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The Monarch Crest

…and they don’t belong to me, either.


It was late June, and the word was out that most of the snow on the iconic Monarch Crest Trail had finally melted. While I was definitely planning to get out and do the full shuttle ride once the weekend arrived, I decided to drive up to the pass for a quick above-treeline out-and-back after work. Normally the Crest is devoid of human life after 4pm on weekdays, and this early in the season I didn’t expect to see a soul.

The weather was absolutely glorious–the temperature was perfect, the sun was shining, and spring flowers were blooming on the alpine tundra. A couple of tall snow drifts were still clinging to their usual spots. Riding the Crest is always fabulous, but the first Crest ride of the year? Simply euphoric.

After crossing a drift or two and pedaling toward Fooses Creek, I saw a hiker and biker ahead of me, chatting in the middle of the trail. As I started to go around the pair, the hiker reached out with his trekking poles and attempted to block my way.

Our interaction went something like this:

“Mountain bikes aren’t allowed on this trail,” said the hiker. “This is the Collegiate West portion of the Continental Divide Trail, and you’re not allowed to mountain bike here. I can’t let you pass.” While the newly-constructed Collegiate West trail is indeed off-limits to mountain bikes, that was not the trail we were riding.

I wasn’t about to let some self-righteous hiker who obviously had no clue where in the world he happened to be harsh my euphoric flow. Since there were no trees here, I simply skirted around his trekking poles, talking as I went.

“Dude, you have no idea where you are right now,” I said. “This is the Monarch Crest Trail. While yes, it’s part of the Continental Divide Trail, this is one of the most famous mountain bike trails in the country! Bikes are totally legal here.”

The other rider, an older chap, piped in, “So this IS the Monarch Crest Trail?!” He appeared to be visiting from out of town and not very familiar with the area.

“Yes, this IS the Monarch Crest,” I affirmed. As I walked by, I took stock of the hiker. Unlike the stereotypical HOHA member, this guy appeared to be in his late 20s to early 30s–roughly my age. He was out for more than just a day-hike, geared up to backpack a long portion of the CDT. While he did try to block my way, he wasn’t super aggressive or shouting–but still, he didn’t intend to let us pass.

“Look, you obviously have no idea where you are,” I responded. “I live here. I’ve ridden these trails for years. I know which trails are open to bikes, and which trails aren’t. You have at least another 20 miles before you even reach the Collegiate West trail.”

“No dude, you’re wrong. This trail is off limits to bikes.”

By this point, I was already past the hiker, and I hollered back over my shoulder, as I remounted my bike, “Not only is this trail open to mountain bikes, it’s open to MOTORCYCLES as well! When you get to the end of this section in just a few miles you’ll see a sign showing that this trail is open to mountain bikes and motorcycles, in addition to hikers and horseback riders. While there’s a temporary sign up right now saying the trail is closed to motos until the snow drifts melt, in a few weeks you’ll see motorcycles on this trail.”

The ill-informed hiker continued to protest, but I was already pedaling off.

A few hundred yards later I glanced over my shoulder to see how the biker was getting on, and it appeared that the hiker had convinced him to turn around. On my return trip, I saw no sign of the other rider. Unfortunately for this out-of-towner, a self-righteous, ill-informed hiker ruined what may have been his only chance–EVER–to ride the Monarch Crest. But my euphoric first Crest ride of the season would not be ruined.

Since I was doing an out-and-back, I had to ride back to Monarch Pass, and lo and behold–I came upon the hiker again. It just so happened that he was at the end of the singletrack where it meets the dirt road, where the sign showing acceptable uses was posted. He was examining the sign, and looking at his phone.

“Hey man, I’m really sorry,” he said as I rolled up. “I thought for sure this trail was closed to bikes. I have a map and everything,” he said.

“Can you show me your map?” I asked. “I can let you know where you are so you know how to get to Collegiate West.”

The hiker pulled out his phone to show me, and his so-called “map” consisted of one squiggly red line, with a split denoting the diversion of the Collegiate West section with another route option. However, there was absolutely no context on the map, with no trail intersections, topographic lines, or other identifying features marked. I have literally hand-drawn better maps than the one he showed me on his phone.

“Well, here’s Collegiate West,” I pointed at the split, “but you’re actually way down here somewhere. You have probably another 20 to 30 miles to get to Collegiate West.”

At this point, clearly in the wrong, he felt the need to justify his actions. “Hey I’m sorry man, but I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life backpacking. You know that mountain bikes tear the crap out of the trail, so you can understand my frustration.”

This ill-informed soul had just been hiking on a trail that was open to both mountain bikes and motorcycles, without realizing it. Apparently, bikes don’t do enough damage for it to be noticeable. I wasn’t about to get into a debate that would ruin my rider’s high, so I just said, “Hope you have a safe hike, man,” and went on my way.


As I drove home, I kept replaying the conversation in my head. “Who did that guy think he was?!” I thought to myself. “He’s not even from here, and he had the audacity to act like he owned the trail! He saw not one, but two separate riders come up to the same place on the trail, fully prepared to ride that stretch of singletrack. How could he be such a pompous ass that he assumed he was in the right and we were in the wrong, even though he had a useless map?”

I decided to let it go. Beginning the next day, the trail would be flooded with mountain bikers, with July 4th marking the unofficial start of the Monarch Crest trail riding season. Soon, there would be no mistaking that mountain bikers are common on the trail.

A photo from the day in question — pretty euphoric!

