How To Ride Otis

(Rosey was nice enough to write up my latest trip, so that freed me up from my intense e-commitments to write a less "this is what I did on Sunday" kind of entry.)

It's March again! That magical time where I stop training for ski races, but manage to hang onto ski fitness for another few weeks of mediocre 50k racing. This freedom from ski training (I was actually ski training at one point, despite what my results may indicate) mean it's time to make a trip to Otis AFB every chance I can get. I wrote about Otis last year, which has led people to think that I am some kind of Otis authority.

While I enjoy the perception that I have some kind of jedi-like knowledge of Otis, I'd like to dispell the myth that you need to be a jedi -- or know a jedi -- to ride there. After all, how hard could it be if the trail map looks like this:

Just commit that to memory and you're good to go!

Ok, so it looks pretty daunting. Otis is a small and confusing place to ride, sure, but at least it's not large and confusing, where getting lost would actually be a problem. When you ride Otis, you are always lost, but never really lost. It's a zen thing.

While I enjoy getting "be my Otis guide" requests, I only have so much free time (ok, a lot, but still), so I'm going to take the teach-a-man-to-fish route and teach you to be your own Otis guide, so you can go have sweet MTB rides even if you just lurk on this blog and have never met me in real life. Let's do it.

I made a map you can take with you, check it out:

You'll notice the map has no trails. Go look at the first picture again if you're trying to figure out why I didn't draw all the trails. There are so many trails at Otis, in various states of wear, that it is completely unfeasible to track where you are by looking at the map at each intersection. So take my "map," print it out, and stick it deep in your pack, where you won't be tempted to look at it unless you're taking a real break.

Here's what you do need to know -- the boundaries. They're labeled on the map and pretty straightforward. West edge is route 28, and there's a trail that runs the entire length of Otis right along the road. If you need to get home, head for the sound of traffic until you're at Rt 28, then take that trail south. The only trick is that "head west" can be pretty tough when the trails are that twisty. So it can take a while, but if you're diligent about heading toward the setting sun/sound of traffic, you can always get un-lost in, at most, half an hour.

The south boundary is a railroad track and Rt 151, pretty simple. The east boundary is the only tricky one -- it's the ill-defined edge of Otis Air Force Base, and the Massachusetts Veteran's Cemetery. Unlike the other boundaries, you do not want to actually run into this one, since bikers have been occasionally escorted off the base, and riding through a cemetery is just not cool. So if you find yourself thinking, "what is that large clearing with flowers in it?" or "what is that collection of buildings in the woods?" you'll know you're at the east edge.

Otis is deceptively small. The boundaries are pretty solid. Trust me, you can ride there without knowing where you are, and it will work out fine.

Once you know the boundaries, there's not much to do but just ride. You will hit a lot of intersections. DO NOT STOP. Have faith that all trails lead to awesome singletrack. Which way is the right way? ALL OF THEM.

It won't take long for you to have your first "have I been here before?" moment. Embrace it. Everything at Otis looks the same. I wracked my brain to try to come up with some landmarks, and I could barely think of six. One of them is a friggin' shirt on a tree. If you get to the top of a hill -- or a shirt on a tree -- grab my map and you should be able to locate yourself. This is potentially useful if you're trying to head into a given part of the trail system (or back to the car).

In general, though, you don't need to worry about where you are. You can try to skirt the edge (I strongly recommend the trail between the powerlines and Rt 28 at the north end, and the trail between the base and blue line south of Deer Horn Hill), or you can just loop around the middle. Riding the same trail more than once isn't a problem, because it's totally wicked mountain biking and you're having fun.

When it's thirty minutes before you want to be done, head south and/or west. Conveniently, this is the direction the sun sets in, but if you're really serious I guess you could bring a compass.

One final protip for maximizing your Otis ride -- in addition to the miles of singletrack, there's a lot of double-track ATV trail in there. It is straight, sandy, and boring. You'll end up on this stuff periodically, you can tell when you are because your endorphins will be at normal levels for the first time since you started riding. Don't fret! There's a million trails here. Keep your eyes peeled left and right and you can generally find a singletrack trail heading into the woods soon, or sometimes you can even spot one that's just a short walk through the woods away.

Important Legality Notice: Much of the woods covered by the Otis trails is part of Otis Air Force Base. From what I've heard, it's technically illegal to ride there. This is one of the many awesome effects of the Patriot Act, or so I've heard. Anyway -- you might be trespassing. Some of the time. Common sense suggests that riding around the woods isn't a big deal, regardless of which government (federal or state) owns it, which is probably why no one gets too worked up about it. But just so you know.


Luke S said…
If I take my total newbie MTB skills to Otis over my spring break will I run the risk of seriously hurting myself/end up walking with my bike for hours? Also, Mr. Eastern Massachusetts MTB expert, where can I ride near Concord once the snow melts and it dries out a bit?
Big Bikes said…
Now I feel like a complete douche for not going. I tried to ride "The area of woods near my house" today. It was a total bust. Skating rink ice under a light dusting of snow and me with un-studded tires. I am now missing about three square inches of skin on my right hip.

