- The Canyon Spectral is the best all-round trail bike, and has great value for your money.
- Getting a bike that fits you is key. Head over to your local bike shop to try different bikes.
- If you’re on a budget, a quality hardtail is a better choice than a cheap full suspension.
- Try to get the best bike you can afford so you aren’t held back as your skills progress.
The choices when buying a bike for mountain biking can be overwhelming. This guide will help you find the perfect bike for your riding style.
The Canyon Spectral 29 is the best all-around bike for mountain biking. This competitively-priced trail bike is nimble and capable. It’s available with 29” or 27.5” Wheels. If you’re just getting into mountain biking, the Cannondale Trail SE 4 is the best entry-level hardtail.
I ride thousands of miles on a mountain bike each year, and I know what makes a good bike: from geometry to components to that indefinable quality that makes you grin on the trail. For this guide, I’ve researched dozens of the top bikes to narrow down your search for the perfect ride.
List of The Best Bikes for Mountain Biking
Cannondale Trail SE 4 - Best Entry-Level Mountain Bike
Coming in at $1,175, the Cannondale Trail SE 4 is an awesome mountain bike for someone getting into the sport who wants a capable hardtail mountain bike for all-around riding.
This bike’s geometry leans more to the cross country end of the spectrum, but a great design and high quality build kit make it an awesome bike to start progressing your skills.
Cannondale Trail SE 4 Specifications
What Sets this Bike Apart?
For an entry-level bike around $1,175, the Cannondale Trail SE 4 gives you a lot in an inexpensive package. You get a frame built with all of Cannondale’s advanced aluminum forming expertise and a reliable build kit.
The geometry of this bike keeps the handling light and responsive. It’s easy to control and make it go where you want.
The most striking feature of the Trail SE 4 is the dropped seat stays at the back of the bike. This is part of Cannondale’s SAVE Micro-Suspension system. The rear triangle of the bike is designed to flex to reduce trail chatter through the rear wheel. While it definitely doesn’t replace real rear suspension, this system does work to smooth out buzz from the trail.
Pros of the Cannondale Trail SE 4
- You get a good frame and reliable components at a reasonable price.
- SAVE Micro-Suspension helps smooth out trail buzz.
- Handling is responsive and nimble
Cons of the Cannondale Trail SE 4
- You only get a 10-speed drivetrain.
- The Suntour fork is functional but basic.
- Cross country oriented geometry may limit what trail you take it on.
Who Should Buy the Rocky Cannondale Trail SE 4?
If you are looking to get started in mountain biking and don’t want to dish out a few grand for a bike, the Trail SE 4 is a solid pick that will have you grinning on the trail.
For tackling tougher trails, you’ll definitely be more comfortable on a more aggressive bike. Check out the Rocky Mountain Growler 50.
Where to Buy the Cannondale Trail SE 4
Scott Spark RC - Best Cross Country Mountain Bike
The Scott Spark RC is a pure xc race bike. With a full-carbon frame and innovative design, this lightweight mountain bike is designed for racing.
120mm suspension travel front and rear smooth out the trail, and handling is nimble and quick. 29” wheels help this bike roll smoothly over everything.
Scott Scale RC Comp Specifications
What Sets this Bike Apart?
The integrated rear shock of the Spark RC is a unique feature that makes this bike really stand out from the crowd. While it looks super clean, this design also means Scott could make the frame much stiffer without adding extra weight.
As far as capable full suspension mountain bikes go, it’s hard to get much lighter than the Spark RC. This bike is speedy uphill while maintaining downhill confidence.
Pros of the Scott Spark RC
- This bike is incredibly lightweight for a full suspension.
- The suspension is designed to maximize pedaling efficiency.
- The integrated rear shock looks super slick.
Cons of the Scott Spark RC
- It’s not cheap.
- 120mm travel may not be enough for really rough trails.
- This is definitely a specialized bike, which isn’t what everyone needs.
Who Should Buy the Scott Spark RC?
The Scott Spark RC is for racers and other performance-oriented folks. If you’re chasing XC podiums or setting personal records, the Scott Spark is a great choice. Going the distance and going for speed are what this bike is all about.
