Mountain Bike Use Subject Of Environmental Assessment In Rocky Mountain National Park

An environmental assessment is being conducted into whether a short, two-mile section of the East Shore Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park should be open to mountain biking. NPS photo.

An environmental assessment is being conducted at Rocky Mountain National Park to determine whether a short section of hiking and equestrian trail known as the East Shore Trail should be open to mountain bikes.

Though the study is just getting under way, the impetus for it goes back a half-dozen years, to 2006, when talks were being held over designating official wilderness in Rocky Mountain.

During discussion of proposed wilderness in Rocky Mountain, "Advocates for bicycle use, which included the Town of Grand Lake and the Grand County Commissioners, made it clear that their support of wilderness designation for the park was contingent upon the consideration of bicycle use on the East Shore Trail," notes a Park Service narrative announcing the EA.

According to the Park Service, "(T)he East Shore Trail is an existing hiking and equestrian trail that runs roughly north/south along the east shore of Shadow Mountain Lake near the town of Grand Lake, Colorado (hence the name of the trail). The northern terminus of the trail is the East Shore Trailhead, which is located due south of the town of Grand Lake. The entire trail is 6.2 miles long and ends at the south boundary of RMNP. The East Shore Trailhead and the first 0.7 mile of the trail is situated on land administered by the USDA Forest Service where bicycles are currently permitted. The remaining 5.5 miles of the East Shore Trail is located within RMNP. Bicycles are currently not permitted on trails within the national park. The trail is also part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail."

Since bicycles are not permitted in designated wilderness, some compromises needed to be made if the East Shore Trail was ever to be open to mountain bikers. So when the wilderness designation was made official in 2009, "(T)he wilderness legislation excluded the East Shore Trail Area from the wilderness boundary to 'maximize the opportunity for sustained use of the Trail without causing harm to affected resources or conflicts among users.' Consideration of bicycle use on the East Shore Trail was part of the legislation."

When the wilderness designation was defined, the official wilderness boundary was located 50 feet east of the East Shore Trail, a move that left open the possibility of allowing mountain bikes on the trail.

In August 2011, the Grand County (Colorado) commissioners wrote to the director of the Park Service's Intermontain Region asking that a two-mile section of the East Shore Trail be approved for mountain bike use.

As a result, the Park Service decided to conduct an environmental assessment on the proposal. Public scoping, a period in which the Park Service solicits public comments on a proposal, is currently under way. Among the questions being asked of the public:

1. Do you favor bicycle use on the two-mile section of the East Shore Trail currently under consideration? Please explain why you do or do not favor bicycle use on this section of trail.

2. If you do not favor bicycle use on the trail, can you suggest other alternatives to connect the towns of Grand Lake and Granby with a bike trail?

3. If you do favor bicycle use on the trail, what are your recommendations to minimize conflicts among trail users (equestrians, hikers, bicyclists).

4. If you do favor bicycle use on the trail, how many times are you likely to use this trail during the riding season? What would your destination be if you rode this trail?

5. If you do favor bicycle use on the trail, to what standard should the trail be developed (e.g., how wide should it be and what surface should be used on the trail)?

6. If you do favor bicycle use on the trail, what should be done to dissuade bicyclists from entering the adjacent designated wilderness where bicycles are not permitted?

7. Please share any other comments you might have regarding the East Shore Trail.

Comments are being accepted through September 21. The environmental assessment is expected to be completed by fall 2013. You can comment on this proposal at this site.


Mountain Bikes in National Parks is always contentious. It will be interesting to hear what this study finds. Too bad we have to wait a whole year.

All these years and paperwork to open a louy 6 miles of trail. Amazing that we have that many resources to waste on something this trivial.

Actually, I think it's only 2 miles Zeb.

Kurt, thanks for pointing it out.

Of course, the simplest solution would be to reallow bikes in wilderness. It'd solve all that nonsense.

Of course I agree with Zebulon. No other country in the world puts itself through these hoops over these things. The Wilderness Act didn't ban mountain biking; the agencies did circa 1977-1984. Why they did so is mysterious, but at the same time they prohibited a lot of other things that Congress didn't intend to ban: footbridges, hitching posts, primitive lean-tos, etc. And they've since also banned things like portage wheels, hunters' game carts, baby strollers, and so on.

A visitor from, say, Brazil, New Zealand, or even Canada might think I'm making this up, it's so peculiar.

Part of the problem is that the agencies listened to people who think the wheel is the work of the devil in any wildland. The agencies' employees may once have sympathized with that viewpoint themselves, although I bet by now the more rational ones are rueful that they ever went along. In fact, this initiative is a welcome sign of that.

