Often overlooked, Townsville has much to offer the off-road rider, Sarah Down reveals.
When it comes to holiday destinations, Queensland’s far-north city of Townsville tends to be overshadowed by its more tourism-focussed neighbour, Cairns. It also has a lesser reputation for mountain biking, with Smithfield Park—the home ground for the UCI Mountain World Cup events—gaining Cairns greater attention. However, Townsville has rallied together one of the biggest mountain biking communities in the country, who have built some 100km of purpose built trails, which makes the city a highly desirable destination for off-road riders.
The Rockwheelers Mountain Biking Club, with their 500-strong membership base, have been at the forefront in developing mountain biking in the Townsville region over the past twenty years. With a vision of future success and armed with an inclusive philosophy, the Rockwheelers have been mindful to build a network of trails that suits every kind of rider. The result is a bike-friendly family destination with proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding beaches, and bathed in perpetual sunshine. In winter, the daily forecast of blue skies, 25-degree days and cool, comfortable evenings lends itself to holidaymakers eager for outdoor activities.
Owing to a quirky topography and location, the region (referred to as the Dry Tropics) typically attracts less rainfall and, therefore, enjoys less humidity. That is, of course, until the summer months, when the region is subject to incredible downpours. What this means for riders is that, during the dry season, they should expect arid and rocky trails. The locals don’t call themselves the Rockwheelers for nothing—they relish skitting over rock gardens and dropping from boulders. But that’s certainly not the extent on what’s on offer between Townsville’s multiple mountain biking locations.
The Douglas Mountain Bike Park is home to the city’s original and most renowned trails. Located just 15km from the city centre, Douglas boasts 30km of predominantly cross country (XC) trails including a beginner’s loop and skills park.
Learners can enjoy Scrub Pythons and Beefwood, for a smooth and flat ride weaving between trees and Easy Street, with a slight climb to the The Hump, which is the gateway to the rest of the trail network. It’s at this point that the more intermediate riding begins with Red Tail Black, with rock gardens and rocky step-downs, then Whip-tail, which is all about switchbacks and flow.
There are plenty of technical and steep climbs to challenge both the skills and fitness of riders, but once the summit has been reached, Douglas reveals what’s special about this park—the descent. Riders can choose between Hammerhead, Boulderdash, Wedgetail and Spiderbait—all great trails, but none perhaps more worthy of fame then the aptly named Rock’n’Roll. This one’s a fast, flowing, intermediate-to-advanced level downhill trail with rolling big berms and banked corners—and of course as per the Rockwheelers penchant—obligatory rock obstacles. The club have recently opened their latest addition to the park, Taipan—a trail that will no doubt excite the black diamond riders while generating an equal amount of fear in the rest of us.
With the trails reasonably exposed, it can be blazingly hot in summer, so riding in the cool of the morning or evening is advisable, as is carrying ample hydration. The trails are easily reached by bike, on the shaded bike path following the Ross River which takes you from the city to within a few kilometres of the trail-head. It passes the Riverway Complex, which to the beleaguered rider returning from Douglas, reveals itself as an oasis. A haven to escape the heat, shower off the dirt and indulge in a relaxing immersion into the cool, multi-levelled lagoon, followed by a coffee in the adjoining café. Entry to the facility is free.
The Cape Pallarenda Conservation Park sits on a peninsula just 20km north of the city and is the region’s newest mountain biking destination. The idea behind building mountain bike trails throughout national parks came about after local mountain biker and Senior Ranger for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services, Jason Vaughan, began looking into ways to increase visitation and active recreation after the park’s popularity with walkers waned in the hotter months.
“The reality is that bush-walking in a hot tropical climate is not suitable year-round, whereas on a bike, the period where it’s comfortable is greatly extended, because you create your own air flow. Mosquitos can’t keep up with you when you’re riding,” he said.