Next Sunday...Otis all the way!
mkr said…
Sounds like a nice ride. I opted for 6hrs on the road. Fun stuff. Hit the local trails yesterday AM but like Tom says, an inch of snow over bumpy ice even with studs makes for pretty sketchy handling. Looking forward to some dry trail. Gonna be a while now. The skating should be good again though.
startfinishpaul said…
Sorry if this double posts (once is long enough):

Having worked at Otis for the better part of the past 13 years I should probably know the trails better than I do but I am mostly a roadie. Still, I have seen quite a bit of it and have a few suggestions to add to your excellent post.

First, you are quite correct that riding there is not quite acceptable to the authorities, but they are rarely seen in that section of the base. When the authorities are there, it is usually the Environmental Police and they ride dirt bikes to catch other scoflaws on dirt bikes. You should be able to hear them coming a mile away and it is a rare event anyway. Your advice about not riding in the cemetary is spot on. Several trails lead toward the cemtary and also to Coast Guard housing, just turn around if you go down one of those trails.

Except for the short section of trails north of the Otis rotary that lead to and from the former True Wheels bike shop parking lot on the other side of Rt 28, do not ride north of the Otis Rotary and Connery Ave. That is Army territory and they actually do train soldiers with guns out there (probably just blanks, but its still not fun to ride into a group of guys with M16s). There may also be cameras in the woods in that section to catch errant dirt bikers.

When you start thinking more about the cross bike in late summer or fall, go skinny and check out Crane Reservation, most of which is under the legend of your fine trail map. Crane is bordered by Sandwich Road, Kittredge Road(do not cross it or you will be on the base) and more or less the railroad tracks and Rt 151. It is flatter and a lot less rocky than is most of Otis. Its perfect for the cross bike except some of the worn out dirt roads that are too sandy to ride. But running is part of cross too, right? And riding is perfectly legit there since it is state property and not part of the base.

Be careful in the fall and check hunting regulations carefully, especially in Crane but also on Otis. There are also hunting days on Otis (actually Camp Edwards) that are not on the normal hunting season schedule. They typically stay north of Connery Ave, but you can't be certain. Sunday's should always be safe.

In the Spring, avoid Gypsy moth season. They hang from the oak trees all over Otis and the silk gets in your face, its pretty disgusting. Two years ago Otis was essentially unridable for a month or two at that time of year, this past year wasn't as bad.

And speaking if pests, always check for ticks after riding Otis. There are a lot of them there and many carry lime disease. They aren't too active in the winter, but even then they can come out and get you.

The "tennis court" is actually an infiltration gallery for the treated water from the groundwater remediation system further south down the road. The thing that looks like a steel swimming pool to the north is a holding tank that the VA uses to store treated water for irrigation of the cemetary.

By September there will be a huge 1.5 megawatt wind turbine standing behind the remediation system. Construction started today. More are likely in the next couple of years but as long as everyone behaves out there, there should be no impact on the riding at Otis. It will be even harder to get lost out there because the turbine, which stands 390 feet tall, will be visible from almost anywhere.

It was good to see you out there Saturday. Tell your buddy I am sorry I thought he was Bradshaw. I get those CB/Embro guys all mixed up.

Hopefully we will cross paths out there again.
Unknown said…
Startfinish, I'm grateful to be confused for Bradshaw although I don't think he's ever been spotted on a mtb ride.

Hope you guys had as much fun as we did, despite the wet precipitation. Thanks for all the trail knowledge too. I'm looking forward to more trips this spring.
Wheels said…
Great summary of a great trail network. I allow myself to get lost for a couple of hours then make a beeline for the trail that parallels Rt. 28. I'll be down there 3/17-19 if anyone isn't working and can ride during the week.
Ari said…
Hey Colin,

I was down the Cape for the first time in years (I'm working this summer at Madison Springs Hut in the Whites and can thus bike free at Great Glen. Have I done so? No.) and staying less than three miles from Otis. I remembered your blog and abandoned everyone else I am staying with to go ride Otis.

OMG so much fun. I concur with the trail between 28 and the power lines, but the ones just to the other side of them is sweet too. There's a new windmill (pdf) which is a great landmark since you can see and even hear it from quite a distance away. It's somewhat south of the "tennis court" where the paved road turns to dirt, in the clearing just south of point 5. One other thing—when you ride south to the west of the power lines, you cross under them without noticing as they don't clear trees along the road.

Anyway, I ran out of water and found a couple of sections which were a bit too rock-gardeny for me to ride (I am pretty much a n00b when it comes to MTB) but gosh most of the trails are so smooth and fun to ride. I didn't see any "don't ride here" signs south of the base road. However, to the north there are tons of "no dirt bike" signs and lots of "no trespassing unless you have the permission of the base commandant, so, yeah.

Also, scariest part of the ride: navigating the rotary at the north end of the trails on a bike. Good times. Almost wound up bunnyhopping the center of it. And the road in to the base might be sweet for rollerskiing.
Anonymous said…
Ride there for the first time this past Saturday 7/7. I will be back (even tho I live in CT, I visit southern MA often). Very fun place and the advice to "just ride" was spot on. Thanks.
Anonymous said…
Funny that you have that red shirt hanging from a tree as a landmark. I just ran on the trails today (3/7/13) and that shirt is still there. A trail map for this area is an exercise in futility, but the trails are awesome-just as good as trail of tears in Barnstable.

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