A Modest Proposal: Building Mountain Bike Trails for Everyone

No, the answer to all of our problems isn’t eating babies. And while I contemplated attempting to write this blog post as a satire, I realized that a) I’m not clever enough to do so and b) the average internet reader probably isn’t clever enough to pick up on satire anyway (I’m sure you are above average, though).

Anyhow, I would like to propose a relatively simple solution to trail building in the modern world with an ever-increasing number of mountain biking disciplines and types of mountain bikes. In this blog post I am harkening back and expanding on the topic broached by my previous controversial hit-article, Sterilized Singletrack: A Spreading Epidemic.

Simply put: When building a trail system, build a little bit of something for everyone.

Yes, I know–this isn’t a ground-breaking principle. In fact, it’s the idea behind IMBA’s “stacked loop” trail design. In a stacked-loop design, the easier trails are closer to the trailhead and the more advanced trails are further out around the outside of the system, requiring more time and effort to get there which most advanced riders will gladly put in.

Personally, I have seen this design executed well (Five Points comes to mind) and rather poorly (theJackrabbittrails in North Carolina).

Don’t get me wrong–I loved riding Jackrabbit! However, it fails to offer a diverse mountain biking experience. There are a few trails around the outside of the system that are slightly more difficult than the entry trails, but examined in a broader context they barely pass intermediate status. So yes, while Jackrabbit does feature a stacked-loop design, it doesn’t fulfill the purpose the design was originally intended for.

There are some trail builders out there that get where I’m going with this article, and to them it sounds like I’m just preaching to the choir. For instance, the new trails coming to Coldwater Mountain in Anniston, Alabama promise to offer something for everybody:

If all goes according to schedule, in three or four years Coldwater Mountain will be home to a network of 60 miles of mountain bike trails constructed for various skill levels. Also included will be facilities known as a gravity area, a skills park and a pump track, all of which will allow riders to enjoy the facility without pedaling off deep into the forest. (Source)

Rock armoring at Coldwater Mountain. Photo: IMBA.

Other trailbuilders have been slow to jump on the something-for-everybody bandwagon, and would instead build miles and miles of vanilla trail that most people will enjoy, while challenging no one. It is to those trailbuilders that I speak today.

The Formula

For people in charge of building a new system from the ground-up, or looking to expand and enhance a new system, I propose the following breakdown of trail difficulty:

  • Beginner (green): 15%
  • Intermediate (blue): 45%
  • Advanced (black): 30%
  • Expert (double black): 10%

And here’s why…

Beginner

“Firebreak Tr.” atHarbison State Forest, Columbia, SC.Photo: jaybird57.

In this breakdown, let’s take, for example, a 20 mile trail system that is being built. With 15% of the trails designated for complete n00bs, that would provide 3 miles of singletrack designed specifically for absolute beginners. If they are completely new to riding bikes, 3 miles may be all they want to do. If, however, they are relatively fit and athletic, they could pretty easily graduate to intermediate trails, potentially on their first ride.

Intermediate

Thunder Mountain, Red Canyon, Utah. Photo: simongauthier.

With a proposed 45% of the entire trail system designated as intermediate trails, this would work out to 9 miles out of a 20 mile system – the single biggest chunk. Many beginner riders will be able to ride these trails with relatively little practice, and they’ll be good for advanced riders looking to log more mileage. These intermediate trails are the most versatile, and many trail systems around the nation already feature these types of trails almost exclusively. In my proposed system, while they are still the biggest single fraction, intermediate trails are only 45% of the total compared to many current trail systems that consist of 80-90% intermediate trails.

Advanced

Rider: Mandil Pradhan. Location: Mustang Valley, Nepal. Taken February 2012. Photo: Gaurav Man.

The advanced trails I’m talking about are true black-diamond trails–not the “black-diamond” trails that some trailbuilders illegitimately classify as advanced, but truly challenging trails with rock gardens, root webs, off camber corners, punchy climbs, steep descents, bridges, skinnies, and the occasional jump and drop. At 30% of the total 20 miles, this would comprise 6 miles of the trail system.

Expert

Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Colorado.

Expert trails border on the insane, with challenging double-black-diamond trails where it would be wise to have a dual-crown fork. While 10% of the entire trail system is a very small slice of the overall pie, 2 miles of true downhill trail would probably be plenty to keep the gravity crowd satiated, especially considering the lack of true DH offerings in many places around the nation.