The view that the wheel is considered sinful among a vocal minority in the United States but nowhere else to the same extent is not surprising. The New York Times recently reported what mountain bikes know all too well, and that is that Puritanism continues to have a marked impact on attitudes and public policies in the United States—far more than most people believe. Here's the link:

Kudos to the NPS for moving ahead on this proposal. I suspect in 30 years we'll be able to ride anywhere a horse can go, Wilderness or not, under reasonable restrictions. That journey of a thousand miles begins with baby steps like these.

The nonsense would be in allowing bikes in designated wilderness areas. We have National Recreation Areas for mountain biking. I don't want bikes in the National Parks, just as I don't want hunting in National Recreation Areas.

To accuse others of condeming the wheel as sinful ironically fetishizing it.

To accuse others of condeming the wheel as sinful ironically fetishizes it.

Anonymous of 3:24 and 3:38 must be kidding. You would walk up to a woman with a baby stroller or a cyclist and accuse them of having a wheel fetish? That is bizarre. She's just trying to walk her kid and I'm just trying to ride my bicycle. It's pretty simple.

Some puritans thought, I think circa 1600, that buttons were the work of the devil and that only hooks and eyes could be used on clothing. Yet I don't think any of us have a button fetish.

As for the other Anonymous who thinks it's nonsense to allow bikes in designated Wilderness or the national parks: he/she is likely to be disappointed at some point.

Practices tend to be sinful, not objects. When you say that some people believe that a "wheel" is a sin, you're imagining that an object is a moral being. So, the irony is that you've invested the wheel with some power over the human. This would explain its power over you--your rather bizarre accusation that some people consider wheels (or mountain biking) a sin. What people?

Anonymous 3:21, please understand that Wilderness was not created for the private enjoyment of your favorite hobby. :)

Anonymous 3:21, please understand that Wilderness was not created for the private enjoyment of your favorite hobby. :)

Right back at you!

Let me clarify, although I shouldn't need to, that some people consider the use of a wheel on wildland trails as sinful. As for who does? all one has to do is read any number of Internet threads, including on these pages, in which people object to bicycles on trails, and sometimes outright fulminate against them. Sometimes they offer specific reasons but just as often they assert in effect, that using a bicycle in a wildland represents a defilement or profanation of some sort. (Watch for such nebulous adjectives as "inappropriate" without further explanation; that's a giveaway.)

I repeat that in other countries, which lack America's puritan tradition and its still considerable influence over our mores, the issues that so perturb people on the NPT website and elsewhere are, if not entirely absent (and they often are), muted.

Here's another example. Where I live, there is a very large Latino population. In the local parks, Latinos couldn't care less who's on what trail. They don't have New England forebears. Everyone gets along. We also have large Asian and South Asian populations and they don't care either. Who cares? White people, mostly affluent, who've spent a lot of time reading and converting into scripture the writings of Thoreau, Emerson, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and their modern epigones—but not, e.g., William Cronon. You see them with their half-hidden scowls, pursed lips, and downcast eyes. You say hi to them and they don't reply.

They're laboring earnestly to immerse themselves in what they see as outdoor cathedrals. They find mountain biking, with the exhilaration it offers and the suffering it largely avoids (blisters, dust, flies, mosquitoes), disturbing. They wish that the local Sierra Club chapter could do something to extirpate mountain biking from anyplace but dirt roads.

To step back a bit and avoid the accusation that I'm painting with too broad a brush, obviously there is a range of concerns. Some people have legitimate worries about safety or unwelcome jarring experiences in certain areas. All of those worries, however, can be accommodated to an extent that any reasonable person should find satisfactory. This is done by a combination of responsible land management and the good will of most people. When wildlands become a kind of secular religion, however, no such accommodation is possible.

These objections to mountain biking have nothing to do with fallen-ness, unless you're forwarding an especially idiosyncractic reading of sin.

Following up on imtnbke's comments - I seem to recall that most of the "powers that be" of the USFS back then did not support wilderness because of the contraints it put on management, and when it was forced upon them, they responded with draconian rules with the mindset of "that will show them". Of course, that mindset lead to resource damage (no chainsaws allowed to the clear downed trees, so braided trails developed around obstructions). And little did they know that the Wilderness Nazis would totally embrace the draconian rules and clamour for even more closures and restrictions!!

In the case of this bike trail - along the edge of an artificial reservoir (Shadow Mountain Res.), along the boundary of the national park - I think this is a reasonable and appropriate use of the trail. The biggest obstacle will be keeping bikers off the Shadow Mountain Trail which heads east into wilderness. That trail is incompatible for both hiking and biking, especially with the potential of bikers bombing downhill past clueless day hikers.

