There is no doubt that trail bikes are the best option for the majority of the mountain bike population. That said, terms that subcategorize the trail mountain bike can be confusing. Short-travel, mid-travel, hardtail are only a few of the tricky labels assigned to trail bikes. We are here to help you find the very best bike for your riding style and budget. A dozen testers spent one year hammering an enormous range of trail bikes thousands upon thousands of miles in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We pushed them beyond their limits to gain a thorough understanding of each bike's core characteristics as well as important subtleties. If these bikes don't seem rowdy enough, you might be interested in our review of gnar-smashing Enduro bikes. Female rider? Want to learn whether or not a women's bike is right for you? Check out our women's trail bike review.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Quiver Killer for Smaller Bumps
Yeti SB5.5 X01 Eagle 2017
Hard-charging downhill performance
Extremely calm over small bumps
Rear end harsh on bigger hits
The Yeti SB5.5 is a hard-charging, aggressive trail bike for those who live for rough terrain. This aggressive, 29-inch machine can ascend technical terrain with impressive composure. The bike's climbing abilities are impressive, and it can ascend technical pitches with authority. Once aimed downhill, the SB5.5 keeps building speed and will not be denied by roots, rocks or deep bomb holes. Wagon wheels, aggressive geometry, and 140mm of Switch Infinity suspension is a recipe for fun. This trail smasher occupies the appealing space between an aggressive trail bike and enduro rig. Because of the stable and hard-charging nature, the SB5.5 lacks a playful attitude. It prefers to be driven at high, ground-shaking, speeds.
Read Review: Yeti SB5.5 2017
The SB5.5 and Hightower LT are both incredibly capable bikes. It's really hard to choose between the two. See our thoughts in the Yeti SB5.5 vs. Santa Cruz Hightower LT discussion below.
Best Quiver Killer for Bigger Hits
Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
Stands up to bigger impacts
Not quite as aggressive as pure enduro bikes
Slack seat tube angle
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a well-rounded enduro bike that beautifully balances climbing abilities and descending skills. This 150mm travel 29er feels more like a long-legged aggressive trail bike compared to a full-blown long and low enduro race bike. The geometry put riders in an effective and comfortable climbing position despite a slack seat tube angle. A solid pedal platform makes for a remarkably efficient uphill experience. When pointed downhill, the Hightower LT is confident and responsive. If the going gets super-rad, this bike absorbs big hits with impressive composure. The Hightower LT is a great daily driver for that rider who wants to ride an enormous range of terrain. This high-end performance doesn't come cheap. Our XE test bike retails for $5,699.
Read Review: Santa Cruz Hightower LT XE 2018
Best Playful/Fun-loving Trail Bike
Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018
The Ibis Ripley LS is an extremely playful 120mm trail mountain bike that is a prime example of a fun-loving, modern, 29er. This bike attacks the trail with surgical precision and boatloads of traction. Handling is sharp and requires minimal amounts of body language. Climbing abilities are respectable but really shine on loose or technical climbs where the meaty 2.6-inch tires pay dividends. Our $4,000 Ripley LS NX is certainly on the spendy side of the spectrum considering that it is outfitted with a SRAM NX drivetrain and SRAM Level brakes. That said, there is no doubt that this bike provides a decisively high-end ride that will have you smiling ear to ear.
Climbing just mediocre
Relatively easy to overwhelm on downhill
Read Review: Ibis Ripley LS NX 2018
Best Light Duty Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
The third generation, Santa Cruz Tallboy is a fun-loving and zippy short-travel bike. This shredder has the geometry and attitude to get more aggressive than its 110mm of rear wheel travel suggests. Not only does it have a frolicsome and lively personality, this wagon wheeled speed machine is a swift and efficient climber. Even lovers of longer travel bikes can appreciate the downhill performance provided by the dialed frame design on green to blue terrain. The downside? The Tallboy D that we tested featured some less than desirable components. Higher cost builds address this issue. Regardless, this is an excellent baseline bicycle to upgrade components on over time.
