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Sections of Pacific Crest Trail Poached by Mountain Bikers; Could Problems Arise in National Parks?


Mountain bikers have been poaching sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in California. USFS photo.

The Pacific Crest Trail ranges from Canada to Mexico, running through Washington, Oregon, and California along the way, traversing not one but seven units of the National Park System in the process.

On its way north and south portions of the trail touch or run through parts of Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Devils Postpile National Monument, Crater Lake National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and North Cascades National Park.

While mountain bikers are not supposed to use the Pacific Crest Trail, recently some have been poaching sections in California. While the poaching did not occur in any national park sections, some have concerns that a rule currently pending in the Interior Department could open more national park trails to mountain bikes and, in the process, lead to the following scenario.

In its February issue, the PCT Communicator, the magazine of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, reported on trail damage committed by mountain bikes near the Parks Creek Trailhead in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California.

From Big Bear to the Tehachapi Mountains in southern California, to Donner Summit and the Sierra Buttes north of Lake Tahoe, to Castle Crags and beyond, mountain bikes on the trail are causing damage and creating a number of "PCT Places in Need."

According to the trail association, "under U.S. Government regulation, bikes are prohibited in the PCT. The rationale for the prohibition of bicycles is based on the "nature and purpose" of the PCT, as dictated by the intent of Congress with the National Trails System Act and subsequent regulations designed to protect the experience of the primary users. The Code of Federal Regulations (36 CRF 212) directs that "The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as defined by the National Trails Systems Act, 82 Stat. 919, shall be administered primarily as a footpath and horseback riding trail."

"Unfortunately, however, U.S. regulations and regulators have not, thus far, been able to fully curb the illegal use of the PCT by mountain bikers," adds the article. "The resulting trail damage and user conflicts can't be taken lightly. To complicate matters, bikes are permitted on many trails that lead to the PCT, resulting in bikers reaching the PCT on such trails and then proceeding along the PCT to pick up another feeder trail. Given land management agency staffing and budget issues, policing and enforcement is sorely lacking."

The article goes on to point out the problems associated with mountain bikes on the Pacific Crest Trail: the trail was not engineered to handle mountain bike traffic, it can be easily and quickly ripped up by bikes riding in wet and muddy conditions, erosion problems can arise.

"I can't stress enough the importance of responsible trail users reporting illegal uses of the PCT," says Ian Nelson, the trail association's regional representative for northern California and southern Oregon. "It is crucial that we hear from concerned users so that we and our agency partners can strategize as to how to curb the illegal use."


Kurt, I'm sorry I irritated you to this extent.

I don't feel better because I never felt bad. I'm not sitting here gnashing my teeth over what appears on your website. I do sometimes, however, roll my eyes at the absurdity of what's expressed on it by a number of people. I would return to the theme of my last message: in a country that lets people operate millions of bloated, fuel-wasting SUVs and pickup trucks to take mom and junior a half-mile down a flat road to the supermarket for a Big Gulp, why are people so obsessed with the idea of a bicycle on a trail? You could do everything the most demanding mountain bikers want—open all Wilderness, National Park, and National Scenic Trail trails to mountain biking—and the world would not change an iota. You might have slightly fewer obese kids and a few management headaches in a few areas, but overall the effects, positive and negative, would be negligible.

Yes, I would prefer that you list each group that has objections and complaints to the notion of a bicycle on a trail in their bailiwick each time you refer to them. To do otherwise is to leave your readers wondering whom you're talking about. If all of the traditional antibicycle groups are tub-thumping in a particular case, just put "the usual suspects" or "the traditional antibike forces" and your meaning will get across.

As long as I am putting myself out here for criticism, I can't agree with your implicit criticism that I'm anonymous and you're not. It won't advance the discussion for me to use my own name as a handle. Seriously, I am too worried about identity theft, offers from former Angolan finance ministers to hide millions of dollars, and other scams. I hope you have remained immune to those problems.

True conservationists are interested in any number of issues. But I wouldn't criticize blacks for having been preoccupied with black civil rights during the Jim Crow era even if African-Americans like James Baldwin were interested in a number of issues. Mountain biking is an important part of our lives and we bridle at the absurd restrictions imposed on the activity we treasure and the overblown complaints that help keep those restrictions in place.

You're comparing the mountain biker's fight for access wherever your tires can roll with that of black civil rights? Please tell me you're not serious.

As for gnashing your teeth, your complaints about "stupid rules" and "absurd restrictions" seem to indicate otherwise. What do you think about IMBA's rule that "(w)et and muddy trails are more vulnerable to damage than dry ones. When the trail is soft, consider other riding options." Is that stupid or absurd as well?

Perhaps your complaints over these matters would carry more weight if there were no other place to mountain bike, but that's not the case in the least. As for obsessions, some might say that saw cuts two ways, no, in light of your outspokenness on this issue?

In the big picture you're absolutely right. Concerns over where mountain bikes are ridden pale considerably to the lack of health care in this nation, our questionable education system, the skyrocketing debt, foreign affairs, and a multitude of other matters.

But just as you see mountain biking as an important part of your life, I see national parks and the experiences they offer just as importantly.

I was thumbing through National Geographic's book on "Natural America" the other day, and ran across the following passage. It was set up by a few graphs on how Native Americans -- the Navajo, Hopi, and Lakota -- viewed and respected the earth. It pretty much sums up how I feel.