The future threat to access to the backcountry of RMNP will be when they (park staff) develop a 'no chainsaws in wilderness' policy and then close off areas to any and all access under the guise of potential resource damage, because they will claim they don't have enough people to open the trails with crosscut saws. And with the large swaths of dead and rotting bettle killed lodgepole ready to start falling like matchsticks the next few years, this scenario will be on us sooner than many think......

KnowSomeButNotAll — you're right. In fact, by 1975-1977 the Forest Service had become so draconian in its interpretation of the Wilderness Act (no footbridges, no cabins, no bicycles, no hitching posts, and even no trail junction signs)* that both Frank Church and Morris Udall warned the agency that it was going way beyond what they had wanted as key legislators in getting the 1964 Wilderness Act passed. But the Forest Service ignored them and continued to tighten the screws even further, so nowadays you'd better not be found using a baby stroller in a Wilderness.

As you say, the theory is that the 1970s and 1980s-era Forest Service (it was under President Reagan, of course, in the 1980s) detested the Wilderness Act because it interfered with logging, so the agency decided to punish Congress for passing it by interpreting it absurdly. That was then. Nowadays, however, one has the impression that the Forest Service really believes in the rules it has passed.

In 1980, Congress actually passed a statute stating that bicycling is OK in the Rattlesnake Wilderness in Montana, but the Forest Service refuses to allow it anyway.

The Forest Service already has a no-chainsaws policy in place and has for years. It also does not allow its staff to use a wheelbarrow in Wilderness (again, a wheelbarrow suffers from having the accursed wheel). So yes, you're also correct that many Wilderness trails are falling into abandonment. No one uses them and no one maintains them. Some people, however, embrace this situation because they wish humanity would stay out of wildlands as much as possible. The more loss of trail mileage, the better.


* In some places, you will find log stream crossings or footbridges and in many places you'll find trail junction signs. But even such things are controversial within the Forest Service and a number of national forests don't allow them. No cell phones either in one Wilderness, but that I can kind of understand.

Anonymous, while cute your answer completely misses the main point. I do not want to have an exclusive (hence private) enjoyment of wilderness land on my bike. I'm perfectly happy to share with others, including you.

Looking forward to seeing you on the trails (wilderness or not). :)

I hope people can tolerate a further response to Anonymous of 8/15/12, who wrote:

These objections to mountain biking have nothing to do with fallen-ness,
unless you're forwarding an especially idiosyncractic reading of sin.

Although I mentioned earlier the dogmatic nature of posts opposing mountain biking in Wilderness, probably even better evidence that a strong faction within wildlands environmentalism is a modern-day temperance movement is this:

Everything has a cost, and if rational calculation ruled among the orthodox conservation organizations like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, PEER, the retired National Park Service employees association, etc., they'd be eager to urge the agencies to allow mountain biking generally in the national parks and national forests, whether Wilderness zones or not.

The benefits would be:

1. A lot of volunteers to reopen and maintain Wilderness trails that have been lost.

2. A broader constituency for Wilderness expansion and more national parks.

3. A broader constituency for the NPS and Forest Service budgets.

4. More young people interested in America's wildlands.

As for costs, the main one I can think of, along with the opposite of the four benefits above, is that every acre that isn't roadless is susceptible to this:

Thus is the perfect the enemy of the good. But compromise isn't possible when for one side something is a sacred value.

There is nothing wrong with having a spiritual attitude toward nature; it's when it turns into a dogma that it becomes a problem. You see evidence of a Shaker-like attitude in things like this quotation, which adorns the North Cascades National Park website:

"[b]The wilderness is a place of rest—not in the sense of being motionless, for the lure, after all, is to move, to round the next bend. The rest comes in the isolation from distractions, in the slowing of the daily centrifugal forces that keep us off balance.[/b]

[i]–David Douglas,[/i] from "Wilderness Sojourn"
Now, for some people the foregoing is sublime scripture. But I think it's silly, even though I respect his fervent feelings. It's silly because who is he to say that everyone is off balance during their daily life? He speaks for himself only, but doesn't seem to realize it. In addition, it is dogmatic: Wilderness is what my values for it are, and no other values.

Anonymous, while cute your answer completely misses the main point. I do not want to have an exclusive (hence private) enjoyment of wilderness land on my bike. I'm perfectly happy to share with others, including you.

Looking forward to seeing you on the trails (wilderness or not). :)

A hunter or jet skier could of course say the same thing.