Rides more aggressive than travel suggests
Very effective climber
Limited to certain terrain
Nicer builds get expensive in a hurry
Read Review: Santa Cruz Tallboy D 29 2017
Best All-Around Trail Bike
Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018
The Santa Cruz Hightower is an aggressive and versatile mid-travel trail bike that is confident dabbling in some enduro-grade terrain. This hard-nosed 29er can feed it down gnarly terrain with a sense of confidence and attitude. The Hightower is also comfortable working its way back up the hill thanks to a calm pedaling platform and neutral rider position. There is no mistaking this bike for a shorter-travel rig as its heft becomes apparent at low speeds and through uphill corners. The Hightower feels right at home on an extremely wide range of terrain. This bike is a great companion for the rider who likes to ride a bit of everything.
Very capable descender
Sluggish slow speed handling
Longer wheelbase can be tricky on switchbacks
Read Review: Santa Cruz Hightower C R 2018
Best All-Around Trail Bike 2
Transition Smuggler GX 2018
The Transition Smuggler is a 120mm travel 29er with an aggressive attitude. This aluminum shredder charges like a bike with significantly more travel. A supple rear end and slack geometry make this ripper feel fantastic at speed. On the ascent, the Smuggler puts riders in an excellent position directly on top of the cranks. As with a few Horst Link syle suspension designs we have tested, this bike benefits greatly from the use of the shock's climb switch. A GX Eagle 1x12 drivetrain allows for a comfortable climbing gear.
Far more capable than travel numbers suggest
GX Eagle drivetrain
Relies on climb switch
Read Review: Transition Smuggler GX 2018
Best Value All-Around Trail Bike
Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential 2017
The Commencal Meta TR 4.2 is a quick-witted trail mountain bike with dialed geometry. The slack angles on this bike make it clear that it is a downsized version of its big brother, the Meta AM. The Meta TR is a slick climber that blends efficiency with excellent handling skills. Despite its weight, this bike can hustle up hills swiftly, leaving the rider with plenty of energy. When it is time to aim downhill, the TR operates with surgical precision. Slicing and dicing your way down the trail is sure to put an enormous grin on your face. Enduro-influenced geometry makes this bike very comfortable at speed. Make no mistake, the Meta TR has only 130mm of travel and attacking super-gnar is not its strong suit.
Sharp handling skills
Enduro-esque geometry on a trail bike
Particularly brutal on square edge hits
Read Review: Commencal Meta TR 4.2 Essential
Best Value Aggressive Trail Bike
Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 2018
The Canyon Spectral provides a well-rounded ride on a wide range of terrain. This 140mm travel aggressive trail bike is capable charging down burly trails as well as fast and flowy ones. A meaty 2.6-inch Maxxis Minion paired with a stout 150mm RockShox Pike fork makes for a confident front end with excellent traction. Climbing positioning is upright and comfortable. The Spectral performs well with or without the use of the shock's climb switch. Most importantly, the Spectral AL 6.0 that we tested sells for an eye-popping $2399 and features excellent components.
Excellent descending abilities
Amazing component specification
Awkward and tall head tube
Poor rear hub engagement
Read Review: Canyon Spectral AL 6.0 2018
Best Women's Trail Bike
Juliana Furtado R 2018
The Juliana Furtado is a lively mid-travel trail mountian bike that boasts nimble and playful manners. The balanced and comfortable cockpit sets riders up in an effective position to grind uphill. The stiff gearing but calm suspension make for quick and efficient climbing. When aimed downhill, this playful 27.5-inch bike bounces and boosts its way down the trail. This bike responds well with minimal rider input. The Furtado has a defined speed limit on rougher terrain where it gets overwhelmed. This high-end performance doesn't come cheap. Juliana only makes carbon fiber frames and our test Furtado R retails for $3,899. The Furtado shares a frame with the Santa Cruz 5010.