If you’re cruising local trails or hitting rougher singletrack, the Spark is likely more specialized than you need or want. A great alternative is the less race-oriented aluminum Scott Spark, which comes in at $3,200.
Where to Buy the Scott Spark RC
- At your local bike shop
- Contender Bicycles
- Brands Cycle and Fitness
Canyon Spectral 29 - Best Trail Bike
The Canyon Spectral 29 is my top pick for an all-around trail bike. With 160mm of suspension travel and aggressive trail geometry, this bike is built for taming technical trails while staying efficient on the climbs.
The base aluminum frame version of the Spectral costs $2,899. For this high-quality of a frame and the great component selection included, that’s an amazing deal for a capable trail bike.
The Spectral is also available with 27.5” wheels for a more nimble, playful bike that you can throw about on the trail.
Canyon Spectral 29 Specifications
What Sets this Bike Apart?
It’s hard to find a bike with this much capability packed in under $3,000. Long and slack geometry combined with big suspension travel make this bike awesome for technical trails.
The Spectral offers a playful, easy-to-control ride while staying stable on rough sections. This really is a great bike to do it all.
If you’ve got more money to spend, Canyon offers Spectral trail bikes with upgraded components or a carbon fiber frame. The highest-spec’d bike in the line comes in at $6,000.
Pros of the Canyon Spectral 29
- 160mm front and 150mm rear travel is huge for a trail bike and soaks up hard hits
- Slack 64-degree head tube angle makes this bike stable on big descents.
- Aluminum frame is robust and bomb-proof.
Cons of the Canyon Spectral 29
- At 35 lbs, this isn’t the lightest bike around.
- The Spectral climbs well for a big-travel trail bike, but it’s no xc climbing machine.
- Canyon can only be purchased online, so you can’t try before you buy.
Who Should Buy the Canyon Spectral 29?
If you are looking for a capable all-around trail bike without breaking the bank, the Canyon Spectral 29 is a great option for you.
If you need the lightest, quickest bike on the market, you’ll probably want something closer to the cross country end of the spectrum.
Where to Buy the Canyon Spectral 29
- Canyon only sells direct on their website
Rocky Mountain Growler 50 - Best Trail Hardtail
The Rocky Mountain Growler 50 exists to prove that you don’t need rear suspension to ride technical trails. Long and slack geometry and ample front suspension travel keep this bike stable and you in control on rough descents.
It’s no cross country climbing machine, but the steep seat tube angle keeps you in a good riding position and hardtail design makes sure all your power gets to the ground.
The Growler 50 costs $2,199, and lower models are available with less suspension for less money.
Rocky Mountain Growler 50 Specifications
What Sets this Bike Apart?
The RockShox Gold RL fork with 150mm travel is the highlight of the component spec. This is a ton of travel for a hardtail bike and helps make this bike a real tail-taming machine.
Of any hardtail on the market, this is the one that clearly is built to ride hard and get rowdy. Long and slack geometry make it stable descending fast and reliable components keep you coming for more.
Pros of the Rocky Mountain Growler 50
- Massive 29x2.6” tires provide awesome grip and roll over anything.
- Geometry is long and slack for downhill stability.
- The bomber build kit is durable and reliable.
Cons of the Rocky Mountain Growler 50
- It’s heavy for a hardtail.
- Not the most nimble of steerers.
Who Should Buy the Rocky Mountain Growler 50?
If you want to tackle rough trails and your budget limits you from getting a bike with rear suspension, or if you just love the idea of riding hard on a hardtail, the Growler is a great pick.
You can find lighter hardtails with better climbing geometry, but this bike is meant to ride hard core.
Where to Buy the Rocky Mountain Growler 50
Kona Process X CR - Best Enduro Bike
The Kona Process X CR is an enduro bike that will take you down the roughest trails around while still pedaling well to the top of the hill. 170mm of comfy front travel let this bike swallow big hits and roll over the chatter like it’s nothing.
At $5,000, this is definitely a high-end enduro mountain bike. There are many other great options in the Kona Process line that give you outstanding performance at a lower price point. The Process 153 is a solid option at $3,400.