All this suggests is that there are competing ideas of the sacred. But it's hard to reconstruct what the sacred would be for someone who considers wheel[-ing] a sin. Again, I don't know who these people would be. Many of us can see wilderness as sacred in a Christian sense (which is the context presupposed by "sin"), such as Muir, perhaps Transcendentalists, Heideggeger, etc., but none would see wheel[ing] as a sin. Does anyone really consider riding a bike or driving a car alienation from divinity? In other words, one can hold wilderness to be sacred, and simply not see wheel[ing] as a part of the sacred, the same way eating Skittles or playing Fantasy Football aren't. But that's a far cry from calling these things sins.

There's an irony in your description of the sacred as a dogma. In describing those who have concerns about mountain biking in designated wilderness, you're ascribing to them some sort of fervent religious dogma (i.e. fanaticism)--i.e. you're not allowing for the possibility that their concerns can be reasonable, despite your disagreement with them, and that is the mark of the dogmatic.

Dear Anonymous,

In fact I have addressed your point about people's reasonable concerns. You can find it above. I'll also quote here what I wrote above:

To step back a bit and avoid the accusation that I'm painting with too broad a brush, obviously there is a range of concerns. Some people have legitimate worries about safety or unwelcome jarring experiences in certain areas. All of those worries, however, can be accommodated to an extent that any reasonable person should find satisfactory. This is done by a combination of responsible land management and the good will of most people. When wildlands become a kind of secular religion, however, no such accommodation is possible.

What do I mean by responsible land management? Well, one idea, in use all over the country already, would be that bicycles would be allowed in National Park and National Forest Wilderness zones on alternate days of the week. That way, people who don't want to be around bicycles can plan accordingly. That—the potential for some form of social conflict—is really the only concern that bicycle use presents. Environmental concerns were long ago recognized as baseless. Bicycles cause about the same amount of trail wear as hiking boots and vastly less than horse and packstock hooves. And mountain bikers are much less likely to (a) cut switchbacks and (b) litter than hikers, and (c) don't leave the kind of traces that backpackers do with their nightly camps.

I hope this addresses your point satisfactorily. What do you think?

[= 14px; line-height: 18px; background-color: #ffffff]A hunter or jet skier could of course say the same thing.


Slippery slope argument... :) Jet skier: not human powered. Hunter: definitely has an impact on the environment. Good try though.

It's actually pretty funny. Whenever I call out peopel on their anti bike bias, the argument keeps shifting.

I came to the conclusion that the opposition to biking comes from 2 points of view: 1) the enviro fanactic who sees national parks and wilderness as some kind of new age outdoor cathedral that cannot accomodate a bicycle (it's not rational, but then again we're talking about faith here) and 2) current users who just don't want to share but are not willing to publicly admit it (obviously, not something to be proud of).

not human powered

Okay, not mechanically-propelled.

Hunter: definitely has an impact on the environment.

Mountain biking has a pretty obvious impact on wilderness. Take for example a 30-mile loop trail into the wilderness. Hiking, by the very nature of the practice, limits the volume of humans in this 30-mile wilderness. Moutain biking conceivably brings a much higher volume of people into that 30-mile loop, obviously presenting a greater impact on wilderness--i.e. it turns backcountry wilderness into front country, much the same as a road would. But maybe a permitting system could be used for mountain biking, similar to how it used for backpackers to reduce impact.

I have always opposed nature lovers mentioning spiritual values because it gives opponents one more reason to hate them. It has reached the point where everything has become a matter of faith including politics and the bike issue. Might as well waste your time discussing religion. August 6th I rented a mountain bike in the Mammoth Mountain ski area. It cost $81 for the bike, helmet, and the gondola ride to the top. I took the easy route which starts at ll,053' and ends at 8,900'. I had not been on a bike for several years and having never ridden a mountain bike downhill I found it challenging. After doing a header over the handlebars twice in the first few minutes and falling sideways several times I learned not to use the front brake in soft sand. For awhile I thought I would have to walk the bike the seven or eight miles down the trail but finally was able to ride it on relatively level sections of trail. Except for the center the sides of the trail were very soft pumice and dirt. Several falls and slides down the steep mountain sides resulted in only minor injuries. In places the tread was rocky and bare roots were common. The trail is closed to hikers as they would be incompatible with the heavy downhill bike traffic.

The bikers were very polite and friendly and I had to apologize several times for being in their way. There were a few families and small children on the trail. That trip was followed by some 8 to 12 mile hikes in USFS wilderness. There was no sign of mountain bike use inside wilderness boundaries. There was horse use and mountain bikers are correct in saying the physical impacts of horses are far greater than that of bikes. I stopped in Breckenridge for three days on the way home and hiked one popular trail for both hikers and bikers. It was a quiet visitor day and I saw no conflicts in part because the trail was as wide as a narrow road and the bikers were very considerate.

