A View From The Overlook: Mountain Bikes

At Canyonlands National Park you can mountain bike on old Jeep roads, but there is no single-track open to bikers. Photo by Neal Herbert, NPS.

First of all, and most paramount, we must say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with mountain bikes.

The mountain bike is neutral; a tool, like a chainsaw, rifle, or ax, capable of various usages in various hands.

Indeed, one of the mountain bike’s best uses is as the “The poor man’s Jeep.” The proprietors of various national parks, particularly those in the Southwest, will tell you that they have oodles of “four-wheel drive” roads left over from the days when the park was BLM land and was roamed by Geiger-toting, Jeep-driving uranium prospectors during the early days of the Cold War.

The prospectors are gone, but the Jeep tracks remain, as durable as petrified dinosaur tracks for the foreseeable geological future.

So, park managers, being pragmatists, see no harm in letting you use the old Jeep trails.

You can of course, hike these Jeep trails, toting a backpack and plenty of water. However, I (and I speak only for myself) find walking down a road to be somewhat depressing. Something seems to be missing. That “something” is a machine to carry my goods and me. I am, after all, on a road, so why not use it as a road?

Consider Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. There is a good, if strenuous, single-track hiking trail leading from the floor of Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point. There is also a very good two-lane blacktop highway leading from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point.

While there are John Muir-Edward Abbey type purists who choose to hike the single-track trail to Glacier Point, I would guess (I have no statistics) that there are few if any visitors who hike the shoulder of the highway from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point.

Jeep Roads And Mountain Bikes

Therefore, if you have a plethora of Jeep roads available to you, you should have a Jeep.

Can’t afford a Jeep? Unfortunate you! However, your National Park Service will accommodate your cash-flow problems by allowing (generally) mountain bikes on two-track four-wheel drive roads. You will be able to go anywhere a Jeep can go at a tenth of the price of purchase.

(Well, not quite. The understandably nervous staff at Canyonlands National Park, a Desert park with a capital “D” in the hot months, strongly suggests that you mountain bike in a group and that the group be supported by a four-wheel-drive vehicle due to the lack of water in the backcountry, you see.).

No matter! A trusty mountain bike lashed to the back of your Prius or thrown in the bed of your Tacoma will provide many happy hours of exploring fire roads in national parks or old logging roads in national forests, and….”

“NOW JUST A DAMN MINUTE, YOU PENCIL NECK BUREAUCRAT,” you snarl. “I’M NOT POOR! I’M A HEDGE FUND LAWYER! I CAN BUY THREE OFF-ROAD VEHICLES AND STILL PAY ALIMONY TO TWO WIVES! I CAN BUY AND SELL YOU! I DON’T NEED MOUNTAIN BIKES FOR TRANSPORTATION, I NEED MOUNTAIN BIKING FOR…. SPIRITUAL REASONS!”

Ah, and what would these “spiritual reasons” be?

Well, it seems to be the adrenaline “rush” that comes from risking life and limb in “extreme sports,” of which extreme mountain biking is one. Without this “rush,” according to practitioners, one cannot truly feel alive and transported to an elevated “spiritual” level.

What are some “Extreme Sports”? Cave diving is probably No. 1, requiring that the participant overcome the separate fears of being lost underground and running out of air in a water-filled cavern.

Then there is the traditional extreme sport of mountain climbing, with the possible added horror of free climbing; that is, without ropes or any other safety assists. One must not omit skydiving, with all its ramifications, and of course extreme skiing and extreme snowboarding, in which the participants perform all sorts of gravity defying (and paralysis) defying stunts.

The list would be incomplete without Class V and above white-water rafting and kayaking; and of course, we must mention Extreme Ironing.

Extreme Ironing? Yes, you see with all this Hemingway death-defying bravado, it would be up to the British to add a bit of deflating humor to the proceedings, so the Brits came up with Extreme Ironing. It is a branch of mountaineering in which the participant climbs a particularly sheer and dangerous rock face, carrying an ironing board, a battery powered steam iron, and a wrinkled dress shirt. Once on top, the participant sets up his/her ironing board and proceeds to iron the shirt.