Kona Process X CR Specifications
What Sets this Bike Apart?
Kona has long been known for leading the way when it comes to bike geometry for aggressive trail riding, and the Process is no different.
The Process is built tough and modern geometry makes it ready to handle anything with confidence. A high-end carbon fiber frame keeps this bike light for an enduro bike, so it’s not a beast to haul uphill.
Pros of the Kona Process X CR
- 170mm front and 162mm rear travel swallow big hits and flatten rough terrain.
- Outstanding geometry for enduro riding.
- Super sturdy carbon frame is relatively light and insanely stiff.
Cons of the Kona Process X CR
- This is not a cheap bike by any means.
- While the Process is a good climber for an enduro bike, it won’t speed up big hills.
Who Should Buy the Rocky Kona Process X CR?
If you are looking to ride the roughest of trails at ridiculous speed, but still be able to get to the top comfortably, the Process X CR is an awesome choice. It’s purpose-built for demanding enduro riders.
Where to Buy the Kona Process X CR
- Find your local Kona Dealer
Intense M29 - Best Downhill Bike
The Intense M29 is a beast of a bike with a massive 208mm of suspension travel that flattens terrain. This bike was designed for the most demanding of downhill riding.
Coil rear suspension and downhill-specialized geometry make this bike ready for huge drops and the most demanding of technical trails.
Intense M29 Specifications
What Sets this Bike Apart?
The pro version of the bike was designed for world cup downhill racers, so you can be sure this bike will take whatever you throw at it.
This bike is built to endure the most brutal and challenging of downhill terrain. With huge suspension travel and aggressive geometry, you’ll feel confident riding hard and fast.
Pros of the Intense M29
- The M29 has perfect geometry for downhill riding.
- Massive suspension travel will soak up anything in your path.
- Carbon frame keeps it from being overly heavy.
Cons of the Intense M29
- This is a very specialized bike so look elsewhere if you need versatility.
- Don’t expect to climb on this bike; it’s definitely meant for downhill only.
Who Should Buy the Intense M29?
If you’re getting into downhill racing and want the meanest gravity-fed machine available, this is a good bet.
Where to Buy the Intense M29
Things to Consider When Choosing a Mountain Bike
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for finding the best mountain bike. You need to consider your personal needs in a mountain bike.
There are many factors that play into mountain bike design and that will influence your choice. Read on to see some of the aspects you should consider when shopping for your bike.
What Style of Riding Do You Do?
Before deciding which bike to buy, you need to determine what style of riding you do most often. Long distance cross country riding, casual laps at the local bike park, and aggressive downhill biking have very different demands on you and your bike.
Riding style will determine the geometry, suspension design, and component selection of mountain bikes, so knowing your riding style and the type of trails you ride will help narrow down your choices.
Should You Buy a Hardtail or Full Suspension Bike?
One of the first choices you’ll encounter when shopping for a new mountain bike is whether to get a hardtail or full suspension bike. Your choice will come down primarily to your budget and riding style.
Hardtail bikes have a suspension fork that absorbs bumps and shocks at the front wheel, but the rear wheel is rigidly mounted to the frame. These bikes are lightweight and very efficient for pedaling over flat or uphill terrain.
Hardtails are also simpler mechanically since they don’t have the shock and pivot bearings required for rear suspension. This easier maintenance and reliability is a major draw for some people.
Full suspension bikes have the addition of shock-absorbing suspension for the rear wheel. This makes them significantly more comfortable and capable over rocky trails.
Full suspension mountain bikes are typically much better on rough descents, while the added weight ands squish sacrifice some pedaling efficiency.
If you are sticking to smoother trails and fire roads, a hardtail may be just what you need. For tackling rougher trails at speed, a full suspension bike might be the best choice, though there are people who ride aggressive trails on hard-core hardtails built for rowdy terrain.
Hardtails are much less expensive than their full-suspension counterparts, so if you’re limited on budget, a hardtail mountain bike is often a great choice.
While you may be able to afford an entry-level full suspension bike, for the same price you could buy a high-end hardtail with much better components. Unless you’re able to spend the money for a decent full suspension, a higher quality hardtail will likely give you a better experience on the trail.