A few thoughts from my very limited survey:
1. In both areas there is a lot of money in mountain biking.
2. There is an abundance of trails for all user groups.
3. The Mammoth Mountain downhill bike trail would be decent hiking up and down but that would be totally incompatible with biking. There are too many bikes and although I didn't see extreme bike speeds the trail is too narrow and the sides are steep both up and down. It would be difficult for hikers too step aside and partially deaf individuals like myself would not hear them.
4. A complaint by hikers is that bikers can't enjoy the scenery and the flowers, but my brief experience led me to believe that an experienced biker on an easy trail has as much time to glance around as a hiker but hikers can stop faster to look at the view or flowers.
5. Aside from their physical impact horses move about as fast as hikers and a string of horses and hikers going the same direction would seldom see each other.
6. National parks could provide an abundance of trails primarily for bikers but that is an expensive proposition.
7.I think hikers would avoid using narrow trails heavily frequented by bikers. An occasional biker would be OK for most of us but large numbers would not.

Please note no mention of spiritual values.

Excellent and insightful comment, Roger. (I don't know how to say that without sounding patronizing, but please be assured I don't mean to be.) And congratulations on being so adventurous in your mid-70s. The country could use a few more million people like you.

I agree it would be needlessly costly to have bicycle-only trails in national parks. Better to divide uses by day of the week on popular trails, don't you think? I was looking at pictures of the crowded Cascade Pass Trail in North Cascades National Park. There, I think you could have mountain bike Tuesday or some such, and then leave the other six days for hikers and backpackers.

If one looks at all of the linked-to pictures, you'll see an armed ranger in a number of them. For some reason, I find that extremely off-putting in that bucolic and scenic setting. Does anyone agree, or am I too sensitive?

Anonymous of 10:38 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2012, writes:

[M]aybe a permitting system could be used for mountain biking, similar to how it [is] used for backpackers to reduce impact.

I'm confident that all but the most mule-headed mountain bikers would be happy with that arrangement.

I know what you mean when you express worries that mountain bikes could turn back country into front country. Where that's a possible risk, if it is, the permit system you mention, or alternate-day use, should work to avoid any issue that would bother a reasonable person. I think it's a risk, if at all, mainly for the relatively small units that comprise the relatively crowded national parks, but not a concern for most of the much larger national forests. In a number of Wilderness zones within the latter, where the Forest Service won't allow bicycles, the problem is the opposite: too few users and too many trails being grown over and disappearing. Allowing cyclists would benefit them.

[= 14px; line-height: 18px]Okay, not mechanically-propelled.[/]

As far as I can tell, it's the human on top that's propelling the bike, so to be semantically correct, it'd be human propelled (just like a hiker). But since you're arguing the mechanical angle, are you saying that kayaks and carbon fiber poles are not mechanical? And at any rate, the degree of mechanization has really nothing to do with impact and preserving parks for future generations.

To the other anonymous, the impact angle is disputable. What has more impact, a bike that travels at 6-7mph average and leaves the park during the day, or the thru-hiker that camps out in the backcountry? I won't even mention packstock expeditions. :) I don't disagree that impact has to be managed, but exclusion seems a rather poor management method. Finally, one could argue that the impact should be measured in hours of presence in the park, not in miles covered. All in all, it does not seem much of a justification for excluding bikes.


Congrats on trying to ride Mammoth! I can only hope to be in that good a shape in a few decades. From what I heard, Mammoth is no picnic as it's super loose and dusty. Interestingly enough, I find it easier to go down really steep trails (within reason) on my bike than on foot.

Boy do people get crazy with their post. Using trails for mutiple use is a good use of a trail. I have hiked this trail and found it to be serene, peaceful and a nice way to see the lake without the view and noise of highways , houses etc. The problem I see reoccuring with trails involving hikers, bikes, dogs etc. is the people that don't take in consideration of the other types of use. Bikes move very fast and they do create a quick reaction for people hiking and dog walking. I bike, hike and walk dogs on trails. I too would like to see some trails open to bikes and dogs. How do we do this and keep that serene, quiet, slow pace that is so wonderful to the hiker. Should it be certain days for different uses? Can we do something on a trial basis. If we allow bikes, can we allow dogs on leash? Let us look at the problems and try to find solutions to enjoy our trails. Get off your soapbox and work toward solutions. Lets enjoy, maintain, and work together for everyones sake.