“The adrenaline rush is spectacular,” according to participants, “combining the dangers of the climb with the joy of a well-ironed shirt!” (I am not making this up, neighbors! You can Google “Extreme Ironing”.)

Adrenalin Rush

“But what of mountain biking?” you ask. “What could be so extreme about that?”

You visualize yourself puttering along a Jeep trail in Canyonlands National Park at a sane and Christian rate of speed on your mountain bike. This is the way the NPS visualizes mountain biking. It is not necessarily the way the International Mountain Biking Association visualizes mountain biking; they generally like to go fast, furious, full out and extreme; usually downhill, with points being added for obstacles avoided. (If they’re not enough existing obstacles, they are willing to build them.)

Now you are beginning to see where the IMBA and the NPS part company. You see, IMBA doesn’t particularly like double-track (Jeep) trails; much too tame for anyone but the most novice rider. They would much prefer single-track trails. They also boast about how they are quite willing to “help” the NPS design and build such trails.

Generally speaking, the NPS feels that most of the parks have all the trails they need. True, some trails need rehab and so on, but the NPS is pretty satisfied with its current inventory and balks at the idea of building new ones, particularly for a thrill-seeking special-interest group, no matter how well organized.

Interestingly enough, IMBA has also called for “shared use” or “multi-use” of existing trails, citing the thought that, “Studies show that bike use of trails causes no appreciable damage to the trail.”

Now neighbors, “Studies” show no such thing. The term “Studies show that…” is supposed to be an argument ender, delivered with a smug smirk.

Actually, “Studies show that…is akin to “God says” or “The Sacred Scriptures tells us” and has about as much validity. “Studies” are conversations between scientists and must be peer-reviewed for any sort of probity. If anyone tries the verbal judo of “Studies show that…” on ANY subject, whether it be Global Warming or IMBA claims about lack of damage, politely, but firmly ask (A) the title of the “Study,” (B) the authors, (C) who funded the study (a pregnant piece of information!), and (D) was it peer-reviewed.

Whether the mountain bike would cause trail damage pales before the likelihood that bikes would cause damage to hikers on multi-use, single-track trails. In order to experience the adrenaline “rush,” the mountain biker must be traveling fast. The park hiker must therefore maintain an intense state of alertness, ready to react to the shouted commands of the biker and leap off the trail, out of harm’s way. Not a favorable “park experience” for the average walking taxpayer.

Canyonlands National Park finds the idea of mountain bikes using single-track park trails so distressing that they put in bold print the notice forbidding such use. Indeed, most national parks forbid the use of bikes of any kind on backcountry hiking trails; a wise move.

“Most” does not mean all, and IMBA, like the proverbial camel and the tent, was able to get its nose in Big Bend National Park with a controversial “multi-use” trail near the park visitor center. (Despite the “multi-use designation, horses are forbidden on the trail for obvious reasons.)

“But,” you ask, “why not let the bikers try a few 'demonstration projects' in selected parks?”

Because the NPS has seen that movie and been to that dance hall. I believe it was called “letting snowmobiles into Yellowstone on a trial basis.”

Can Parks Be All Things To All People?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t, but like unfrying an egg, it was a hard decision to reverse.

After years of noise and air pollution, and libraries full of litigation and millions of dollars spent and thousands of hours of staff time devoted to the solution of an avoidable problem, and much anger and recrimination on both sides, the snowmobile problem was finally brought under control, with the number of snowmobiles pegged at 318 machines allowed in per winter day, down from as many as 2,000 a day in the bad old unregulated days

The fascinating story of special interests and the parks is ably told in Michael J. Yochim’s book Yellowstone and the Snowmobile: Locking Horns Over National Park Use.

Mr. Yochim goes on to say, “Park managers are advised to act very carefully before allowing a new form of recreation into their parks. This is especially true of any that have an organized lobby behind them (and that would certainly include mountain bikes). Once in a park, such forms of recreation are extremely difficult to eliminate, with the snowmobile issue in Yellowstone being the best example.