Well-rounded trail bike performance
Playful trail manners
Carbon fiber only
Read Review: Juliana Furtado R 2018
Best Hardtail Trail Bike
Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
The Specialized Fuse 6Fattie is a well-balanced mountain bike. This bike descends with confidence, climbs swiftly and offers absurd levels of traction. The Fuse is built around spot-on geometry that makes for a comfortable ride on a wide range of trails. The 3.0-inch tires relieve some of the harsh nature of a hardtail mountain bike and offer unbelievable traction when climbing. Gravel, sand, hardpack — these wide tires hook up like velcro. It's tiring to roll velcro uphill all day. This bike is best suited for areas with rolling terrain that lacks 45 minute or longer climbs. The Fuse is a beautifully simple mountain bike that can be appreciated by riders of varying experience levels.
Plus tires take the edge off the harshness
Wide rubber creates drag
Fun on limited terrain
Read Review: Specialized Fuse Expert 6Fattie 2017
Analysis and Test Results
After testing and racing groups of similar trail bikes head-to-head, we cross-examined the lot of them to bring you this all-encompassing trail mountain bike review. Teams of testers rode two dozen trail bikes extensively over a wide range of terrain and ranked them in terms of fun factor (worth 25%), downhill performance (35%), uphill performance (35%), and ease of maintenance (5%). We compare the best of the best below. Read about our testing methods and time trial protocols in our How We Test Article. The bikes' intended applications, build qualities, and prices range widely. We've found that our favorite bikes shine even with less than ideal components and the best are appropriate for a wide range of terrain.
Thomas Aquinas once said, "Fun factor is critical when evaluating a mountain bike." Okay. Maybe he didn't, but we did. That's why fun factor is worth hefty 25% of the final score.
The Ibis Ripley LS is the epitome of a modern, zippy and fun-loving trail bike. Everything about piloting this 120mm fluorescent fun-wagon is a blast. Take some sharp handling and a quick-witted attitude, mix in a copious amount of traction. The result? Rally car handling that instills confidence to change lines in a hurry and surgically pick your way down trails. The Ripley is happy seeking out boosts and trail-side shenanigans. There are plenty of overused, cringe-inducing, terms used to describe trail bikes in 2017. Phrases like poppy, snappy, and flickable are hurled around all willy-nilly. That said, the Ripley LS is a poppy, snappy and flickable bike that truly doesn't feel like a 29er. The only time the Ripley's fun-level plummets is when we blew past its confidence threshold on rowdy descents. It's a sudden, soul-rattling shift.
The Santa Cruz Tallboy likes to party, and it will not be denied. Riding the Tallboy is a hootin' and hollerin' good time. This is another short-travel 29er that has the ability to alter the opinion of the 29er naysayers whose criticisms get quieter every month. Fine-tuned geometry encourages playfulness on the trail in the form of boosts and manuals. While the Tallboy does not possess the pure playful manners and supreme cornering abilities of the Ripley, its an incredibly capable descender. This bike can and will comfortably tackle more aggressive trails that may seem to be above its short-travel pay grade. A bonus for those of us who don't live for the climb, the Tallboy climbs comfortably and painlessly. Less pain = more fun.
The Commencal Meta TR 4.2 is an extremely fun mid-travel bike with a nice balance of capability and a ninja-like feel. Steering is direct and the 27.5-inch wheels allow this bike change directions in a hurry. The semi-aggressive geometry makes this bike feel like a mini-enduro bike while retaining very sharp handling. Navigating rock gardens is a blast as this bike encourages riders to use the maneuverability and quickness to hop in and out of lines. When the going gets rough, this 130mm bike can stand up and feels confident. Rougher black-diamond grade terrain is far more pleasant aboard this stealthy shredder compared to the shorter-travel Ibis Ripley or Santa Cruz Tallboy.