Caveats

Some trail systems, especially in urban/suburban areas, simply don’t have the room to build trails that cater to everyone’s needs. In that instance, I can see why a trail, especially in a public park, would need to be built to the least common denominator. However, in urban areas where there are a number of trails and each individual park only has 5-10 miles of singletrack, the problem could still be solved by having each individual park catering to a different level of rider: beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert.

I know that building advanced trails can take more time and more money than many organizations are willing to put in. Sometimes it’s just so much easier to ramrod the trail machine through and be done with it.

But will a trail system with 20, 30, or 40 miles of trails that all look so similar that riders have a constant sense of deja vu really have better staying power than a more diverse offering? That’s the question I pose to you.

If you agree with me and decide to adopt this trailbuilding theory, the actual numbers/percentages could vary, of course, but the main concept should remain the same: we need to build more than just intermediate trails–we need to provide trails that span the entire spectrum of riders.

What do you think? What’s the perfect balance of trail difficulties?

Related posts:

  1. The McDonalds of Trail Building: Standardizing Mountain Bike Trails
  2. Mountain bikers take the lead on building/maintaining trails
  3. Giving Back: Mountain Bike Trail Building
  4. Guide to building better MTB trails
  5. Trails 20 & 21: RAMBO Mountain Bike Trails

This entry was posted in MTB Trails, Trail Building & Advocacy and tagged , , , , by Greg Heil. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Heil

My name is Greg Heil, and I am the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. I've been mountain biking seriously since 2005, and I love to travel and ride new trails. My travels have taken me across the United States multiple times. To date (November 2013), I have ridden hundreds of different trails in 18 different states, and am adding more singletrack to my trail resume every year! I enjoy all types of mountain biking, from ultra endurance cross country all the way up to chair lift-accessed downhill runs.

17 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal: Building Mountain Bike Trails for Everyone

  1. I think this is a good breakdown and something for trail designers to target. I’m guessing part of the reality is land managers nix the black diamond and double black diamond trails in the early stages of design for liability reasons which is why most systems end up with miles of intermediate trails.

    Now, as land managers become more educated and open to more difficult trails, it is possible to go back and add black diamond runs to an intermediate system. Just look at Buffalo Creek in Colorado or even Blankets Creek here in Georgia.

  2. I almost entirely agree with you… and the “almost” bit is where you classify DH/DJ as “expert”. In my mind, DH/DJ (and yeah, I know they’re not the same thing!) are just an entirely different skill set, not the “next step up.” There are plenty of DH guys who don’t have anything near the skill to climb the stuff they go down – and some talented XC guys who could go UP some DH trails, but not down them!

    But YES to stacked loops, varying degrees of difficulty, and also to trail offshoots (even short ones) that involve harder stuff. That’s what one park near me has done recently – the main trails through the park are beginner/intermediate, and there are some more advanced features on the smaller, side trails. It makes for a lot of nice options in what’s not really that huge of an area – and it also means more advanced riders don’t have to pedal miles out to get to the trickier bits they’d like to session.

  3. Nice write Greg.
    I do agree that a balanced mix is going to be the best solution however there are so many variables to that it really pays for trail builders to have done extensive research on an area and the users who are going to be there. While a group of local riders may be the best for designing trails that they are going to ride its important for them to step outside of their circle and look at the project with new eyes as inevitably there will be people either new to the sport, new to the area or both using these trails.
    Geography make all the difference- in some areas them advanced trails are simply dots on a rock or arrows pointing the way through the raw woods. Its the beginner trails that are hardest to build because they take so much effort in order to make the rough terrain sterilized enough for those just getting started. Ive seen more than a few communities will have beginner/intermediate trails in one area and intermediate/advanced trails in another- works just fine as long as they aren’t too many miles apart, visitors can easily hit up both in a day.

  4. @trek7k, great point! Buffalo Creek is a great example.

    @burnedthetoast, while the expert trails might warrant a DH bike and a dual crown fork, that doesn’t stop someone on a hardtail from attempting them. But I get what you’re saying.

    @AK_Dan, great points, all. While the advanced/expert trails are normally the outliers and the ones I probably focused on the most in this article, having beginner trails is crucial, too. I’ve visited many trail systems that, while I personally am more than capable of riding the trails, I know others are not. For instance, there are no good trails in my hometown to get beginners started on–they’re all too technically difficult or have too much climbing for true beginners. This makes events like the recent Dahlonega Trail Days, where we wanted to host a beginner mountain bike ride, difficult to coordinate.