"Parks are under a lot of pressure to accommodate all sorts of different uses. They just can’t be all things to all people; if they were, they’d just be like everywhere else, except with pretty scenery."

PJ Ryan is a retired 30-year NPS veteran having served at Jewel Cave National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Joshua Tree National Monument (now Park), John Muir NHS, Jean Lafitte NHP and the Washington office of the NPS. You can read more of his thoughts on the parks at Thunderbear.

Comments

PJ, unlike your previous guest editorials, this one seems to have elicited no commentary. Maybe you should have said something about the rights of mountain bikers to carry guns while riding into park wilderness?

There are many places where information about the pros and cons of mountain bike uses on designated trails in official and unofficial wilderness can be obtained. For example, mountain bike use into the backcountry of NPS recreation areas is both permitted and encouraged. This is a major recreational use of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation area. Of course, most trails used for mountain biking in the BSFNRRA are actually abandoned jeep and logging roads.

Parks Canada also has acquired decades of experience in allowing mountain bike access via specified trails into the backcountry of their larger parks.

But you are correct. Once a park superintendent makes the decision to open up a single track trail to mountain bike use, that decision will likely become permanent and be very difficult to reverse. In opening up our national parks to a wide variety of recreational uses, care should be taken so that our parks are not just like everywhere else, "except with prettier scenery."

Excellent article! But probably the worst effects of mountain biking weren't mentioned: (1) teaching our young people, by example, that the rough treatment of nature (including the best that we have) is acceptable (who knows what the downstream effects of that will be?), (2) killing small animals and plants and destroying habitat (e.g. by new trail building), and (3) expanding the human footprint: mountain bikers travel much faster and farther than either hikers or equestrians. For more information: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtbfaq.htm.

Despite signs like this at every trailhead on the Wasatch-Cache just above Ogden, new trails and "jumps" pop up like toadstools. Receiving a buzz job from a mountain bike -- or even a whole stampeding herd of them -- is just about a monthly occurance for anyone who hikes the trails regularly. Someday, so help me, the end of my walking stick is going to accidentally tangle with somebody's front spokes as I leap out of the way. Or maybe I should "stand my ground" and simply point the end of the stick like a lance toward the chest of the oncoming rider before leaping at the last second. In my imagination I can see the look of horror on the idiot's face and hear the screeching of brakes and resounding crash as he tries to stop or dodge around me off trail.

I know it wouldn't be nice, but dang, that's sure tempting!

Last month, I helped a family and their 10-year old girl down the mountain after the family had been forced to dive for cover when five mountain bikes shot past. My imaginary bikers expressions would probably about match the one that certainly was on the face of the girl just before she jumped. The girl dove off the downhill side and landed in some rocks about five feet down. She wasn't badly hurt. Scrapes, bruises, and badly shaken. We made a cell call to police, but the bikers got away.

Mountain bikers are their worst enemy as hikers and equestrians are injured by them. In addition to injuries more users are avoiding single track trails heavily used by mountain bikers. The proliferation of illegal trails continues in parks and preserves nationwide. It is time to say mountain bikes do not belong on single track trails except those restricted to other users, and illegal trail making must be stopped by land managers. They talk a good line about promoting multiuse trails and "why can't we all get along". But their actions speak louder than words.

I only went mountain biking once in the mountains years ago and I was on a national forest off of the blue ridge parkway. I remember two things holding on for dear life coming down a logging road I had walked the bike up and the beautiful trail that followed a ridge line that required peddling and coasting that was gentle enough to contemplate the scenery and wildlife. There was plenty of time to see and stop if there were hikers on the trail. Of the two experience I much prefer following the ridge line.

After thinking about this article for a couple of days I just can't help but think there is a hierarchy of reasons and associated activities associated with National Parks that other government controlled undeveloped lands don't necessarly have.

Thrill seeking actities that endanger not just the participants but other visitors are wrong. Beyond this I believe national parks were set aside as places that were complete as they were with the intent to preserve those physical, cultural and spiritual attributes first everything else comes in a distant second.

Sounds like mountain biking on single track trails has crossed the line.