Holen: Mountain bikes on the Colorado Trail leave something to be desired (column)
Writers on the Range
This summer, I hiked approximately half of the Colorado Trail from Waterton Canyon to Highway 50 near Salida, covering about 250 miles in 23 days. Overall, it was a good experience, though not a great one. Among the factors limiting my enjoyment were the many road crossings and noise from nearby cars, ATVs and — sometimes unnervingly — gunshots.
I was also dismayed to discover that the first 130 miles of the trail are dominated by mountain bikers, with the exception of the Lost Creek Wilderness Area, which excludes them. Although I have more than 40 years experience backpacking in the western U.S. and Alaska, sharing the trail with mountain bikers was a new experience for me.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not anti-mountain biking, but it is a fundamentally different experience than backpacking. A large part of what makes backpacking worth all the effort is that it is so conducive to reverie — reverie that is fed by beauty and solitude and the rhythm of walking.
For mountain bikers, the word “focus” might substitute for reverie. And focus and mastery provide their own kind of high, as rock climbers and mountaineers and river runners can attest. I am not knocking any of those activities.
The problem is that when mountain bikes dominate the trail, hikers get startled out of our reverie and rhythm as we are forced to step off the trail again and again to make way for mountain bikes. I am not saying that the mountain bikers I encountered were rude. They almost invariably said “Thank you!” when they went by. I appreciated that. But it doesn’t alter the fundamental dynamic and the impact it has on the hiking experience.
The official Colorado Trail guidebook notes that trail courtesy calls for mountain bikers to yield to hikers. But, out of the countless encounters I had with mountain bikes, only twice did the rider stop, dismount and wait for me to get by before racing on again. The notion that mountain bikers will yield the trail to backpackers simply does not reflect reality. In reality, it is typically easier for the hiker to step off the trail, and so, being the reasonable people that we are, that’s what we do. The mountain bikers clearly expect it and will slow down while the hiker finds a place to step off. Rarely, however, do the mountain bikers move aside for the sake of the hiker.
Some might say that our hiking reverie is also broken when we meet other hikers on the trail. True enough. But the other hikers are traveling at close to our own speed, so the startle factor is rarely an issue. Also, there is a camaraderie that exists among backpackers, which compensates for any inconvenience involved in making way for each other. There is no such camaraderie between hikers and mountain bikers.
I met a young man on the Colorado Trail who had hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail and asked him whether he encountered many mountain bikers on those trails. His answer was “no” because they’re not allowed there. He noted that on the Colorado Trail, the mixture was kind of a drag: “I’m sort of in my own little world, you know, and every time a mountain bike suddenly appears, I get the shit scared out of me.”
What to do? Well, backpackers could demand that mountain bikers yield the trail the way they’re “supposed to.” We could hold our ground rather than step aside. If that happened, though, we can all predict a dramatic rise in animosity and tension between trail users. But maybe, there’d be some positive benefit in the end because the animosity and tension might fuel enough motivation to create a better solution — development of a Colorado Mountain Bike Trail that is separate from the hikers’ Colorado Trail. Even more effective in providing the impetus to construct a separate trail would be to close the Colorado Trail to mountain bikes, starting next summer.
The population of Colorado is expected to grow substantially over the coming decades, and pressures on its famous, 486-mile-long trail are only going to increase. I hope serious discussions are already taking place about how to recapture and preserve the quality of experience for backpackers that was envisioned when the Colorado Trail was first developed.
Anne Marie Holen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Salida, Colorado.
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