The trails begin wide and easy—perfect for a family on bikes—gently meandering through open woodlands, mangroves and lagoons before embarking on the Under the Radar trail. This 16km loop—developed in collaboration with the Rockwheelers—takes riders along a single track offering excellent views back towards the ocean. It is accessible to all levels of riders, with little-tono technical skill necessary. This is not to say, however, that a base level of fitness won’t be required to complete a loop. Following the popularity of Under the Radar, riders demanded a slightly more challenging intermediate-grade trail, from which Smedleys was constructed and since, the park consistently attracts 250 riders per week during the peak period.
Situated 1,000 meters above sea level and shrouded in mist, the small hamlet of Paluma is the gateway to the heritage-listed Wet Tropics rainforest and the location of the annual Paluma Push mountain bike race. Held in July, the point-to-point course (offering a 70km competitive, 53km intermediate and a 42km route for novices) sets off from the village and traverses through the rainforest and big timber country, finishing in the cattle stations of the Hidden Valley. The Push is so popular that this year entries sold out in only two weeks. With over 700 riders, it makes The Push one of the biggest mountain biking events north of Brisbane.
Outside the event, riders have access to the 15km Paluma Dam loop, a large percentage of which is rainforest single track, with steep hills and technical sections to suit the intermediate rider. There is, however, still plenty on offer for the beginners, and with the proximity to campgrounds, the dam is an ideal location spot for families with rainforest walks and water-sports on offer. Before arriving, it’s recommended that you check-in with Townsville City Council to ensure both the road and campground are open.
Paluma, a 45minute drive north of Townsville, is reached by a winding road that was hand built during the Depression. Before reaching the tranquil village, do as the locals do and stop halfway for a dip at the cascades that run under the stone bridge at the popular Little Crystal Creek swimming hole.
Local riders head 20km south of Townsville for one reason—Mt Stuart’s downhill gravity trail. Running for only three kilometres, this track certainly isn’t epic in length, but riders are known to clock speeds of up to 60km/hr during the six minute double black diamond adrenalin hit. Newcomers can take the ‘B’ lines so to avoid startling drops and jumps, but be warned, Mt Stuart is more appropriate for advanced riders. On the upside, though, climbing is not required. The feature of this trail is the proximity to Mt Stuart Road making it very convenient for shuttle runs —presuming you have a crew—granting continuous descents with not so much as a turn of the crank necessary.
Rockwheelers also have trails along the foreshore of Ross River Dam, 30km south-east of the city, which are designed as a beginner to intermediate network. There are some steep pinch climbs and great flowy downhill runs, but nothing overly technical, aside from a rocky creek crossing or the odd rock drop.
Note, these trails are restricted to weekend riding for registered Rockwheeler members who have completed an online induction, with rangers handing down fines for illegal entry or non-compliance of rules. That is until you’ve signed up to compete in one of Ross Dam’s notable events which is exactly what Rockwheeler’s Garry Hutchenson suggests visitors may want to try; either the HotRock 24 hour, north Queensland’s first day/night race (held late May) or the Dam Dark, a 12 hour event/end-of-year social party, which has everything from a 3am nude lap to bike throwing competitions (held late November). Hutchenson believes Townsville MTB events are a great draw-card for the city and a perfect excuse to stick around and leisurely try out the other trails the region has to offer, if not the reef or a beach or two.
The Strand—a two and a half kilometre long, beach foreshore park—offers a generous three metre wide footpath that runs inland along the Ross River; interspersed with playgrounds, cafes and picnic areas. It’s a great place for kids to scoot about safely on their bikes and splash in the family-friendly public water park and stinger-free ocean rock pools.
For a morning heart starter, join the local road riders and climb the fitness icon, Castle Hill, the dramatic crag protruding from the centre of town. It’s just as popular with walkers, who climb the many trails to the summit for the sunrises or sunsets and the picturesque mountain vistas.
For more information about mountain biking in Townsville and a calendar of local events, visit rockwheelers.com.au
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