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Forest Service Open to Allowing Mountain Bikes on Continental Divide Trail, But What About Park Service?


Would allowing mountain bikes on sections of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail create problems on National Park Service landscapes? Logo via Continental Divide Trail Alliance.

Along its 3,100 miles that wind from the Canadian border down to Mexico, the Continental Divide Trail is one of the most rugged, and in parts one of the most visually spectacular, hiking trails in the country. Now the U.S. Forest Service says the route could be opened in places to mountain bikes, a move that raises a question or two regarding possible impacts to national parks.

From north to south the trail runs through portions of Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain national parks, as well as El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico. In places you need the skills of a mountain goat to negotiate the route, which, by the way, is not entirely in place.

Early in October the Forest Service published its proposed rule changes to the trail's comprehensive management plan in the Federal Register. They took effect November 4. The updated management plan does not magically open the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail to mountain biking, but rather provides "that bicycle use may be allowed on the CDNST if the use is consistent with the applicable land and resource management plan and will not substantially interfere with the nature and purposes of the CDNST."

Nevertheless, some fear that decision could result in pressure being placed on National Park Service land managers to permit the bikes into wilderness areas as this development potentially opens one more door for mountain bikes to public lands that have long been set aside for hikers and horseback riders.

From the beginning, "one of the primary purposes for establishing the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (was) to provide hiking and horseback access to those lands where man's impact on the environment has not been adverse to a substantial degree and where the environment remains relatively unaltered," the Forest Service notes in its Federal Register notice. "The basic goal of the trail is to provide the hiker and rider an entree to the diverse country along the Continental Divide in a manner, which will assure a high quality recreation experience while maintaining a constant respect for the natural environment. ... The Continental Divide Trail would be a simple facility for foot and horseback use in keeping with the National Scenic Trail concept as seen in the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails."

While the Forest Service notes that hiking and horseback use are the "primary purposes" for the trail's existence, they are not the trail's exclusive uses, said Janelle Smith, a spokeswoman for the agency's Rocky Mountain Region. Mountain biking could be permissible as long as it doesn't degrade the trail, she said.

“We just wanted to make sure that we’ve got a trail that is sustainable over time. The original intent of the trail was for hiking and horseback riding. That is designated by Congress," Ms. Smith said Monday from her Denver office. "So we needed to clarify that, and as these other uses are compatible with that, those initial uses, then it's really up to those local land managers to either designate a certain area of the trail that would only be for those uses of the trail or make some modification for those multiple uses

“Some trails lend themselves to being able to mountain bike on them," she said.

The Forest Service was lobbied somewhat heavily by mountain bikers to give them access to the trail. Back in 2007 the International Mountain Bicycling Association mounted a campaign among its membership to urge the Forest Service not to close off the trail to their use.

IMBA believes a shared-use philosophy that includes bicycling is compatible with the intent and purpose of the CDT, and that mountain bikers can help overcome these significant hurdles impeding the trail's completion. With 40 million participants, mountain biking is the second most popular trail activity in the country (Outdoor Industry Foundation, 2007). This large constituency helps lobby for public lands funding and donates nearly one million volunteer hours each year to trail construction and maintenance. Mountain bikers can be valuable partners for the CDT.

Among long-distance trails, the CDT is unique in that has generally allowed mountain biking. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, mountain bikes are largely welcome on non-Wilderness sections of the CDT. IMBA isn't asking for access to all 3,100 miles, but there are many non-Wilderness sections where non-motorized users can get along and mountain biking should continue.

The group's call was heard. During the public comment period on the updated management plan, a bit more than 8,000 comments were received, according to the Federal Register note. Approximately 7,200 of those comments were received "principally (from) mountain biking enthusiasts, who submitted comments in the form of the same electronic mail," the agency said.

While National Park Service officials working on Yellowstone's winter-use plan, which has drawn hundreds of thousands of public comments, with a strong majority supporting the phase-out of snowmobiles, say public comment does not equate with a vote on the issue at hand, at the Forest Service Ms. Smith said the large number of comments backing mountain biking couldn't be overlooked.

“Certainly, any time we get that kind of response it helps inform our decision," she said. "When it comes to changing some direction that we provide to our land-management agencies, we wanted to make sure that mountain bikers, any user, has access to the public process when final decisions are made on granting access to any part of the Continental Divide Trail.”

Interestingly, a bike route already parallels the Continental Divide Trail.

