Trail very technical and physically demanding. I’d definitely work up to this trail, as there is a lot of elevation, some steep rocky climbs, and lots of technical switchback turns. You’ll also find yourself biking along several ravines, which require a fair amount of focus and control as the trail narrows. This one of those trails where it’s worthwhile to stop and plan out a line when you get to some of the steep desents and climbs, especially if the trail is at all damp.

Final Thoughts

One of the best aspects of Palos is sheer variety of trails, and the seemingly endless combinations you can string together to keep your rides from getting stale and routine. It’s worthwile to explore all the trails and ride them both directions. Many of the trails feel completely different in the opposite direction, and some of the features are only available in one direction.

After you’re done riding and need to shove calories in your face there’s some easy options nearby:

  • Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket - If you want a sit down restaurant with great food this place rocks. Great fried chicken and good service.
  • Dunkin’ Donuts - I know, it’s just a Dunkin. But after waking up early on Sunday morning and riding for 2 hours sometimes some coffee and a breakfast sandwich is what you need on the way back into the city. This location on 95th is close by and the drive through moves quickly.


  1. prounounced “Pay-lohse”