The phrase “illegal mountain bike trail” conjures up different emotions depending on who you talk to. To some it’s an adrenaline-filled dare; to others it’s forbidden fruit not to be touched; to still others, it’s a guilty pleasure. To non-mountain-bikers, it’s a rule they expect to be strictly enforced. But what are illegal mountain bike trails really?
Land managers tend to refer to these types of trails in a number of ways, though rarely as illegal per se; instead they call them: unauthorized, user-generated, social trails, or non-system trails. User-generated trails have existed since well before the days of mountain bikes and hikers are just as guilty (if not more so) for creating many of the social trails that exist today in local, state, and federal parks.
Recreational ecologists and others who study trail systems have come to the conclusion that if official trails don’t take users where they want to go, unofficial trails will pop up to fill the void. This means, for example, that if a trail takes the scenic route to the banks of the river, hikers and bikers will find a more direct route to get there. And if there’s a sweet boulder in the middle of the forest, mountain bikers will beat a path to shred it.
To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, in California alone, officials estimate there are more than 13,000 miles of non-system trails located on state and federal lands. Many of these trails are unsustainable from an environmental perspective and can be dangerous as well. The downside is that government agencies end up diverting funds from official trail building and maintenance projects to close and remediate the unofficial trails that spring up. Some agencies have had success charging illegal trail builders with the huge costs of clean up – but that’s only if they’re able to catch the culprits in the act.
In certain instances, social trails can become official trails which tends to send a mixed message to unauthorized trail builders. This can happen due to the ongoing failure of signage and trail closures or an eventual recognition that users prefer the unofficial routes over the official ones. Of course this is pretty rare and can take years – and in the meantime the risk of fines and other punishment is high.
Mountain biking was born out of a non-conformist culture so there’s always an undercurrent of flouting the rules in search of the best dirt. At the IMBA World Summit we heard about one community where bumper stickers were printed that said “Don’t be the Ranger’s Bitch – Ride Illegal Trails!” Clearly this doesn’t help open new trails to bikes any more than constructing unofficial trails does.
The author around 1997. In my defense I was an idiot back then as the lack of helmet and sweaty cotton t-shirt attest. We didn’t actually ride this trail at Bull Mountain that day but thought at the time it would make a funny pic.
One more definition of an illegal mountain bike trail is any trail (official or otherwise) that is closed to bikes but open to other users (hikers, equestrians, etc.). IMBA’s conservative stance is that unless bikes are expressly allowed on a trail it should be considered closed to bikes (harsh). The fines and penalties for riding these trails can be just as nasty as if they were unofficial trails – just ask the Riding the Spine crew about mountain biking in the Grand Canyon. Suffice it to say if you’re not interested in being taken into custody by federal agents you may want to stick to the legal trails.
Illegal mountain bike trails will never completely disappear and it’s up to each individual to make responsible riding decisions for the greater good. Know that if you commit the crime you gotta be prepared to do the time and be accountable to all the other mountain bikers who are affected by your actions.