How a tiny Vermont town became a world-class mountain bike destination
When Lilias Ide started mountain biking in the 1990’s, it was a lonely endeavor. Ide lived in northern Vermont, in a geographical region known as the Northeast Kingdom, the most rural, sparsely populated, and economically challenged portion of the state. Although mountain biking had reached widespread popularity in the US and beyond, it seemed to have just barely gained a toehold in the Kingdom.
“I grew up riding by myself,” recalls Ide. “I was always looking for other people to ride with. That’s why I went out west; you can just wander out there.”
But when Ide returned to Vermont in 2007, and specifically, to the small hamlet of Burke (population 1,800), things had changed. Significantly. In fact, during her absence, the region had developed into one of the most popular mountain biking destinations in North America. Known far and wide as the Kingdom Trails, this network boasted 140,000 visits in 2018 (84% from out-of-state), inviting riders to enjoy approximately 100-miles of purpose built mountain bike trails that twist and turn over a tremendous diversity of terrain.
Perhaps even more impressive:
“Certainly, we’ve had landowners who’ve said ‘no way,’” says Ide, who now works as the Events and Marketing Manager for the non-profit Kingdom Trails Association, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary. “But more and more, we have people coming to us, saying ‘please, put some trails on our land.’ And, says Ide, it helps that the culture of the Northeast Kingdom favors access to private land. “There’s just a really long history of shared land use here,” she notes.
Finally, Vermont law protects landowners from litigation when they open their property to recreation, so long as they’re not charging (the fee riders pay to access the Kingdom Trails buys them a temporary membership in the association; it is not a direct payment in exchange for trail access).
The economic benefit to the region is substantial. According to the KTA’s records, the average Kingdom Trails visitor stays for 2.7 days, and spends $115/day in the region. The overall economic impact is estimated to be north of $10 million annually. This would be significant anywhere; it’s particularly significant in a rural county where the per capita income is less than $25,000 a year.
Beyond the sheer quantity of riding, Ide says there’s another secret to the success of the Kingdom Trails. “Beginners can have a good time here. Sure, we have the steep, technical stuff, and we have the jump and flow terrain, and we have lift access terrain, but we also have trails that don’t just throw beginners into the weeds. They can come here and progress as their skills improve. Especially in the east, where so much of the terrain is really rocky and rooty, that’s unusual.”
As the Kingdom Trails continue growing in popularity, the KTA is beginning to make a more concerted effort at marketing and branding the network and the region. “Until recently, everything has been pretty organic, and through a lot of trial and error,” says Ide. “We didn’t have a specific marketing budget until three years ago, and it’s only in the last year or two that we’ve developed a logo and a brand standard. But it’s already paying off.” A new website is in the works, and Ide hopes to continue devoting resources toward telling the story of the Kingdom Trails, and ensuring it gets heard.
The obvious question is this: Can destination mountain biking provide similar benefits to other rural communities? The answer is, “it depends.” Certainly, the Kingdom Trails has many unique attributes in its favor: Incredible terrain, a highly devoted staff and core of volunteers, and, perhaps most importantly, a community that recognizes its value and believes in shared land use. But there’s little question that the success of the Kingdom Trails has inspired other trail initiatives, both within Vermont, and far beyond the state’s borders. Currently, the KTA is partnering with other regional trail networks in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Quebec to create Bike the Borderlands, a collaborative to promote the wider region as a mountain bike destination, replete with all the off-bike essentials, locally-owned restaurants, plenty of culture, and, of course, lots and lots of craft beer.
For her part, Ide advises other would-be trail networks to look inward for their strengths, and determine how best to leverage them.