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IMBA: Not Every Park Suitable For Mountain Biking, No Interests, Currently, For Trails in Wilderness Areas


Mountain biking the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. NPS photo.

Spend time poking around the International Mountain Bicycling Association’s website and you might start to wonder about the group’s thoughts regarding pedaling in proposed wilderness and officially designated wilderness. After all, head over to their “frequently asked questions’ and you’ll find the following position regarding “Wild Places.”

Are Bicycles Appropriate in Wild Places?

Yes, bicycling is a human-powered, low-impact, quiet form of travel compatible with wild places and the intent of the Wilderness Act. There are instances where bicycling may not be feasible or appropriate. Some trails in proposed Wilderness areas are too rugged or steep for our use. On some national trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, IMBA respects the prohibition of bicycles. In other cases, trails should be closed to all forms of recreation (hiking, bicycling, horse use, etc.) when sensitive plants, wildlife or weather-related seasonal conditions are present.

In light of IMBA’s desire to see more mountain biking opportunities in national parks and in seeing that more than a few national parks – such as Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains – have thousands and thousands of acres they treat as wilderness, but which are not officially designated wilderness – I decided some clarification was needed. So I contacted Mark Eller, IMBA’s communications director.

The bottom line, Mr. Eller assured me, was that IMBA has no designs on lobbying for bike trails into proposed wilderness in the parks and would probably support official wilderness designation of those landscapes.

“If we’re looking at an area where there are no existing bike trails, chances are very good we would support that wilderness designation,” he told me Friday. “We really just want to look at it on a case-by-case basis.”

That said, IMBA wouldn’t mind a change in the language pertaining to what type of equipment can be taken into a wilderness area. For instance, rather than the current prohibition against “mechanical” devices, Mr. Eller said his organization would prefer official wilderness and wilderness study areas be off-limits to “motorized” vehicles, something a mountain bike decidedly is not.

For now IMBA is not, however, lobbying for such a change.

“We’re willing to discuss it with our partners. But as far as wilderness goes, there’s no campaign to change that in wilderness right now,” said Mr. Eller.

Specifically regarding mountain bike access in the parks, the spokesman said that where the National Park Service believes mountain bike trails likely would be inappropriate, IMBA probably would not push to see biking trails. Yellowstone, he said, is one park where the organization “would not be pursuing a bike system.”

Overall, Mr. Eller said it’s important to the organization that biking be a good fit with a park.

“We don’t think that one size fits all works very well for us,” he said. “We work with the park staff and with local mountain bike advocates and look for areas that would be good opportunities to add mountain bike trails.”


Mountain bikes in national parks are totally inappropriate, other than on carriage roads and other wide and heavily used areas. If you want to see the environmental damage caused by large numbers of mountain bikes, simply go to Boulder, CO, where IMBAs headquarters are. Miles and miles of trails there are heavily eroded, extensively widened, muddied, and otherwise destroyed by mountain bikes. The hiking experience is degraded to the point that most people won't even hike on the trails that allow mountain bikes - bikes whizzing by are both scary and unappealing. I have several times seen older folks knocked over by mountain bikers. And, if you have 10 hikers spaced out on a 5 mile trail, chances are you might see one or two of them on your hike. But if you are hiking and have 10 bikers, it is sure that you will see every one of them.

There is no way that bikes should be allowed in National Parks!

Yeah you are so right! Hiking is such a better activity that we should discriminate against all other users, horses included. Give me a break! The image you create in your post above is so incorrect and based solely in Sierra Club religious dogma its sickening.

Boulder has the least amount of trail open to bikes of any area I have ridden. The trails in Boulder were laid out and designed poorly and that is why they are wide. Mountain bikers did not build theses trails but they have been repairing and rerouting them. In fact the Boulder area now has some trails that were rebuilt by IMBA and the new sections are great for running, hiking, and cycling.

You have seen elderly folks knocked over by cyclists, more than once? WOW! I have only once seen a cyclist hit a fellow cyclist head on and I have been riding for over 20 years. I have never even heard of a fellow cyclist tell me that they hit a hiker? We don't knock over hikers because we are very focused on staying upright on our bikes. Again this is a typical mantra of the Sierra Club to scare everyone.

Actually the impact of cyclists on a trail network will improve the condition of the trails because unlike the Sierra Club, or most other hiking groups, cyclists put time into the trail networks through hundreds of thousands of hours of stewardship each year.

The only correct quote in the post:
"And, if you have 10 hikers spaced out on a 5 mile trail, chances are you might see one or two of them on your hike. But if you are hiking and have 10 bikers, it is sure that you will see every one of them."
That's because its a shared use trail and we all have a right to ride there.

We have a overweight epidemic going on in this country and promoting cycling in National Parks will help expand the non-motorized use of the park system. You would think that would make the poster happy?

Enough dogma! More trails means better lives for all users! Stop pandering to the Sierra Club and be reasonable in your views since we all want the same thing, except I want to ride there.

The bottom line is that National Parks need to open areas to cycling. This holier than thou bias needs to go away as soon as possible.

To respond to the first poster, please note that mountain bikes have only recently been reintroduced to most Boulder trails -- thanks to the good work done by the Boulder MountainBike Alliance (BMA) -- and are still banned from many of Boulder's most popular trails.

Try a stroll on the Mesa trail and tell me if a no-bikes policy prevents trail widening and erosion. The truth is that all users have impacts, and that the shared-use trails that have been designed and built by the BMA (in cooperation with Boulder Open Space) are among the most popular -- and narrowest -- in the area. Also, please note that mountain biking is already allowed in 40 national parks at present, including parks with singletrack. I hope we see more parks following these successes!