The Canyon Spectral is an impressively versatile bike given its 140mm of travel. Here at OutdoorGearLab, we find versatility to be very fun. The Spectral has a big-bike look but its climbing abilities remain very respectable. This rig is an efficient climber with a calm pedal platform. Once at the top of the hill, downhill performance is incredibly fun and user-friendly. While the Spectral is not fun on double black diamond terrain, it is a blast up to that point. This Canyon is significantly more capable than the Commencal Meta TR, Ibis Ripley, and Santa Cruz Tallboy. That said, it sacrifices much of the fun-loving, zippy, handling of the shorter-travel bikes.
Some of the harder charging options are very fun in their own way. The Santa Cruz Hightower LT and Yeti SB5.5 are both very fun options for those who value aggressive downhill performance. No, they do not climb as well or handle as crisply at slower speeds. That said, when being pushed hard down rough terrain, they are tremendously fun bikes. The Santa Cruz Hightower (non-LT) takes a very well-rounded approach that blends trail bike efficiency with an impressively aggressive attitude for a 135mm bike. The Specialized Fuse is a versatile hardtail with fun trail manners. The most fun part of this bike is not having to deal with full-suspension levels of maintenance.
Shredding downhill is undoubtedly the lynchpin of a fun mountain bike experience. While all of the bikes in this review are categorized as trail bikes, some are more fun descenders than others. Downhill performance is worth 30% of the final score.
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT is a long-legged 29er that likes to get rad. The LT stands for long travel as this bike is the beefed up version of the original Hightower. This rig shares many ride characteristics with the Yeti 5.5. Where the Yeti performs extremely well on small/midsize hits, the Hightower LT handles bigger impacts with more confidence. Santa Cruz built this bike with more conservative geometry compared to a pure enduro race bike. As a result, it requires a little more finesse on double black diamond terrain. Hammering the pedals out of corners is extremely effective thanks to a dialed suspension platform. The LT handles better at slow speeds compared to the Yeti 5.5.
The Yeti SB5.5 hits far harder than the 140mm rear wheel travel suggests. A 160mm Fox 36 fork paired with a 29x2.5-inch Maxxis Minion DHF make for an extremely mean and burly front end. This bike makes its money when carrying a head of steam and mowing down small to mid-size rock gardens. Steering through high-speed rock gardens is incredibly confident. The rear suspension is impressively calm over smaller braking bumps and rocks but stiffens up towards the end of the stroke. Bigger hits are jarring on the SB5.5 compared to the more capable Santa Cruz Hightower LT. Handling improves when the speedometer rises. No, this bike isn't particularly playful or nimble, but it shreds enduro-grade terrain very well. While this bike slots into the trail category, it certainly edges towards an enduro bike.
The Rocky Mountain Altitude is a balanced descender that is confident on a wide range of terrain. 27.5-inch wheels and balanced geometry allow this bike to react well at any speed. This user-friendly bike doesn't need to be driven hard to activate its talents like the Hightower LT or Yeti SB5.5. High-speed trials with fewer ultra-steep rock gardens are a blast. This bike can get into trouble on harder black-diamond or double black diamond terrain.
The Santa Cruz Hightower is an extremely capable descender amongst mid-travel trail mountain bikes. It places riders in a confident position to work down a steep section of trail and provides excellent stability at speed. It is more difficult to find the Hightower's speed limit compared to the Commencal Meta TR or Specialized Stumpjumper. The suspension keeps the rear end calm and feels excellent on bigger impacts. Our downhill test track featured a couple relatively harsh G-Outs and drops, the Hightower ate it up. There is no-question this bike rides more aggressively than 135mm of travel suggests. Testers are confident taking this bike down the steepest and burliest local trail that often demands an enduro bike.
The Santa Cruz Bronson slides nicely into that not-quite-enduro and not-quite-trail category. This 27.5-inch bike possesses similar downhill manners to the Rocky Mountain Altitude but requires a more aggressive rider to tap into its full potential. The Bronson is also a bit harder to rattle on black-diamond terrain. The Commencal Meta TR is a zippy and quick handling performer on the descent. While this 130mm bike isn't as comfortable straight lining rock gardens, it still feels pretty aggressive and stable. Commencal built the TR with near enduro geometry on a mid-travel platform. The result is a high level of stability at speed while retaining a nimble feel.