"The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is our premier off-pavement route, crisscrossing the Continental Divide north to south," say the folks at Adventure Cycling, a non-profit cycling association. "This route is defined by the word "remote." Its remoteness equates with spectacular terrain and scenery. The entire route is basically dirt-road and mountain-pass riding every day. In total, it has over 200,000 feet of elevation gain. All of this climbing gets the rider into visually spectacular places and incredibly fit shape."

While it remains to be seen which, if any, sections of the trail are opened to mountain bikes, officials in Glacier and Yellowstone are not concerned about riders venturing into their parks.

"We don't have much, if any, concern that visitors might try poaching rides on the CD trail in Glacier National Park," park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt said. "Glacier does allow the use of bikes in a few locations in the park (Apgar bike path between West Glacier and Apgar Village as well as all park roads). We even allow bikes on the Sun Road except for two sections west of Logan Pass from June 15 (when pass is accessible) to Labor Day, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. (due to heavy traffic and narrow, windy sections).

"Very infrequently, we do have visitors biking where they shouldn't, but our Visitor and Resource Protection staff out on the ground do a pretty good job of making sure that such illegal park use doesn't happen," she said.

While the American Hiking Society generally opposes bikes on hiking trails, officials there did not respond to a request for comment on the Forest Service's new stance on mountain bikes on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.


First , Let me leave no doubt that I AM ANTI-CYCLIST! It has been my experince that the cycling community is on the majority the RUDIST of outdoor users. Their bikes destroy more habitat the any horse or hiker ever could . They are a menace that should be regulated to using only ATV trails or roads. They have no buisness in ANY WILDERNESS AREA! I for one will do all I can to see them removed from any use on National Forest Property.


It is good to see National Park Traveler addressing bicycle access to the CDNST.

The recent Forest Service directive for the CDNST management, while vague when it comes to bicycles, does clearly state that continued bicycle access is allowed where not prohibited by Wilderness or National Park. The wording of Primary use for foot and horse traffic is in no way exclusionary to bicycles. To suggest that this means that the cycling community now would want access to the CDNST sections in National Parks or Wilderness areas is needlessly fanning the anti-bicycle flames.

What does need to be addressed is the non-Wilderness / National Park sections of this iconic trail. Just because the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails bans bicycles doesn’t mean we need to go down that misguided rabbit hole. It is a national travesty and embarrassment that the ability to ride a bicycle on the open sections of CDNST is not already permanently protected by Congress.

In reading through the related blogs and watching the national trends, I believe that the cycling proponents have made a compelling case of the appropriateness of continued bicycle use on our wild PUBLIC, backcountry trails including the CDNST. The presence of bicycles on the CDNST does not interfere with nature any more that hikers or equestrians. Using the argument of potential conflict between user groups to ban one group is no way to manage our public lands. If the trail is designed to support horses, it will support bicycles. Education, respect and the ability to share are the democratic answer. If it comes down to individual users not wanting to share their (w)ilderness experience with bicycles, might I recommend a trip to any of our National Parks or Wilderness areas that offer thousands of miles of trails leading to millions of acres of bicycle-free opportunities. Bring bicyclists into the fold and we all benefit from an expanded, invested and motivated conservation constituency. Together we can share for the good of all!

Concerning the Great Divide Mountain Bike route - The GDMBR is a mapped route that roughly follows the path of the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. This route is mostly dirt roads, some pavement and very little of the actual Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Too often the conservation community has stated that being excluded from the CDNST because we have the GDMBR should not upset bicyclists. The “route” is in no way, shape or form a substitute for continued bicycle access to the CDNST. It is not even close to the same experience. It is similar to suggest to the hiking community that they should be happy to enjoy the paved path because it is the same experience as the remote, alpine trail. No issues – right?

I read Mr. Gatchell’s post and perused the attached links. It would seem that the Montana High Divide Trails did a good job of highlighting the importance of the CDNST to bicyclists and provided adequate protection of bicycle access to a portion of Montana’s CD trail.

What is concerning is the remaining bicycle access to the CDNST between the Pintlar Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park where the trail passes through the spectacular landscapes of the West Big Hole, Italian Peaks, Lima Peaks, the Centennials Mountains and the Henry Mountains. Most of these sections of CDNST will be closed to bicycles under the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act introduced by Montana’s Senator Tester unless the conservation and bicycle community can do the right thing, like the Montana High Divide Trails, and make adjustments through companion designations, boundary adjustments and corridors to offer permanent protection and continued bicycle access. Since Tester’s bill is a work in progress, there is no reason that bicycle friendly adjustments can’t be made in the Recommended Wilderness Areas.

CAPTCHA - furthest bull...

My experience has been similar. I frequently run in to stock and hikers and bikers while hiking and biking on trails and I don't recall ever having any conflicts.

