Bikes in the Parks: A Look At What's Up at Grand Teton and Big Bend National Parks

An environmental assessment examining a proposed "shared use" trail that would let mountain bikers circle Big Bend's Lone Mountain is due out in the next week or two. Photo by Jeff Blaylock, used with permission.

What's ho-hum in one park, when it comes to bikes, is decidedly more controversial in another. Which should make the coming few weeks interesting.

The ho-hum bicycle issue can be found at Grand Teton National Park, where officials are going through the machinations of passing the requisite regulations to allow bicyclists to ride on those new pathways the park installed along the Teton Park Road earlier this year. Here's the official wording that went into the Federal Register on Monday for a 60-day public comment period:

The National Park Service (NPS) proposes to designate certain multi-use pathways in Grand Teton National Park as routes for bicycle use; NPS regulations require issuance of a special regulation to designate routes for bicycle use when it will be off park roads and outside developed areas. Several segments of multi-use pathways have been constructed, or are planned for construction, and are located parallel to and generally within about 50 feet of existing park roads. Moving bicycle traffic off the lanes of motor vehicle travel will reduce real and perceived safety hazards, which will enhance opportunities for non-motorized enjoyment of the park, and encourage the use of alternate transportation by park employees and visitors.

Seems like a pretty cut-and-dried safety matter, no?

That's definitely not the case down in Big Bend National Park, where officials are expected in the next week or so to release their environmental assessment on a proposal to build a 3- to 5-foot-wide, roughly 5-mile-long "shared-use" trail, one with an emphasis on mountain biking, that would start near the visitor center at Panther Junction and run in a loop, crossing the Chihuahuan desert and wrapping Lone Mountain while providing sweeping views of the Chisos Mountains.

While the Grand Teton matter has received little if any opposition, the proposed trail at Big Bend has generated quite a bit of controversy due to 1) Whether this would actually be a 'shared-use' trail or one that hikers would avoid due to the speeds many mountain bikers prefer to travel at; 2) Why the park would spend so much time and effort on a trail catering to mountain bikers when there literally are more than 1,000 miles of single-track and dirt roads open to bikers in the vicinity, along with some 180 miles of dirt roads in the park that are open to mountain bikers, and at a time when park dollars are particularly precious, and; 3) Why this project even got off the ground at a time when the Park Service supposedly was in the middle of a five-year-long pilot program to study mountain bike compatibility in the parks, one that called for mountain bike use to be restricted to existing paved and unpaved roads in the parks.

The five-year study period, by the way, expires next year.

Comments

I'm a little confused by the Grand Teton regulations. Can bikes still use the roads also; or do they have to use the pathways where they are available? I think there are a number of cyclists who would resist using the pathways, where pedestrians can often take up all the room (amazing how wide pedestrians can walk from my experience on many bike paths), where roller bladers are often in the way, where the quality of the road - frankly - is not as good as the asphalt road. Do cyclists get a choice?

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I noticed a lot of people using the pathway this summer. All types of users and modes of transportation were on it. I also still saw many serious road bikers using the road instead of the new pathway. And I also saw wildlife jams move from the road to the pathway. In doing so visitors would cross about 20-30 feet of roadside veg.

Mixing mountain bikers and pedestrians makes as little sense as mixing cross country skiiers with snowmobiles.

There's a substantial difference between the path at Grand Teton and that proposed at Big Bend. The path at GRTE is paved (hence inline skating), so it's a safe alternative to riding on the heavily traveled road it parallels. Its not particularly interesting or exciting for mountain biking, and riders touring on road bikes covering long distances at much higher speed than the walkers and skaters (both of whom can take erratic zags at the wrong time) may find riding with the motorized traffic on the main road a safer option.

Conversely, my understanding of the proposed Big Bend trail is that it is an unpaved, more or less single track trail that would be much more interesting for mountain biking, impassible for road bikes and skating, but open to hiking and possibly horseback riding. The location has some nice views and interesting plants, but not nearly the wildlife and potential wildlife conflicts as something at the top of the Chisos.

At the risk of shocking the advocates of ride anywhere and everywhere reading this site, I'd like to see the funding issues resolved and see the mountain bike trail built at Big Bend. I'd even try to engineer the trail so that a second roughly parallel trail could be added later if there is a need to separate mountain bikers from hikers, and so that a second loop could be added further out from Panther Junction to allow longer rides, even if the extended loop has to parallel US385 much of the way. There may be plenty of other bike trails in the vicinity, but there aren't views like that for miles. It should be possible to locate and engineer the trail so that it requires minimal maintenance even with substantial riding use.