Whether we are still able to find that level of harmony with the world is something that may be open to question, given all the encumbrances -- also called conveniences -- with which we have saddled ourselves of late. It may be a perfection that we will never reach, but perhaps the journey is as important as the goal itself. Aldo Leopold, the person who defined the respect we should pay to the natural world and its creatures, believes this perfection to be unattainable. "We shall never achieve harmony with land," he wrote in his journals once, "any more than we shall achieve justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive."

In striving, then, we can still walk in beauty, and if so, the national lands give us our most enduring pathways. "In these areas it is as though a person were looking backward into the ages and forward untold years," wrote Harvey Broome, a colleague of Aldo Leopold and one of the founders of the Wilderness Society. "Here are bits of eternity, which have a preciousness beyond all accounting ... May they remain for all time -- islands in time and in space, where living men can detach themselves from their civilization, and walk into eternity."

I hiked the entire length of the PCT in 2003, and I ran into a number of cyclist on the trail. I ride a bike everyday to work and back here in San Francisco, so I am not ashamed to say that MOUNTAIN BIKES DO NOT BELONG ON THE PCT! For one, it is a trail shared with equestrians, and a mountain bike tearing around a corner could do a lot to create a hazardous situation for horse and rider. Second, I have had mountain bikes tear around the corner towards me and sneak up from behind and scare the bejesus out of me. For one who is out to experience solitude, a mountain bike can do a lot surprisingly disturb one's experience. Third, there are plenty of other trails out there for cyclists to enjoy, why conquer the PCT?

Thanks for the article.

Chris Sanderson

I am reflecting on Kurt's latest reply.

And so doing, I conclude Kurt is right that I shouldn't belittle one person's cause as less worthy of pursuit than another's just because less is at stake objectively. So I retract that aspect of my prior post.

Conversely, however, I make no apology for complaining of unfair discrimination and comparing (not equating) it to other forms of unfair discrimination. Here in the Bay Area, where I live, there is a constant dispute between gay people and black people about who can claim to speak of civil rights violations. (Just to explain, some black people around here tend to be offended when gay people assert that their issues are civil rights issues. Gays are furious in return that their deeply felt issues are being belittled.) Ultimately such attempts to create a hierarchy of grievances are unresolvable and it's fruitless to pursue them. (What about people in Mauritania who are still literally enslaved? e.g.).

It comes down to this: we're probably both obsessed with these issues precisely because they are so important to us and have become deeply woven into our respective beings. I completely identify with Kurt's quotation from "Natural America." It sums up how I feel too! (And might not the Native Americans discussed in the article have looked askance at GoreTex and GPS receivers that both mountain bikers and hikers use today? But wait: that's returning to the hierarchies, here one of comparative naturalness, that I think it best to try to avoid. Maybe hang-gliders are the least invasive wildlands visitors of all because they don't tread upon the earth until the moment they land! I'll set my comments aside.) It's unfortunate that our respective obsessions with the beauty and importance of the natural world lead us to different conclusions about how that world should be experienced. I know many people who are uninterested in the natural world—e.g., they live in Manhattan and prefer nightlife and dining out—and who would be left indifferent by the quotation from "Natural America." That's certainly not the case with anyone blogging on this site, be he or she a would-be concealed weapon carrier, a mountain biker, a traditional hiker, or a birder.

I appreciate Chris Sanderson's comment, but by its logic no mountain biker could ride any trail where horses were present. Which would pretty much close off all trails to mountain biking. As for the point that there are other trails out there to enjoy, it's true, but I look at it just the opposite: what makes the PCT so sacrosanct that no cyclist should be allowed to ride it? Nothing really.

I congratulate Chris on hiking the whole thing. That is a great accomplishment. The two people I hiked the Oregon stretch with many years ago also completed the entire distance, meaning we had to hike 18 miles a day, sometimes in rain, with full heavy backpacks. Blisters formed on top of blisters and I still have areas of darkened skin from the rubbing and jostling of the pack staps.

There's not enuf rangers to enforce the stupid do as I do...keep on bikin'!
I've been bikin in national parks on trails for 3 years and have never been caught!

Conflicts between bikes and hikers can be resolved, but I think it's going to take some form of zoning or other regulation. Here in the Wasatch Range, some popular trails are on an odd-even day system, which seems to work well and allows everyone a chance to experience the woods in the manner they desire. This obviously doesn't work for through-trails such as the PCT, though.

I do wish that more folks in the MTB fraternity would recognize that some of us hikers treasure the stillness and slow pace of travel that comes with our activity, and we don't enjoy jumping off a narrow mountain trail every time a cyclist comes rushing along. (Believe me, it's not the cyclists who make way for hikers, at least not around here.) The level of alertness that is required on "shared use" trails compromises the very feeling I am out there to experience.

Hiking trails and singletrack are two very different animals and they don't mix well. That said, there is still much we can do to segregate uses and keep everyone happy. We've had to do it with motors and I'm sure there are reasonable accommodations we can make with cyclists. Just don't pretend that there's no issue here.

Thanks again, Kurt, for providing this forum.

i love to hike- love to ride my mtn bike, too.

the thing about the PCT, is it's the PCT!! if you're an OCD avid mtn biker- you like cross off trails you've done.

so, i think that mtn bikes should be allowed on the PCT- but only so many per year. you buy a special permit that allows mtn bike access. this helps cover that "extra damage", enables the OCD mtn biker to accomplish what cannot be conquered legally, and if you catch people mtn biking without the pass- BIG TICKET. more money to help cover the costs.

yes, we can all get along.

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