I'm sure recommendations are always being asked, and I hate to be cliche in asking for advice on a new bike. Anyway, I'm considering getting into mountain biking and not quite sure what would be a proper entry level bike. I've got a road bike that I've just started riding regularly for the season again. But I'd also like to have a bike that can go places a road bike can't. I live in Illinois near the Mississippi River, so the majority of terrain is flat or hilly, but not rocky.
My main expectations of where I think I'll be riding are crushed limestone / gravel trails and dirt paths / in the woods. I don't think I'll ever do courses although I've never seen or tried them so I can't say for sure. I've been looking at Treks / Gary Fisher because I already ride one Trek and like it very much. I know other brands like Specialized, Raleigh, Fuji, and Giant a common as well. I didn't know if Diamond Back and GT made as quality bikes.
My favorite local bike shop is also a Trek, Gary Fisher, GT, and Schwinn dealer. I've been in other shops in my area but this one is by far the friendliest and I don't feel a disconnect with the workers. I haven't decided that I need a "Mountain Bike" necessarily, I've looked at Trek's other models like the 7000, Navigator 1.0, and Trek 720. I am trying to keep price in the lower end because I'll need two of whatever bike I get so I can ride with my wife. I know that the 7000 and 720 are more for a paved trail because the tires are 700c x 35, but that could probably be changed, although probably not quite to a 1.9" wide tire. The 7000 also doesn't have a front shock, which I didn't know how important that would be, nor do I know what good (for entry level) is either. Mountain bikes seem to have a lot more components than road bikes and so I don't know much about mountain bike hardware.
I've read across multiple forums about such-and-such bike sucks and to spend more for something nicer... I've mentioned my expected uses and don't think I need something over the top, just a good bike that can take me off the paved road. I'm kind of hoping that $400 would be the MSRP because I'd like to buy a pair of similar bikes.
Thanks in advance for your recommendations and advice!