The Sugar Bottom Recreation Area is located east of North Liberty, Iowa and near the eastern shoreline of Coralville Lake. Directions from I-80: take I-380 N to exit 4 (North Liberty), from the exit ramp turn right onto 250th St, turn left onto N Front St, take the first right turn after crossing Mehaffey Bridge, and turn left into the disc golf/beach parking area. The parking lot is large and free, but donations are appreciated to support trail maintenance. There is a second, smaller parking lot on the east side of the park and which is accessible from Sugar Bottom Rd. Read about high water access for times when the lake has flooded the gravel road. Outdoor recreation includes hiking, trail running, and mountain biking but not horseback riding. There are two sets of restrooms that are open in warm weather. One of them includes a water fountain and a soda machine. Cell phone service has always been weak for me as I receive text messages but not phone calls. The map below displays one full lap for the 2012 Scramble race course.
Similarly to 2011, each full loop was about 7 miles long, started and ended at the picnic tables, and had an elevation range of 125 feet. The 2012 course added 104 on the north side and subtracted 203 and 302 on the south side, both of which I liked having as part of the race. For me the three trickiest spots are the last climb and turn on 104, cyclocross hill on 101x, and the sharp left turn at the end of 101. The course had some differences dependent on the category. For example, the expert and sport groups started with an additional partial loop on 105 and the southern set of trails. Also, I’m guessing the junior category bypassed 104 and/or cyclocross hill. The following elevation chart was recorded during one lap.
I moved to Iowa City in July 2011. Before moving to Iowa, I lived in Blacksburg, Virginia and Fort Collins, Colorado. I first mountain biked at Sugar Bottom in August 2011 and was immediately impressed with the trails. They are very well maintained, fast, and fun. Before entering and exiting the trail system it is encouraged to gently rinse your bike at the wash station to prevent the spread of Garlic Mustard, a non-native invasive plant.
The fire road is multi-directional but all of the numbered trails are one-way and clearly marked as so.
The northern set of trails are numbered 100-105 with 101, 104, and 105 included in the Scramble race course.
The beginning of 101 is near the fire road and as of June 2013 was flooded, read about high water access for more info. Currently, work is being done to reroute it so as to limit the impact of future flooding. Trails 102, 103, and 104 are loops that branch off of the northwestern corner of 101. In Fall 2011, 102 was rated “more difficult” because of a rocky section and a moderately challenging s-curve climb. However, as of June 2012, a new route was added that makes it easier and more fun.
103 is rated “most difficult” because it has two steep drops, two tough climbs, and some tight turns. The first steep drop is near the beginning and has gnarly tree roots protruding in the middle of it.
104 is also rated “most difficult”. It feels like the hilliest trail in Sugar Bottom and the following elevation chart affirms that feeling.
It starts with a long descent around elongated corners.
After a stretch of relatively flat terrain, it gradually ascends near to where it starts. The first challenging feature of the race and the only part of this trail that trips me up is the last left turn because it is sharp, steep, and slippery (due to leaves). I believe that successfully conquering this turn requires a plan of attack and that indecisiveness will not work.
After 104, the race course resumes on 101 which has an uphill right turn that was partially obstructed by a fallen tree. It took me several tries but I finally mastered this turn. In summer 2012, this tree was cut up and pushed away from the trail.
101 has a series of low lying bridges that are not intimidating.
In between the bridges are stretches of fast single track.
The second challenging feature of the race course was cyclocross hill (trail 101x). It starts with a sharp drop and then finishes with a steep hill. I walked up this hill but racers “caught air” at the top of it. This was the only section that was too steep for me on my single speed Niner SIR 9, although I’m not sure I’d be doing it on a multi-speed. This was a fun place for spectators to sit and watch racers fly over the top.
If you’re not riding the race course then you can bypass cyclocross hill by crossing a bridge constructed in October 2011 (seen below).
The subsequent picture illustrates a short gnarly climb and the third challenging feature of the race. It is located at the very end of 101 and hidden by a blind 90 degree left turn. After many failed attempts, I recommend riding hard down the middle as opposed to trying to ride left of the tree roots.
At the end of 101, the race course connects to 105 just before it reaches the main fire road. The bridge on 105 has a moderately tricky entry point because it is downhill and shadowed by a dead end trail on the right.
The bridge lies just above ground level.
The following is an example of the many wide turns in the trail system, albeit this one has more around-the-corner visibility than most.
The race concludes with a grassy ride on 105, which ends at the picnic shelter.
The southern set of trails are hillier and curvier than the northern set. They are numbered 201-205 and 301-304. The 2012 race course traversed 201, 202, 205, and 301; which are the easier ones in this set.