  5. We were just discussing this the other day. We have some great examples of this in our neck of the woods – the 18 Road trails and the Kokopelli/Loma trails, but the Tabeguache “Lunch Loop” trails in GJ could use a few more actual “intermediate” and “beginner” trails. The one “easy” trail is still not suitable for beginners – it’s short but has more technical aspects than I would have wanted as a beginner and the “intermediate” trails still have some super tough sections. I know you have to try things in order to get better, but after you’ve huffed and puffed your way up a steep and narrow trail you aren’t really in the mood to try much! Here I usually suggest beginners and intermediates stick to Loma and 18 road until they’re really comfortable with narrow single track and ledge drops. Then it’s time to advance to Tabeguache.

  6. It’s like we have the opposite problem of most – too many expert/advanced trails and not enough beginner trails. I like advanced technical trails, but hey, sometimes after work all you want is a smooth flowing 4 or 5 miles of single track…

  7. @MTBGreg1- I think the part of your description that people (Burnedthetoast and myself) are struggling with black and double black doesn’t need to mean that it’s fast and downhill blast. We have a section of trail at the Cuyuna Lakes trail system her ein Minnesota that have an advanced “Playground” where it’s very slow and technical, forcing you to take your time picking through rocks and almost requiring a trials skillset. I’ve seen guys just barely tip over here and end up having to get stitches just because of the makeup of the terrain. Some of the trails in the around Duluth, MN and the U.P. of Michigan are the same way, they aren’t fast and downhill, but they require a slow technical skillset to make it through the section, something a beginner or even newer intermediate mountain bike rider may not poses unless they have a BMX or Moto-X background.

    I will say that I do like when trail systems that lack the real estate others have offer a more difficult b-line in areas just to give you something else to try (rock garden, skinny, etc) instead of the faster flowing intermediate trails.

  8. @phranquy, I get what you’re saying–personally, I LOVE trails like that! I imagine that some of those could possibly make it into the “double black” realm, but I wonder if most people would just classify them as a single black diamond or not.

    Like I said, the exact ratios could vary, and obviously how the trails are rated could vary somewhat, but the principle is what I’m trying to get at: when building a large, comprehensive trail system, we should be trying to cater to riders of all abilities and most/all disciplines. Maybe that means having technical flatland trails, technical climbs, AND technical downhill trails.

  9. Overall, your spread looks reasonable, but I think it’s too much to try to put some sort of bell curve of trails in every distinct trail or trail network. Plannin should take into account the riding resources of the area. For instance, I wouldn’t like to see a plethora of novice options at the aforementioned Lunch Loops. Regardless of what I personally like, however, it just seem unnecessary as there’s plenty of beginner/intermediate riding available at right next door at 18 Road, Koko, Rabbit Valley, Highline Lake, etc. So, the Fruita/GJ area isn’t holding anybody back. In some cases, maintaining a little purity is okay, especially if there’s other options available. For example, it would be a travesty to provide an easy way down the Porcupine Rim, but Moab has done a great job adding things like EZ/Lazy, Dead Horse Point, the new Monitor and Merrimack, etc, so there’s really no need.

    There’s some good examples in the Ski industry. Aspen Mountain has not a single green circle trail available. But beginner-friendly Buttermilk is next door and it’s just a few miles to the vast intermediate expanses of Snowmass. Aspen Mountain doesn’t even try to cater to a broad range of skiers, but the company as a whole does. MTB trail systems should work the same way. If an area doesn’t have what you’re looking for , then that area may not be for you. Novice skiers don’t generally take a ski vacation at Jackson Hole or Taos, but will be very happy at other destination resorts that still provide great snow, scenery and a top-notch vacation experience. I suspect the same could be said for MTB; if Fruita and Moab (more destination areas than local’s areas) don’t have enough of what you’re looking for, take your trip to Tsali or Sun Valley.

    Another variable not yet covered is the aerobic factor. Setting the gravity crowd aside for a momoent, most folks will encounter equal amounts of climbing and descending. Some skilled technical riders aren’t very aerobically fit and some aeroibic hammerheads are inexplicably paralyzed by any rock taller than their axle. So trying to cater to all levels of all variables may yield and unwieldy number of permutations.