I have worked at park where the vast majority of our trails were multi-use. Generally, we didn't have problems with biker/hiker conflicts. Most of our problems came out of horse/hiker conflicts that arose from horses being on hiking-only trails and spurs. Our biggest trouble with the bike trails were that after a large storm blew through, we had to go around and check all those trails for downed trees and remove them, instead of waiting for hikers/horse riders to report the damage to us, since the trees were quite the obstacle for bikers. This was a tremendous amount of effort expended on behalf of one specific group of visitors, and biking was the least popular of hiking, horseback riding, and we have to ask ourselves as managers if it is worth the effort. We could convert some trails and/or roads to bikes, but that would still be a huge undertaking.

That being said, most trails in Forest Service and BLM areas are already open to biking? What's wrong with the idea that bikes should be restricted in national parks? True, they aren't ATVs or snowmobiles, but if I'm hiking in the Smokies or through a meadow in Yosemite, I don't want to have to worry about a bike careening around a corner and running into my family.

@Mark E: NPT was recently criticized for using 'cut' to describe the building of bike trails instead of 'built'. You have used 'banned' to describe the prohibition of bikes on some Boulder-area trails. Why not 'prohibited' or describe the trails as closed?

In conclusion, yes, there are a few places in the park system where biking has potential, but in the majority of sites (~2/3rds), it's either impractical due to resource/natural conditions issues (ie - do we really want bike trails in Death Valley or American Samoa?) or money to build and maintain the trails.

I have to admit that I was wary of going hiking on a mountain bike trail this past weekend but was pleasantly surprised. The Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Outdoor Chattanooga and the National Park Service Rivers Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) maintain a single-track trail on Raccoon Mountain above the city of Chattanooga, TN.

We took a leisurely stroll on this trail yesterday and found that it was in much better shape than most of the hiking trails we regularly use in this area and that the bikers we encountered were friendly and courteous.

To be fair we are still in the throes of a prolonged drought which could account for the well packed and un-eroded nature of the trail surface but think that those who designed this track did a good job of matching it up well with the terrain it follows. As for the well-mannered cyclists, this is after all the Deep South so that may account for the more civilized behavior which is reportedly lacking in the mountains of Colorado.

Although we haven't yet seen the proposed rule change from the Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) believes that the current mountain biking regulations appear to be working well and that there is no demonstrated need to change them. Like any use of the national parks, the use of mountain bikes on trails should be examined via a public process, environmental review, and fully comply with National Environmental Policy Act before given the green light.

NPCA believes that any changes made to the mountain biking regulations must take into consideration: 1) the capacity of park staffs to effectively manage mountain biking and ensure visitor safety; and 2) associated impacts on wildlife, vegetation, overall trail conditions, and the experience of other park visitors. Furthermore, any changes to the current mountain biking policy should not allow for mountain biking on parklands that have been or may be recommended by the National Park Service or others for inclusion into the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Bryan Faehner
National Parks Conservation Association

NPCA is overreaching in its conclusion. There is a strong desire by mountain bikers to bike in national parks, so the need is there. The public process/environmental review is code word for: "let's throw a bunch of nonsensical redtape into opening any trails to mountain biking so that we don't have to come out and say out loud that we hate bikes".

Safety: it's a myth. Everybody talks about safety when it comes to mountain bikers, but nobody mentions anything about dangerous horses. Double standard... Truth is that the safety argument is completely overblown, especially in the back country where just about nobody ventures.

Impact to environment: another myth. Scientific studies have shown that mountain biking impact on the environment is minor, about equal to hiking and definitely less than horse riding.

The truth is that there is no rational reason to keep bikers out other than made up arguments that serve the wish of a few to keep public trails to themselves. In that regard, it seems that the NPCA is a bunch of rabid bike haters like the Sierra Club.

During the outdoor boom of the 1970’s many areas suffered severe damage due to the increased number of hikers. Hikers built illegal trails and camp sites, widened trails, littered, and ruined the outdoor experience for those who had come before; in short we did everything we accuse Mountain Bikers of doing now. Fortunately, Hikers learned the error of their ways. Today the “Leave No Trace” ethic is common among hikers. Education is the key; most people don’t want to damage the environment they just don’t know any better.

Mountain Bikers have and will continue to embrace the same ethic. They must if they want to maintain their sport. I think bikers suffer from commercial advertising stereotypes that portray them as ADD afflicted, Mountain Dew swilling, extreme sports morons, who come down the trail backwards while juggling chainsaws. This is rarely the case.

The illegal use of hiking trails and the illegal construction of “stunts” is a legitimate concern and I have seen the damage that can result. I’m sure it’s only a small minority of Bikers, but it seems to be condoned if not encouraged by many in the Mountain Biking community.

While working with a local hiking group’s trail maintenance crew the leader made a decision to leave a fallen tree across the trail to stop bike use. Predictably, the next year there was a new trail around the tree. Whose fault was that the Bikers or the Crew Leader who made a dumb choice based on his personal bias? Hikers have to realize that not giving Mountain Bikers a place to ride is not going to lead to the end of the sport; it’s only going to lead to illegal use and abuse. An illegal user has little impetus for doing maintaining and improving the trail, while a legitimate user does.

I have heard hikers say that “Bikers never due trail maintenance…” and a post above makes the same accusation about hikers. In truth, we are both independently doing the work, if only we could only work together. There are many that enjoy both sports and I could never understand why we perceive each other as enemies, we’re all out there because we love the outdoors

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