201 is 1.4 miles long and serves as a main artery that connects to sub-loops 202, 203, 204, and 205; and ends at the start of 301.
It is curvy but rides fast.
202 is a 0.2 mile loop with two short climbs.
Like most of the easy trails, it is smooth and narrow with wide turns.
203 is a 0.5 mile loop.
It is similar to 202 but slightly more challenging.
204, also named “Hell Trail”, is a challenging 0.8 mile ride that connects the two segments of 201. As the elevation chart below illustrates, it starts with a long descent, has several short ascents, and then ends with a climb. It along with 104/104x are my two favorite trails.
It has a wood ramp that is good for people looking for an additional challenge but that is not required.
It features a large fallen tree with exposed roots.
The Hell Trail is more challenging than the others in the southern half of the system because it has tighter turns atop steeper slopes. Specifically, the latter half has several steep s-curves. The first is challenging but a little easier than the second.
The second is a steep right turn followed by a tight left turn.
The challenging s-curves continue until it ends. I ride this trail every time I visit because it serves as an indicator for how well I’m riding.
I have not ridden on 204x (Becky’s Revenge) because it is currently undergoing trail maintenance.
The race lap continues on the second part of 201. Up to this point, the trails have been smooth and fast with short climbs. In 2011, I crashed riding too fast over tree roots that were on 201 leading up to 205. In June 2012, the latter half of 201 was rerouted to bypass the precarious roots and is now the fastest section in the system.
205 is a 0.4 mile loop that has what feels like the longest climb in the system.
The following shows the new right turn off of 201 and onto 205 that was updated in June 2012.
201 then connects to 301, which by itself is 1.0 mile long.
The first part of 301 rides close to Coralville Lake, which can provide a much needed cool breeze.
It then connects with 302, which is an easy 0.3 mile loop.
Its entrance was updated twice in 2012 to be easier to find and ride.
It is an easy ride with no challenging features.
After 302, the next stretch of 301 is narrow and the second fastest in the system.
303 is much like 302 but with a couple of tricky sections and twice as long at 0.6 miles in length.
In between some quick dips and climbs it is a fast ride through pine trees.
The most interesting stretch is a steep descent (not in photo) followed by a quick up and down.
After 303, you can ride 301 back to the fire road or hop on 304. If you choose to stay on 301 then you can test your skills on three obstacles created in 2012. First up is a log arch.
The second two are low lying logs.
304 is a one mile loop that starts near the end of 301 and finishes at the fire road.
Most of it is easy but it is aptly marked most difficult because it has two technical descents. The first has a diagonal divot that makes choosing your line difficult. The following picture does not do it justice.
The second descent bottoms out with a narrow bridge. The challenge for me is to maintain confidence in my steering as I approach the bridge.
After the two descents, the trail is fast and includes one log crossing.
The Novice Loop 305 is short, flat, and smooth. It starts and ends at the fire road and is close to the parking lot.
It was the race course for youth riders in the 2011 Scramble. It seems like a great place to bring kids for their first mountain biking experience. In addition, it offers the best views of the lake.
In sum, I participated in the one-lap beginner race and had a blast. Notebly, the trails here are constantly being improved so expect a slightly different course year over year. I have raced a handful of times and this is the most beginner-friendly course I have ridden to date. For example, the Rowdy Dawg beginner course in Blacksburg, Virginia includes a few expert sections whereas this course peaks at intermediate difficulty. I hope this blog post helps out-of-town racers visiting the trail system for the first time. Also, I recommend checking out races and time trails at Beverly Park in Cedar Rapids.
Periodically, the lake floods the gravel fire road that connects the southern and northern trails.
Alternate routes, labeled “High Water Conditions“, are put into use when water is blocking the entrance to 101. If you park at the beach then you’ll need to ride back up the road to the high water specific entrance. You can also park at Sugar Bottom Rd and ride the southern trails and/or follow signs for high water access on the northern trails. The following Google Map shows two tracks: the left one is the ride on paved road to enter 102 via the high water entrance and the right one is the return path to that entrance using 105, 101B, 101, and 102.
The following picture shows the high water entrance located at the top of the hill along the paved road. From here, a short trail connects to 102.
105 is the starting point for a return path to the high water entrance.
The return path is well marked and contains a bi-directional segment on 101 from cyclocross hill to the long wood bridge. Only in times of high water conditions can this segment be ridden in the reverse direction and, thus, it is an opportunity to try something new. Next, follow signs for a grassy ride on 101b.
After 101B, you need to ride on 101 and follows signs on 102 to return to the paved road and ultimately the beach parking lot.