And amen to your conclusion:

"Let's allow USFS and NPS land managers some flexibility. One nation wide policy does not fit all trails."

As a trail maintenance volunteer, who helps maintain dozens of miles of trails (some designated for bikes, some not), the above discussion of trail damage seems to me disconnected from reality. I spend hundreds of hours each year clearing trails and repairing tread damage. Most from windfall tree rootballs, floods and slides. Wildlife, particularly elk, cause more damage than trail use by stock, hikers or mountain bikers.

Even on heavily-used, designated bike trails, I just don't see much damage from bikes. Its rare because most designated bike trails are former roadbeds or stock trails (have solid tread).

As both a hiker and stock rider, I encounter mountain bikes many times each year, both on designated mtn bike trails and occasionally in wilderness (where yes its illegal, but I'm not a law enforcement ranger), and have never experienced any problem with this "mixed use". I've heard of it, but it must be rare.

I'm not a mtn biker, but view the polarization and emotion here about bikes as disconnected from reality I experience on the trails.

I maintain trails so people can use them! Hike, bike, ride, I don't care. Let's work together. Let's allow USFS and NPS land managers some flexibility. One nation wide policy does not fit all trails.

Clipped from :

"What is Wilderness?
The 1964 Wilderness Act protects more than 106 million acres from road construction, development, motorized travel and most forms of resource extraction and manmade structures. Unfortunately, many people do not realize that bicycles are not allowed in Wilderness. Federal land agencies in the 1980's interpreted the Wilderness Act to prohibit bicycles, though previously they had been allowed."

What this FAQ item conveniently omits is that until commercially made mountain bikes became available around 1980, bicycling single-track was almost unheard of and was not on anyone's horizon as a potential wilderness issue in 1964. It seems a bit disingenuous now to imply that an activity that essentially didn't exist 45 years ago at the signing of the Wilderness Act and that didn't have any significant presence anywhere for another 8-10 years was "allowed" by the Act. It is a bit challenging to write laws and regulations to address activities and issues that don't exist at the time of their drafting.

Hikers and mountain bikers at speed do not co-exist well on single-track trails. Hikers don't enjoy being buzzed or swarmed on "their" trails and the bikers don't enjoy dodging clue-less hikers on "their" trails. Similarly, horseman don't like hikers spooking the horses and the hikers don't like walking around horse crap and being forced to "Please, step aside" to allow the horsemen to pass by. Yes, this is a regulation, at least in Yellowstone; see Regulations on page 5 of : "Impeding or disturbing horses or pack animals is prohibited." My impression is that this is both to limit the greater damage that the steel-shod horses do to trails and adjacent areas and to limit the risk to both riders and hikers from poorly trained horses and/or riders.

It is fairly well established that both bikes and horses have great demands on trail building requirements and trail maintenance, especially in steeper areas. Both need shallower grades, more turning room at switchbacks, more rock removal, etc. and both have more impact per human user than hikers. In this current age of nearly non-existant yearly budgets for trail construction and maintenance in many National Parks and other areas, it seems reasonable to me to not add new trail usage demands that will not be funded to cover the increased impact. To me, this means not allowing mountain bikes in wilderness areas and like areas in National Parks.

Least any "neo-cycle zealots" care to accuse me of being "anti-bicycle", my wife and I have three bikes each. Also, I bought my first mountain bike in 1983, when I lived and worked in Yellowstone. I rode it on paved and gravel roads in the park and trails *outside* the park when I worked there and later in Sequoia and Mt Rainer. I was ok with that then and I still am now.

MVD has lost credibility a long time ago. At least his posts are always a good laugh.

This comment was edited to remove unnecessary gratuitous attacks. Let's play nice, folks. -- The editors.

"Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and (worst of all) teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it's NOT!). What's good about THAT?"

Wow! More mountain-biker hating rhetoric. Kills small animals on the trail? I've done two long distance, self contained thru-bikes and I'm certain, unless you count tiny insects and microscopic critters, I've never killed a small animal on the trail. I did accidently STEP on a lizard once when I was hiking. And I, unfortunately, hit a rabbit the other night while driving home after dark.

Mike, please, take a deep breath. This is not a black and white issue.

Hey Owen, self-contained, thru-biking is fabulous. I ought to take you on one someday.

Mike V, what's that phrase you like to invoke ... bicycles are "wheeled locusts"? Good stuff.

Fortunately, reasonable people on both sides of this debate have little difficulty identifying your self-proclaimed science and anti-bike views as incoherent and off-kilter.

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