Three years ago, I nearly died doing this story. We needed a mountain biking spread, so I trekked into the wilderness completely out of shape, riding a low-end Huffy that I got for my 11th birthday. I happened to pick a week of 100-degree heat.

Three years ago, I nearly died doing this story.

We needed a mountain biking spread, so I trekked into the wilderness completely out of shape, riding a low-end Huffy that I got for my 11th birthday. I happened to pick a week of 100-degree heat.

This year was different: a much better bike, better weather and about a thousand bike miles under my belt. I mostly ride on city streets, but I again found off-road excursions a great way into places you can't drive and don't always have time to walk.

Ohio's growing network of bike trails runs across rivers, over rocks and into the deep, beautiful woods that dot our state and, in many ways, still define its character. Riding the four trails below, I discovered the awful, rutted hills of Great Seal (by far the toughest) and the gentle beauty of John Bryan (definitely the most fun).

Being no expert in the woods, I have to stop often to rest. I'm glad. When you're riding the four trails below, don't forget to do the same.

John Bryan State Park

Location: Yellow Springs

Distance from Columbus: 55 miles

Total miles: 9

Difficulty: Easy

Technical elements: Boardwalks, jumps, rollovers, short bridges

Web: joinomba.org

This beautiful state park offers some hills, a giant gorge and a few trails that will strain the quads. None of that treacherous topography plays a part in a mountain biking section that has become one of the most popular in the state.

It's almost completely flat - a very fun way to get your bearings off the asphalt. Each of the three trails that compose a giant loop can be tackled by beginners, one reason scores flock there for Fast Laps, a regular (and very friendly) time-trial series.

Starting from the kiosk near the parking lot, hit Power Line for an easy warm-up through forests and over a few creek crossings that dry up fairly quickly after rain. A few wooden rollovers keep things interesting, but alternate routes exist for each.

At the finish, catch your breath and continue onto Abracadabra, a slightly more advanced trail with tighter turns through trees and faster pacing. It's nothing too scary, and your reward is a stunning ride through a fragrant pine forest. Once on Great Scott, a third section that has an optional loop, you'll find a few moderate climbs, some slatted boardwalks and bigger triangle jumps.

The trail has easy outs after each section, and while never difficult, the loop gradually gets tighter, faster and more strenuous. There's also a skills park off of Abracadabra.

MoMBA

Location: Fairborn

Distance from Columbus: 62 miles

Total miles: 9

Difficulty: Intermediate

Technical elements: Boardwalks, bridges, jumps, rollovers, rock garden

Web: metroparks.org

During the past several years, no other Ohio organization has touched Dayton's Five Rivers MetroParks in providing a free, accessible introduction to outdoor adventure. Alongside a great backpacking trail and several paddling initiatives is the extensive mountain bike trail at Huffman Metro Park, just east of the Gem City.

Opened in September, MetroParks Mountain Biking Area offers a perfect progression from easy to advanced, allowing you to warm up before the stickiness.

From the trailhead, hit Creekside, which offers a few fun water crossings and a swooping, gentle downhill ride that results from minimal climbing (sweet!). Pick up Lower Stealth at point 22 for a slightly more challenging run through tight trees and a few technical elements.

At point 50, you can hit up the difficult Hawk's Lair loop, which is extremely rocky and very tight. If not, head north on Voodoo, a fast section with some jumps (alternates exist), and meet up with Twisted, which is flat but pretty tight in sections.

This trail offers great markings and numerous on-trail maps, so you should be able to pick a route that fits your skill and endurance levels. Constructing the system to meet International Mountain Bike Association sustainability standards means that the trail will be around for a good, long time.

Alum Creek State Park Phase 1

Location: Galena

Distance from Columbus: 20 miles

Total miles: 6

Difficulty: Intermediate

Technical elements: Boardwalks, bridges, rollovers, rock gardens

Web: combomtb.com

The sprawling, multifaceted state park north of town has something for everyone, including 14 miles of single-track mountain biking. Thank the Central Ohio Mountain Biking Organization, which built and maintains the system, for keeping up one of the best trails in the state.

Three separate trails exist around the reservoir: Phase 1 (six miles), Phase 2 (six miles) and a beginner loop (two miles). For those who have some practice and want to test their skills, warm up on the novice section, then head to Phase 1.

This trail starts slow, with a few ups, downs and a wide slated bridge. Be sure to follow the orange, numbered blazes, not the red ones for the emergency access trail. Around marker No. 5, you'll be introduced to the trail's recurring technical aspects: log rollovers, miniature rock gardens and substantial sections over gnarly tree roots.

Things get a bit tougher along the way, and keeping a comfortable, consistent pace is crucial to enjoy small climbs, gentle descents and frequent bridges that lie at the bottom of valleys. Within the final third, there's a fun boardwalk, a tough creek crossing and lots more roots.

Overall, the trail's great because it challenges intermediate riders but lets them emerge on top and relatively unscathed. Phase 2 is a different story.

Great Seal State Park

Location: Laurelville

Distance from Columbus: 50 miles

Total miles: 17

Difficulty: Very difficult

Technical elements: Rocky climbs, rollovers, steep descents

Web: ohiodnr.com

This park holds the most grueling hills I've ever tackled in Ohio with my bike. Not on my bike, mind you, but walking with my bike, nearly collapsing in exhaustion onto my handlebars.

From the west side of the Lick Run parking lot, things get tough early on Mt. Ives, which includes difficult treks through deep runoff channels pocked with roots, ruts and rocks. There's a steep ascent on Mt. Ives' east side and several others within this very hilly expanse.

Because brutal hills likely deter most traffic, many sections can be overgrown, the weeds and underbrush torturing brakes and chain rings. You'll also need to watch for giant piles of crap left behind by irresponsible horsemen who frequent these multiuse trails.

That said, the downhill runs are exhilarating - long, flowing sections where you just need to hold on, whoop and steer. You'll find several between points O and R. The Bunker Hill loop is a great intermediate trail through tight woods, and there's a sizable boulder garden in the northern section.

Word is that this system is a work in progress, as volunteers create more sustainable, enjoyable trails. Right now, though, only the strongest will survive.

Trail Tips

Map it out: Always print out a map and note the color of the trail blazes you're supposed to follow. Along the way, watch for waypoints to check progress.

Tune up: To survive tougher conditions, your bike might need extra care. Get a professional once-over that includes work on brakes, derailleurs, wheels and suspension.

Power supply: Things get hot out there, even in the shade. Bring plenty of water and high-energy snacks.

Get some gear: Always wear a helmet. To avoid blisters, try fingerless riding gloves. Pedal cages or clips work wonders on steeper climbs.

Check your alternatives: When you encounter technical or extreme elements like jumps or rollovers, look to the side. There's usually a route around them.

Stay focused: At first, forest riding can seem odd. Always focus on where you want to go - not on the objects you're trying to avoid.