Howler Bike Park Comes to Life
Written by John Long - Photos by Casey Smith

The Ozarks now have so many trails completed or under development, that it was inevitable that the demand for more extreme styles of trails would increase. The trails we currently have in the Ozarks vary in degree of difficulty and provide a huge variety of terrain. Most of these trails are of the XC (Cross country) type. XC trails are designed to provide several miles of the off-road experience with varying amounts of total elevation gain and difficulty. A new park that caters to a style of mountain biking that is a little unique to the area is being built near Branson. Over the past year and a half, Max Penny of Mountain Movement in Springfield has been hard at work developing Howler Bike Park. What started out in concept as a self-built property for friends and family has turned into a professionally built, professionally operated downhill mountain bike park like nothing else we have seen in this area.

Max is a self-confessed action sports enthusiast. He describes himself as extremely competitive and tends to immerse himself completely into whatever physical endeavor he decides to pursue. He played football at the high school and college level (locally at Missouri State University) and has been involved in Moto-Cross, Snowboarding, and BMX throughout his life. Now he brings his enthusiasm to mountain biking, first by opening Mountain Movement, a bike shop dedicated exclusively to mountain biking, And now by focusing his considerable energies on building Howler Bike Park.

Howler is built on 200 acres of Ozark hills. The park includes 3 major peaks, with Phase 1 being constructed on Peak 2. The compact design jams several thrilling lines with varying degrees of difficulty into the miles it provides. All of the materials for the trails, including features, are locally sourced – meaning the logs and rocks used to create elevated features and rock gardens came from the property or the local area. As often as is practical, the trails at Howler have tried to use the natural beauty and ruggedness of the Ozark hills to full advantage. Among the machine-cut flow trails and man-made elevated features, there are some fantastic natural ledge rock features. Trail and feature builders both have done a masterful job of bringing Max’s vision to life and creating an exciting and unique trail system.

Several things set Howler apart from our other excellent trails. It is downhill only and gravity oriented. You will shuttle to the top, strap up and ride down, then do it all over again until you’ve had all you want. This park is a true bike park, meaning trails are only for bicycles: no hikers, no horses, and no motorcycles. It is shuttle operated and that will be the best mode of transportation for getting to the drop-in spots for all of the trails, but a return trail is in the works if you’re the kind of rider who insists on “earning your downs”. A common question riders usually have when a new trail system is in the works is, “How many miles is it?” Howler intends to make riders rethink that question. At Howler it’s not necessarily about the miles. There are more than sufficient miles to have a good time riding through the woods. What Howler provides that’s more important than mileage is elevation and features. As a gravity-driven, shuttle-operated trail system, riders will get their thrills by riding downhill over progressively more difficult trails.

Howler Bike Park is designed for riders to come and spend the day. Show up in the morning, check out your bike and gear, and have a good time. You’ll want to try out different trails and give your favorites multiple runs. Then grab some lunch and do it again in the afternoon. Howler will run two Stewart Stevenson military vehicles, which are currently undergoing a graphics treatment to represent Howler’s sponsors. Expect some killer graphics from sponsors like Troy Lee and Deity. Additionally, the locally owned and operated Küat is creating a custom rack system that will be used to get all the bikes to the drop-in in top mechanical shape.

The park doesn’t stop at just providing trails to ride. Repurposed shipping containers will make up the Howler Bike Park Welcome Center and Pro-Shop for purchasing gear and merchandise. Minor repairs, such as snapped chains and popped tires, can be made at the shop as well. There will also be food trucks with a variety of foodstuffs for when you get hungry, including dishes from a former Progress chef so you know the food will be tasty. The park will also feature a performance stage for live music and events. At the Pro Shop/ Welcome center, expect a rental fleet of long travel and downhill bicycles from Commencal. These bikes will be well suited to the type of trails being built at Howler. In addition to bikes, you can also rent full-face helmets, padding, and protective equipment, such as chest protectors and shin guards. Mountain bikes like this are expensive, and the specialized gear can be spendy as well. Being able to rent this equipment will be a huge perk for those who don’t have the budget or necessity to own such things.  It will also be great for those vacationers who don’t feel like dragging their bike and all their gear on their trip. Future plans include camping spots and Airbnb-style glamping spots. The proximity to Branson should bring in plenty of vacationers looking for something thrilling and exciting to enhance the music shows and lake life.

Mountain biking requires fitness and skill to be enjoyed to its fullest and to endure the demands of pedaling uphill and descending downhill. Skill comes in when negotiating difficult features like elevated tabletop jumps, wall rides, and dropping off of rock ledges or jumping gaps in the trail. Skill requires technique and is best learned by progressing from easier features to harder ones. Skill progression is what Howler Bike Park is all about. The trails here are a variety of Green to Double Black, with the majority of trails at  Blue (intermediate) in difficulty. This provides the rider with the opportunity to start small and then work up to more difficult trails as you become familiar with the demands of those you’ve mastered. The mantra goes, “Pre-ride, Re-ride, Free-ride”. This means if in doubt about a trail or feature, look it over, and analyze it. Then if you feel you’re up to what it demands, give it a careful try. If that went well, do it again. Once you have the line worked out, and you feel you have the skill required, let it rip and have fun. Sessioning features and trails is a great way to challenge yourself and build your skillset. Further down the road Howler intends to provide skills training and coaching so you can enjoy the park to the fullest.

A bike park like Howler takes a coordinated team of skilled trail builders. Max is the guy with the vision for what features and obstacles he wants. The folks he has hired to bring that vision to life either tell him he’s crazy, or try to build what’s in his head. In some cases they even add their own ideas to the craziness. Derek Hunter of Reserve Concepts is the head “Dirt Tech” and trail builder, Seth Gebel of Backyard Trail Builds is in charge of building the features. Seth has an active YouTube following and many of the Howler features are featured on his YouTube channel. Bo Dean is the “Mountain Director” and director of all operations. I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention John Penny and his contributions. He’s Max’s dad, his biggest fan, and a helpful enabler.

Opening day is scheduled for Friday, May 20th. The park will open at 9 a.m. and festivities are expected to run throughout the weekend. What kind of festivities, you ask? Along with food trucks and local beer, attendees can expect camping, live music, and a bike trick contest. Be sure to mark your calendar and make plans to attend the grand opening. If you’re into mountain biking, you will not want to miss it.

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