While grinding uphill may not be as adrenaline-inducing as charging a descent, it is equally important in a trail mountain bike. Being able to comfortably ascend a long climb is critical in choosing a bike. Climbing performance is worth 30% of the final score. It is no surprise the short travel bikes dominate this category. It is worth noting that some of the longer travel options provide exceptional uphill skills especially when you consider how aggressively they attack the descent.
The Ibis Ripley is a fantastic option thanks to its tremendous levels of traction. The wide 2.6-inch tires provide a nice wide footprint that allows for exceptional performance over loose terrain. Ascending technical terrain is pleasant and effective with a planted and confident feel. Just get a portion of the monstrous amount of rubber onto a rock and the Ripley crawls right up and over. The DW-Link suspension is calm and remains fairly active. Climbing positioning is upright with riders being positioned directly on top of the bottom bracket. While this bike doesn't offer the most outright pedaling efficiency, it is a clear favorite on technical terrain.
The Santa Cruz Tallboy is an extremely effective climber. Riders are placed in a comfortable and upright position right on top of the cranks. Seated climbing efficiency is impressive and standing climbing loads are calm with a very minimal amount of pedal bob. There is no need to use the climb switch on this 110mm bike. It rides fairly high in its travel to help keep your pedals from smashing rocks or obstacles. While there is no doubt the Tallboy descends like a slightly bigger bike, uphill abilities are exactly what you expect from a short-travel 29er. Uphill handling is easy and despite the relative heft of our 31-pound aluminum test bike, this rig felt especially light-footed.
The Yeti SB4.5 has an extremely feathery feel and efficient approach. This short-travel trail mountain bike leans towards the cross country side of the spectrum. Sitting and spinning uphill is calm and relaxing. Riders sit directly over the crankset allowing for maximum power transfer. The Switch Infinity suspension platform is calm with almost no pedal bob whether standing or seated. Every pedal stroke is productive and is effectively transmitted to the wheels. The light 30:46 gearing on our test bike only contributes to the relaxed climbing motion without demanding too much output. The Yeti SB4.5 is more of an efficient climber than the Santa Cruz Tallboy, but it is jostled in the rocks even on the uphills and can't remotely match the Tallboy's downhill talents.
The Specialized Camber is an excellent climber, with its cross-country oriented geometry really paying dividends. The steep 68.5-degree head angle and 76.5-degree seat tube angle puts riders right on top of the cranks. These steep angles make for responsive handling and the shorter wheelbase allows it to navigate uphill switchbacks with ease. The front wheel stays planted and doesn't want to wander. Our test bike featured a 2x10 drivetrain and provided a super-light granny gear. Like the Yeti SB4.5 the Camber can pinball through technical climbs.
The Juliana Furtado is a women's trail mountain bike with a comfortable climbing motion. Modern trail bike geometry creates a balanced and efficient uphill position. Sharp handling makes navigating uphill switchbacks or technical sections of trail reasonably easy. The Specialized Fuse 27.5+ is also a sure-footed climber. While the pure efficiency isn't outstanding for a hardtail, traction really sets it apart. The huge contact patch of the 3-inch tires hooks up well over a wide range of soil types.
Yeti SB5.5 vs. Santa Cruz Hightower LT
The Yeti SB5.5 dominated our 2017 enduro and trail testing cycles. Then, Santa Cruz debuted the Hightower LT, introducing even more stiff competition to the long travel 29er field. These two rigs are among our very favorites. These bikes both offer fast rolling and rock smashing 29er characteristics. As a result, they can tackle aggressive terrain with less rear wheel and fork travel than 27.5-inch bikes require. That's why we call these two bikes quiver killers for riders who value climbing skills and the ability to get good and rowdy on descents. We raced our 2017 SB5.5 and the 2018 Hightower LT head-to-head in a shootout.