What Frame Material Should You Pick?
Frame material is one of the most-debated aspects of mountain bike design. From affordable aluminum to luxury titanium, your frame material can have a big impact on ride quality—and on your wallet.
Aluminum is by far the most common frame material available. The main reason for this is that it’s the least expensive. Aluminum makes a great balance between weight, strength, and cost.
Bike manufacturers have invested a lot into refining aluminum frame-building technology, so modern aluminum frames are very high-performing.
Unless you need the absolute lightest weight or specifically want a steel or titanium bike, it’s hard to go wrong with a high-quality aluminum frame.
Carbon fiber is a high-end, high-performance material. Developed for aerospace applications, this composite material is lighter, stiffer, and stronger than metals.
Mountain bikes made from carbon fiber are lightweight, responsive, and ideal for putting down the fastest times possible.
Steel is the most traditional bike frame material. Steel is the heaviest material, but it is very durable and many people love the springy ride quality.
Steel has a bit of a cult following, and you’ll likely hear the phrase “steel is real” from steel frame enthusiasts describing the forgiving ride and legendary durability of steel frames.
Nowadays steel is most often used on long distance touring and bikepacking bikes, but you can find some great steel trail hardtails like the hard-charging Marin El Roy.
Titanium bikes are ridiculously expensive, stunningly beautiful, and have apocalypse-ready durability. Most main-stream manufacturers don’t build titanium frames, so you’ll have to look to smaller, more specialized frame builders.
In my opinion there isn’t much good reason to get a titanium bike unless you love the aesthetic and want to have the raddest bike on the trail. I’ve got to admit, they do look amazing.
Mountain Bike Wheel Size
The size of wheels on your bike is easy to overlook, but it makes a massive difference to handling and ride feel. Modern bikes are equipped with either 27.5” or 29” wheels.
27.5” wheels can give you nimble, playful handling and are easier to steer through technical sections of trail. Many bikes designed around 27.5” wheels nowadays also give room for bigger, grippier tires.
29” wheels are all about efficiency and smooth rolling. Because of their larger diameter, they roll over bumps in the trail much better than smaller wheels and can feel faster and smoother.
Wheel size is not one-size-fits-all. Smaller riders can find 29ers cumbersome and difficult to control, while they may be just right for a taller rider. If you’re on the shorter side and are looking for quick, easy handling, consider picking a 27.5” wheel.
How Much Suspension Do You Need?
Mountain bikes are often classified by the amount of suspension travel they have: how far their front and rear suspension can compress to absorb shock.
Mountain bikes typically have suspension travel ranging between 100mm and 200mm. Suspension helps soak up bumps and hits in the trail, but more suspension typically makes a bike less efficient when pedaling, so you need to know what your priority it.
Less suspension travel means a mountain bike is more efficient while climbing and pedaling over flat terrain. Bikes with less suspension won’t be as good at handling rough, rocky trails.
Bikes with long suspension travel to great at absorbing big drops and shock from rough, technical trails. You definitely sacrifice pedaling efficiency though.
As a general rule, more suspension means a more downhill-oriented bike and less suspension means a more uphill and distance-oriented bike.
What’s Your Budget?
The biggest limiting factor when picking a new mountain bike will be your budget. Mountain bikes range widely in cost, from under $500 to over $10,000, so you need to have an idea of your budget to narrow down your search.
It’s also worth remembering that if you are working with a limited budget, buying a used bike will definitely get you better bang for your buck.
Here is a quick breakdown of what you can expect in different price ranges.
Mountain Bikes Under $500
For under $500 you can get a mountain bike that works to get you out on trails, but don’t expect much in terms of performance and durability. To hit such a low price, manufacturers have to make a lot of compromises in terms of frame quality and build components.
I really would recommend passing bikes in this price range and saving up for something closer to $1000. A cheap mountain bike can work okay for local bike trails, but you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated trying to progress your skills on trails.
Mountain Bikes Under $1000
Mountain bikes around $1000 are considered entry level bikes. As you get closer to this price you start adding more modern features and components like 1x drive trains, hydraulic disc brakes, and adjustable suspension forks.