Mountain Bikers Can Be Just as Wrong as that Hiker

I live in a small mountain town that, generally speaking, doesn’t see the negative trail interactions that are more common on crowded trails near big cities. Nobody has ever been assaulted. No one has ever installed hidden spike strips or neck-high fishing line. And yet, there’s still the rare negative interaction. As a board member for the local trail advocacy group–a non-motorized multi-user group–I hear reports of the rare bad behavior on our local trails. And sometimes, the mountain bikers are the ones at fault.

I once heard a report of a mountain biker on the nearby Rainbow Trail throwing down a bike in front of a motorcycle rider, screaming at the moto rider that they were tearing up the trails and not allowed to be riding there. The mountain biker then attempted to prevent the moto rider from continuing on. The problem is, the Rainbow Trail is 100% motorcycle legal for its entire 140-mile length, and the moto riders do a ton of maintenance on this trail.

A moto rider riding a moto-legal trail? Shocker!

Even on our nonmotorized trails I’ve heard multiple reports of mountain bikers screaming down trails and not yielding–or even slowing down–for hikers and runners, forcing those on foot to jump off the trail to avoid being run down.

Here’s the moral of the story: you don’t own the trails. And I don’t own them, either.

The trails belong to all of us collectively, and when we don’t treat each other with respect on the trails, everyone loses. The asshole mountain biker who runs the hiker off the trail loses, because now that’s one more hiker who might choose to fight against mountain bike access, who might not feel safe on the sweet singletrack in their own backyard.

Even in what turned out to be a relatively benign interaction with a hiker on the Crest, we both lost. My euphoric first Crest ride was tainted by an ignoramous, and I suspect the ignoramous felt bad about wrongly confronting two riders.

Here’s my final takeaway: If you’re tempted to tell someone off for using a trail–for example, if you see someone riding an e-bike on a trail that you think doesn’t allow e-bikes–take a second to check yourself. Are you sure you know the rules on that particular trail? Even if you do, is going out of your way to confront this other trail user going to help the situation? Or will it just make things worse?

Be nice, say hi. I’m convinced that if everyone were to choose to treat other trail users like valuable human beings, trail conflicts would cease to be an issue.

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# Comments

  • triton189

    Really great article, pertains to what I see on an almost daily basis here in the Chicago area. “Even on our non motorized trails I’ve heard multiple reports of mountain bikers screaming down trails and not yielding–or even slowing down–for hikers and runners, forcing those on foot to jump off the trail to avoid being run down.” This behavior is probably the biggest threat to our access to trails, not e bikes. I always ride with a trail bell that lets hikers and equestrians know I am coming, and if I do happen to surprise someone I apologize, stop and let them pass! Crazy I know, yet I feel I am the minority. Sorry just venting!

  • jaredmente

    Well said. Still, that parting comment from the hiker about bikes tearing the crap out of trails does irk me!

  • takeAkayak

    It’s sad to see how it takes only one person to put a cloud in your day…but then you need many more smiling people to blow that cloud away : / Keep smiling : )

  • sapios

    Great article, only thing I would add is if you are sure of access, addressing a unauthorized user is appropriate. Case in point our local park which is just now installing no ebike signs, had several problems with ebike riders, until people were told that they weren’t allowed. In each insudent the ebike user was informed and told not to ride a ebike in the park again. Sometimes ignoring a problem only allows it to become a bigger problem.

  • Framebreaker

    Greg,

    Was so affirming and yet challenging to hear about the hiker trying to be trail police.

    My experience has been similar but never had someone physically try to block my way – It’s usually the “hey bikes aren’t allowed on this trail!” They haven’t been accurate yet, after thousands of trail miles across WA, OR, CA and AZ.

    However – I understand and try to soften their response to seeing a mountain biker on the trail. We’ve all been hiking somewhere and heard a biker rushing down the trail and stepped off to avoid danger.

    My opinion is these hikers who speak out are 1. Self-appointed trail nazis excited with their newfound ability to exercise their “authority” over someone or 2. Scared of the danger bikers represent (founded or not) 3. Conscientious advocates of peaceful, mutually-beneficial use of trails.

    My part: try to softly deflect the outspoken jerks -usually by saying something benign and pedaling on. Slow down on approach to hikers, particularly those with small kids, and often yield the trail, make sure they know I’m coming around the bend and make somewhat exaggerated show of goodwill. Talk to people of conscience and engage in respectful discussion of whatever their issue is.

    While I can’t fully control moments of conflict on the trail I treasure our awesome trails and like having other nature-lovers on the trail. And so showing a reasonable, mostly safe presence on the trail is my self appointed task. Now when no one is around I might be ripping down some sick singletrack but when others are around it’s kinda nice to show some mutual respect to the mere mortals who use their feet to touch the ground 🙂 even when it’s not reciprocated because . . . Well it’s just the best way to defuse the confusion and emotion around these issues.

    Cheers

  • Riverntrail

    Great article, Greg.
    I think we should keep in mind that when we ride mountain bikes, we become ambassadors for the sport, whether we want to be or not. The way we act toward other trail users can affect their opinion of mountain bikers as a group for better or worse. You handled that encounter with the hiker extremely well, and I hope he thinks more highly of all of us as a result.

  • Michael Leister

    Too bad I can’t get riders at Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland, CA to read this and abide by it more. But I’m guessing those that don’t abide, also don’t read articles such as yours. They are above the morality of it all.

  • rhartman18

    Great article Greg. It is so true we need to respect all. It’s battle to keep our trials open The frustration being a Mtn biker is coming across a rude fellow biker.
    When being friendly & say hi with a smile to
    hikers 99% if them well respond in a friendly manner & even tell you to have a safe ride. So being friendly even when it’s hard goes along way.

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