    My bottom line thought is that trails should be build in communion with the land on which they reside. If the inherent flow of the land is rough, let the trails be rough–the Lunch Loops is a great example. Conversely, if it’s smooth and flowy, so be it. To me, force-fitting trail design to welcome the masses will ultimately detract from the biking experience.

    As far as local’s trails, especially in/near large population centers, then certainly, every attempt should be made to accommodate the broadest spectrum of riders. You’re not going to ruin the woods in the middle of town or the suburbs anyway.

    I should check out your local trails, Greg. In the 12 years I’ve been MTBing, I’ve lived in six distinct areas and traveled to dozens more–I’ve never failed to find a decent quantity and variety of beginner/intermediate riding, so I always assumed new riders would have plenty to cut their teeth on.

  10. With the network layout and the recent “maintenance” of the trails at Bull/Jake Mt, I would suggest that there are plenty of beginner options in that area. Actually, I think Greg’s complaint is the lack of technically advanced trails in GA rather than a major lack of beginner trails. The VAST majority have the intermediate vibe and are also typically machine cut. You have to go to the mountains to find the few that we have that challenge you technically. Many of those really only feel advanced because they are less frequently maintained (read “poorly maintained” in the eyes of the Forest Service). I find myself smiling when I find the trails that actually feel like they were made for hikers instead of bikers because I know I’ll at least get a challenge out of the trail and it won’t be the same neutered/boring machine cut trail.

  11. GG, I think the bull mt area really isn’t beginner friendly at all due to the factor that skibum mentioned: elevation. There’s some stuff that s doable, just not any good for true beginners. But I totally agree with you on the bland intermediate trail sentiments.

  12. I’m not sure this is quite on point, but I enjoy the challenging climbs, and physically tuff riding, though I don’t have the skills for technical challenges. I’d have to say your on the right track.

  13. I like Loop concept where expert features have beginner/intermideate bypass, so I can ride it with a friend who just started biking. Or I can go via bypass for a quick ride when short of time.
    Also I agree with Skibum that there are some trails supposed to be challenging and tough. That’s why Porcupine, Slickrock, Lunch Loop, Monarch Crest, Copper Harbor etc are Prime destinations where you can see riders from every country.
    I rode recently one “a little bit for everyone” trail and honestly will ride it again (because its close) but it’s not as fun as Copper Harbor or Porcupine Rim…

  14. @skibum – You’re definitely right that sometimes the terrain determines the ease/difficulty of the trails – it would be way more difficult to build beginner trails at Lunch Loop than it is to build them at 18 Road or Loma. Perhaps a better thing (especially here) is to make sure people know where to find the easy trails. I had a friend recently who tried to teach her roommate to mountain bike at Lunch Loop – and then finally, after a year, took her out to Rustler’s Loop in Loma and the roommate loved it!

  15. Yeah, Rustler’s and Kessel may well be the two best beginner rides on the planet–eminently rideable yet consistently interesting and entertaining. I always take Fruita first-timers there first. Hopefully, folks who go to Fruita, or any destination for that matter, do at least a little research to get a clue how to make the most of their vacation based on their own riding skill level, fitness level, and personal preferences. Singletracks alone provides enough data to accomplish that task, and there’s plenty more local sites as well (i.e. gjmountainbiking.com).

    As tough as LL is in general, it’s not without some easier stuff–kid’s meal is short, but the addition of Pet-e-Kes really opens up the place for intermediates or adventurous novices. It’s a nice loop to for a newb to climb the old Tabeguache Road and descend Pet-e-Kes. As a more advanced ride I’m equally jazzed as Pet-e-Kes gives us an interesting uphill route to access HC, Andy’s, Eagles, etc. This is a good example of adding to the bell curve wihtout detracting from the overall experience.

  16. I would agree completely that providing a diverse range of experiences is highly valued by trail users. Also highly prized would be providing a consistent experience on each trail.

    The difficulty in accomplishing this in an urban park area is maintaining sustainability or providing a reliable maintenance plan in the absence of sustainable construction. Building expert level trails that meet these criteria basically involves either rocks, complex water control systems, or a funded maintenance program. If the park terrain doesn’t have a lot of rock then the amount of effort and expense to create advanced level trails (fall line climbs and descents, roots, rocks, etc) becomes exponentially higher for a fewer number of users.

    Bottom line is all things equal it’s important to plan for a diverse trail experience for all users but lets not forget the important land management issues that must be taken into consideration for public lands that no one user group controls or owns.

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