It is brand new construction in undisturbed terrain for the loop around Lone Mountain.

People share trails in many places without much problem. Why is it so hard at Big Bend? Apparently, people are able to share the other 1,000 miles plus of trails open nearby just fine. Interesting. :)

Thanks for the report on Grand Teton use; it's good to see that serious bikers have the option to continue using the road whereas families and others just out enjoying it can use the pathway. That's a nice mix and allows for greater safety for everyone. I always felt safe biking on the road in Grand Teton; it's good that cyclists going at higher speeds can avoid the hazards of the pathway (and those on the pathway avoid them). When I lived in DC, I was often on the many bike paths in Northern Virginia (some in Park Service areas), and it could grow tedious always yelling out, "On your left!", and especially worrisome when pedestrians got confused and would suddenly move to the left! All speeds were on those crowded pathways, and they weren't all paved equally (some were especially bumpy).

The Teton pathways, as I understand it, will eventually extend all the way to the town of Jackson. That can be an awfully nice ride up to Jenny Lake. Again, it's good all around so long as they give that out for more serious road cyclists to stay on the road.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

If NPS has adopted standards for mountain bike trails, could a web address be posted? In a state park near me, the park agency encourages biking and has a year-round trail crew devoted to this park to keep up with resulting erosion damage. Trails have been rebuilt and relocated in several places to allow the land to recover. The bikers say they do less damage than foot or horse traffic, but it hasn't worked that way here. I've been wondering how NPS would handle this.

The only unpaved NPS trails where bicycling is allowed seem to be essentially unpaved roads (think the White Rim Road in Canyonlands) or what are essentially fire roads. Bear Valley Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore allows bikes. However - it's a fire road that's 12-15 feet wide and generally very hard packed. One can even see the tracks left behind by service vehicles that service the trash cans and pit toilets across from Divide Meadow.

There are mountain bike trails (shared use in some cases) at Mammoth Cave National Park and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, just to name two park units.

George, I do not believe the NPS has come up with uniform standards for mountain bike trail construction. The folks at the International Mountain Bicycling Association believe they have strategies that work. You can learn more at this site:http://www.imba.com/trailsolutions/services/index.html

If you browse around that IMBA site, you'll get a feel for what IMBA wants in terms of mountain bike trails. Here's a snippet from their description of trail work at Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin:

The existing trails open to mountain bikes at these locations was routed on the 12-foot wide nordic ski trails. Not only was this situation not satisfying the singletrack experience being sought by the mountain bikers the fall line ski trails were beginning to erode from summer use and also encouraged very high speeds near many blind corners. Those trails are being replaced with stacked loops of trails that will allow riders to customize their ride to their ability and time constraints without having to ride the same trail twice on any excursion.

To expand mountain bike use in national parks, will existing hiking trails have to be rerouted and redesigned to "satisfy the singletrack experience" or to mitigate erosion tied to biking and slow high speeds? Or will new trails, such as the one proposed for Big Bend, be the answer?

A potential conflict with mountain bike use and national parks is that current regulations prohibit mountain bikes in officially designated wilderness. While IMBA professes a respect for wilderness areas, the group also works to realign wilderness boundaries to allow for mountain biking on public lands. Currently, a lot of national parks manage portions of their landscapes as wilderness, though no official wilderness designation might exist. For instance, there is no official wilderness in Yellowstone National Park.

Under IMBA's current push for mountain bike trails in national parks, lands that merit official wilderness designation could be impacted by the group's plans.

Again, the ban of bikes from wilderness came from a reinterpretation of the law in the mid 80s. That suits the Sierra Club and others just fine, but technically, the ban could be reversed without any action from congress. That being said, as a cyclist, all I see is a constant push from the self professed "environmentalists" to keep expanding wilderness and thereby restrict cyclists' access to trails. No wonder IMBA is fighting so hard to realign wilderness designation, but it's still a long term losing strategy since it seems that the quest for more wilderness will never end. A smarter way of doing it would be to reallow bikes in wilderness, since they're no more mechanical than kayaks, carbon fiber hiking poles, etc.
That way, we'd stop that inane internecine fight between cyclists and other user groups.

User conflicts are way overblown. We all know that the large majority of park users don't venture much past 1 mile from the trailhead. Separate cyclists from other user groups for the 1st mile, and then let people share trails.