The Santa Cruz Hightower LT can stand up to burlier terrain with more confidence than the Yeti SB5.5. The Santa Cruz remains more composed deep in its travel where the Yeti becomes harsh and feels shaken. The SB5.5 has superior small bump compliance and has a much calmer feel over small to medium size chunder. Initially, we preferred climbing with the firm pedal platform of the Santa Cruz. After extensive testing, we found the active suspension on the Yeti climb just as well or better than the Hightower LT. The SB5.5's more supple suspension allows for better climbing traction and the suspension motion seems to keep the bike moving forward over technical features where the Santa Cruz can get hung up. Bottom line, you can't go wrong with either of these bikes.
It is important to note the entry-level Hightower LT Carbon R is available for $3949 with serviceable components. The least expensive SB5.5 XT/SLX sells for $4999. A $1000 difference in entry-level builds is significant.
These two bikes virtually tied in our downhill time trials with the Santa Cruz having the slight edge. Our test course favors trail bikes with its variety of terrain and absence of sustained rough or steep sections.
Both bikes are excellent climbers. As you can see, the Yeti edged out the Santa Cruz on our ultra-rough and technical climb where the active suspension paid dividends.
Mountain bikes are expensive toys. They require a fair bit of maintenance to keep them running in top shape. It is best to refer to component product manuals for service schedules. That said, you should expect to service your bike regularly.
Full Suspension vs. Hardtail
There is no doubt that a full suspension trail mountain bike possesses performance advantages in every ride category. The one area where hardtail bikes have an advantage is that they don't require pivot/linkage maintenance. You should clean/regrease/torque your suspension pivots multiple times a year to prolong the life of your bearings. In addition, this will keep your bike running far more quietly.
Just like keeping up with regular car services, smaller, more frequent services can save you big bucks in the long term. Here's a quick and dirty primer:
Ease of Maintenance Ratings
Some bikes are more challenging to maintain than others. We ranked the ease of maintenance for the bikes in our test based on the following criteria:
Our fork and shock ease of maintenance rankings reflect the manufacturers recommended service intervals. According to owner manuals, Fox suspension items require less attention than RockShox. Local mechanics we spoke with stated they have to service Fox products more often than their intervals suggest.
It can be difficult to comment on fit specifics as it often boils down to personal preference. Some folks like to ride a slightly smaller frame for added maneuverability and confidence. Other people prefer a larger frame with a shorter stem for stability and extra space to move on the climbs.
Here is a list of bikes that have unusual fit characteristics:
The Ibis Ripley LS and Santa Cruz Tallboy are standouts in the short-travel category. These trail mountain bikes are ideal for the rider who doesn't feel the need to attack particularly rough or steep terrain. The Santa Cruz Hightower and Commencal Meta TR are fantastic mid-travel options. These bikes are fantastic for folks who want to ride a wide range of terrain. The Yeti SB5.5 and Santa Cruz Hightower LTare excellent long travel options. These bikes are best suited for riders who want to ride aggressive black-diamond terrain and don't mind sacrificing some climbing abilities.
Our bike-obsessed testers are racers, shop owners, mechanics, and writers. These folks spend their spare time banging out epic rides and exploring new trails. These noble riders put their time into energy into our timed benchmark testings and lay their bodies on the line to push our bikes to the limits. This is hard work, but most importantly, it is fun. We do it all of you.
Height and Weight: 6'1 and 190lbs, prefers extra large frame
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 165lbs, prefers large frames.
Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame
Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 170lbs, prefers medium frame
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 150lbs, prefers medium frame
Height and Weight: 6' and 185lbs, prefers large frame
Height and Weight: 5'10 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame for most brands
Height and Weight: 5'7 and 140lbs, prefers medium frame
Height and Weight: 5'6 and 130lbs, prefers medium frame
— Pat Donahue, Clark Tate, Joshua Hutchens, Cat Keenan, Mike Thomas, Paul Tindal, Curtis Smith, Kurt Gensheimer, Kate Blake, Otto Trebotich
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.