At these lower prices, each increase in cost gets you a lot of improvement in performance. Mountain bikes closer to $1000 dollars will ride far differently from cheaper bikes and give more room for your skills to progress.
Mountain Bikes Under $2000
For $1000-$2000 you can start to get a really capable bike with more progressive frame geometry and higher-level components.
In this range you can find hardtail trail bikes suited for rougher trails. You can also get lightweight carbon hardtail xc bikes built for speed and efficiency.
It’s possible to find full suspension bikes for under $2000, but they will be compromised in quality and component selection. You’ll definitely be better served by a high-end hardtail mountain bike in this price range.
Mountain Bikes Under $3000
Somewhere around $2000-$2500 is the magic cutoff where you can find high quality full suspension mountain bikes. You’ll be limited to aluminum frames if you want rear suspension, but at this price range aluminum frames are well designed, lightweight, and tough.
This is also the price where you can find many elite carbon fiber hardtails. It’s interesting to note that the high end of the price spectrum for hardtails is similar to the low end for full suspension mountain bikes.
Mountian Bikes Under $5000
Many people consider $3000-$5000 the sweet spot for trail bikes. You definitely don’t have to spend this much to get a good bike, but if you do you’ll have a very capable machine that takes you where you want to go on the trial.
As you get closer to $5000, you’ll see carbon fiber frames and top-of-the line components.
Mountain Bikes Over $5000
The sky is the limit when shopping for a mountain bike. Over $5000 you’ll be looking mostly at carbon fiber full suspension bikes. Increases in price get you things like electronic shifting, more powerful brakes, and lighter weight components.
Types Of Mountain Bikes
It’s important to understand the difference between the different types of mountain bikes. From speedy, lightweight xc bikes to burly, hard-charging downhill bikes, there is a huge range to choose from.
What Are Cross Country Bikes?
Also known as xc bikes, these bikes are designed for racing. Cross country bikes can be hardtails or full suspension with up to 130mm of travel. They maximize pedaling efficiency and minimize weight for uphill speed but aren’t as good for descending rough trails.
What Are Trail Bikes?
Trail bikes are designed to be great all-rounders that generally have 130-160mm of suspension travel. They are designed with balanced geometry to blend uphill and downhill performance. If you want a bike that can do it all, a trail bike is your best bet.
Not all hardtails are just cross country efficiency machines. In recent years many manufactures have developed hard-core trail hardtails designed with longer-travel forks and long and slack geometry to tackle tougher trails.
If you love the simplicity of a hardtail but want to ride harder downhill, an aggressive hardtail trial bike is a great choice.
What Are Enduro Bikes?
Enduro bikes are built to rip on the downhills while still being possible to pedal back to the top. They have long and slack geometry and 160-180mm of suspension travel to give you the confidence to attack aggressive descents.
Enduro bikes’ weight and suspension make climbing harder, but they incorporate low gears to help you winch your way up hills.
What Are Downhill Bikes?
Downhill bikes are at the opposite end of the spectrum from xc bikes. With around 200mm of travel, these are purpose-built gravity-powered machines for bombing down the gnarliest trails you can find.
Don’t expect a nice ride back to the top though. With all that suspension travel and the weight that comes with it, these bikes are meant for downhill only. They have pedals, but that’s mostly just to help you get extra speed going down.
What Are Electric Mountain Bikes?
Electric-powered mountain bikes, which supplement your strength with a battery and motor, have been booming in popularity. They let you ride faster and farther than ever. If you hate riding uphill, an electric bike can make it a breeze.
Electric bikes are heavier, less maneuverable, and much more expensive than their human-powered counterparts. They also are not allowed on many mountain biking trails.
About THE AUTHOR
I love mountain biking and live in Salt Lake City: a central hub for the MTB community. I started biking four years ago when a series of injuries put me out of commission for trail running. While biking started as cross-training, I fell in love with the sport. I mainly enjoy using my bike as a tool for exploration, I've done 50-mile all-day epic rides in the mountains and have been to some amazing places on my bike.Read More About Jakob Thygerson