Want to know what it takes to build mountain bike trails? Here’s the answer.
Hundreds of miles of dirt mountain biking trails snake through the region. But for every mile of trail, even more hours went into lobbying for, planning, routing, permitting and building those trails.
Over the past five years, the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association has led the charge to work with federal land managers, conservation groups and other land users to create trails and trail networks. Trails are both office and playground for RFMBA Executive Director Mike Pritchard and his volunteer associates. The organization formed in 2008 and in 2013 became an affiliate of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
An architect by trade, Pritchard had done some trail advocacy and design work as a member of the Aspen Cycling Club before RFMBA’s formation. The timing was ideal: Several area public land resource management plans were being updated and localized-use plans were in process, such as the one that evolved at Sky Mountain Park near Snowmass.
“We started providing a voice for mountain bikers,” said Pritchard, who was one of RFMBA’s several volunteer board members at formation. He became its first paid executive director as the membership base grew. The move from an all-volunteer organization to one that could stay involved every step of the way was huge, he said.
“We realized we were missing opportunities all the time,” Pritchard said. “Being able to make phone calls and reply to emails and just getting to know our land managers has been very valuable.”
The process itself is all about working closely with both Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land managers on trail proposals and making sure mountain biking interests are represented in resource management decisions.
An ongoing issue for land managers is dealing with myriad “social trails,” especially as both motorized and mechanized users put more and more pressure on public lands.
“We know the best situations come about when land managers can work through the process,” Pritchard said.
Several years ago, BLM converted the Crown/Prince Creek area southeast of Carbondale to a Special Recreation Management Area. It was previously under an open travel policy. In the late 1990s, the Red Hill Recreation Area on the north side of Carbondale was established using the same process. A hodge podge of jeep roads and paths cut by motorcyclists had proliferated. As mountain bikers discovered it, BLM established a network of dedicated motorized and nonmotorized trails. That helped avoid conflicts between users and uncontrolled trail-making within the expanse of land that lies between Prince Creek on the south and the paved Rio Grande Trail to the north.
“It became a great opportunity to enhance the mountain bike experience up there,” Pritchard said. “Since the plan was finalized we have been working with the BLM directly to educate them and others involved in the process about the kinds of trails we are looking for.”
A CASE STUDY
A recent case study involved the Lower Buckhorn reroute, built in the summer of 2016. The 1.5-mile, switchback trail section is near Rock Bottom Ranch with direct access to the Rio Grande Trail. The reroute improved what had been an old double-track utility easement route that trespassed across private property and basically followed the fall line up the northeast side of the Crown.
“It was never meant to be a route for public use,” Pritchard said. “As people were using it more and more, the BLM recognized that it was a problem, and that access could be lost to that entire side of Crown if we didn’t start managing it.”
Conceptual trails had been sketched out before BLM turned its attention to the broader resource and travel management plan process. Once that was completed, it was time to hit the ground in earnest.
RFMBA worked closely with groups like Eagle County’s mid-valley trails committee and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers to plan the trail route. It simultaneously weighed environmental and cultural concerns identified through the required National Environmental Policy Act planning process.
Once the route was determined and laid out with flags, veteran trail builder Tony Boone Trails cut Lower Buckhorn and the new Glassier Open Space Trail located farther to the east.
BUILDING THE TRAIL
The optimum trail grade is about 6 percent, which is why switchback trails have replaced some historic, steep fall-line trails.
“What you get is a trail that’s wide enough to have good two-way traffic, and turns that are bike optimized and not too narrow,” Pritchard said, adding that it’s important to accommodate all levels of riders.
New trails are typically built using machines, rather than by hand, Pritchard explained. A professional trail builder using a mini bulldozer and small excavator can do the work for about $5 per foot. It’s a matter of making more efficient use of time and resources.
He said, “We could build a similar trail by hand, but it would take longer and actually cost more.”