A hundred miles from the Upcountry in the middle of Columbia's bustling suburbs is one of South Carolina's most popular mountain biking destinations.
Harbison State Forest offers 20 miles of bone-rattling, hump-jumping, single-track trails winding through a 2,177-acre woodland preserve along the banks of the Broad River. While it might not have the major elevation gains of trails in Paris Mountain State Park, it's got plenty of rock 'em, sock 'em thrills for riders of every level.
"We have a reputation in the Midlands of being nothing but sand, scrub oak and pine trees," said Brian Curran, an avid cyclist and owner of Outspoken Bicycles shop in Columbia. "But it's almost like riding in the mountains."
The variety of terrain, from rock gardens to big rolling dips to steep switchbacks, makes it a challenge - and a blast to ride even for less experienced mountain bikers like me. Eight of the trails interconnect, allowing you to ramp up your ride for a longer, more intense run.
One of my favorite routes is the Firebreak Trail, the core course that links to almost all of the other trails. Rated "easy to moderately difficult," this 4-mile, brown-blazed loop starts in the main parking area, traveling through a forest of mixed pine and hardwood. It's got a couple of respectable ascents and descents, but it's mostly level with plenty of roots and rocks to keep it interesting.
A connector trail will put you on the 3-mile, green-blazed Stewardship Trail, another "easy to moderately difficult" loop featuring a short spur trail to a rest area with a great view of the river.
The Stewardship Trail also can be accessed from a parking area on the far north end of the main gravel road that runs the length of the forest. If you start at this point and take the loop counter-clockwise, you'll follow gentle slopes and fairly level ground through a wooded area, crossing small bridges over gullies and creeks as you wind through some of the most beautiful sections of the forest.
For you hardcore mountain bikers, there's an alternative spur that will take you through a brutal section of terrain before rejoining the main trail.
Harbison regulars often see deer, rabbits and a great variety of birds on the Stewardship Trail. But it's best to keep your eyes on the path while riding. If you decide to hike it, be sure to download a Trail Guide before you set off. Along with a map, it features trail descriptions along with the length and level of difficulty of each trail.
To truly experience the mountains in the Midlands, try the aptly named Midlands Mountain Multiple Use Trail. This bad boy starts with a .3-mile climb to the ridge top and then eases up with lots of moderately difficult slopes through the Broad River floodplain. In wet conditions, stick to the bike detour that will take you through a higher, drier section of the forest. About half way into the 3.7-mile loop you'll come to a short spur to Harbison Bluffs, offering another boffo view of the Broad River.
Without a doubt, the marquee trail - the one all the serious cyclists rave about - is SpiderWomen II, a 3-mile, strength-sucking vixen that will test even the most rabid riders with its treacherously steep slopes, abrupt dips, exposed boulders and hellacious climbs.
This very technical, single-track trail follows Middle Creek - a mountain-like stream with large rock formations - to the Broad River. Along the way, you'll come to the famed "Rock Garden," a menacing section with, you guessed it, rocks of every size and shape strewn about like confetti.
"It's really pretty challenging," Curran said. "A lot of people that come to Harbison for the first time that have ridden other places are really surprised."
Whichever route you choose, you'll want to come back for more. With so many trails, and so much variety, you can experience a different ride on every visit.
A $5 parking pass is required to use the Harbison State Forest facilities. You can pick one up at the fee boxes located in each of the parking areas. And you'll need to wear a helmet.
Be aware: all of the trails are open to hikers, joggers and dog walkers, so be on the lookout for pedestrians as you fly around corners and down the steep hills.
In addition to the trails, Harbison features a canoe landing offering access to the Broad River, picnic areas and educational programming. Water and restrooms are available at the gazebo shelter and the Environmental Education Center. Primitive restrooms also can be found in some of the parking areas.
To learn more about Harbison State Forest, click here or call (803) 896-8890. Another great source of information is the Friends of Harbison State Forest website.