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This trail is open to motorized vehicles? photo: Jeff Barber

For many of us, the term “motorized trail” conjures images of torn up, washed out, and rutted singletrack that’s wide enough for two side-by-side ATVs to pass.

Given the choice, mountain bikers generally prefer trails of the non-motorized variety for both their quality and the promise of unadulterated scenery. However, those who ride electric mountain bikes don’t have that choice, at least when it comes to accessing the wonderful, non-motorized trails that snake across vast tracts of US National Forests and BLM land.

And yet, there are some surprisingly excellent motorized trails where eMTBs can be ridden legally today.

On a trip to Sun Valley and Ketchum, Idaho this summer I found myself legally riding not one but two different electric mountain bike on scenic, wild, and well-maintained US Forest Service (USFS) trails. It turns out non all motorized trails are bad, and that it is indeed possible to ride eMTBs in some pretty great places right now.

Greenhorn Gulch

Signs of life years after a devastating forest fire. photo: Jeff Barber

The Greenhorn Gulch trailhead is located a few miles south and due west of the town of Ketchum, past the pavement where the road turns to gravel. Endless singletrack loops spiral out from the trailhead, forming a web that reaches deep into the Sawtooth National Forest.

This area and to the north is known as the Smoky Mountains, which is cruelly accurate given the forest fires that have devastated the area over the years. Fortunately, today there are clear signs of life among the charred remnants of a once dominant forest. Colorful wildflowers and handlebar-height green grass frames nearly every view, and many Aspen trees now exceed slam-dunk height. Sadly. the smell of another wildfire burning in the region hung faintly in the air during my visit, a reminder that wildfire is capable of massive destruction at the slightest whim.

The yellow-line trails on this map are open to motorcycles and e-bikes. That’s pretty much all of them. photo: Jeff Barber

The trails at Greenhorn Gulch are multi-use in the broadest, most inclusive sense of the term. Hikers share the trails with bikers, horseback riders, trail runners, and dog walkers. Even motorcycles and yes, electric mountain bikes are welcome here.

A large group of us descended on the Greenhorn Gulch trail to try out eMTBs from Specialized and BMC, and because it was an organized event, a permit was pulled with the local land manager. In fact, part of our group ran into the land manager who happened to be out riding his regular, non-electric mountain bike that day.

The trails

photo: Jeff Barber

From the trailhead, pretty much every trail in the Greenhorn Gulch area climbs up, and at times, the trail can be steep. We started with the 10.6-mile, Greenhorn-Imperial loop which gains about 2,000 of elevation overall. Most mountain bikers prefer to ride this loop counter-clockwise for a more gradual climb and a steeper descent. We decided to go the opposite direction.

Almost immediately, I could understand why most riders prefer to go counter-clockwise. The clockwise climb up the Imperial trail is steep, dry, and mostly exposed, which makes for a grueling ascent in the hot Idaho sun. It’s one of those climbs that everyone just wants to end, so much so that many never even start it in the first place. It’s here that I found myself glad to be aboard an electric-assist bike.

More signs of life. photo: Jeff Barber

The trails at Greenhorn Gulch are not unlike many of the others I’ve ridden in the western US, serving up a base of hardpack with a thin, loose layer of sand and pebbles on top. Much to my surprise, there was no evidence of moto-induced, roost-related ruts nor was the trail anything but a single-track wide. If motorcycles are able to ride these trails without damaging them, surely e-bikes will have little-to-no effect.

This trail can’t be much wider than a motorcycle — or fat bike — tire. photo: Jeff Barber

These natural-surface motorcycle and eMTB-legal trails are narrow and buff, weaving through tall grass lowlands, scrubby ridges, and leafy forested coves. Riding an electric bike through the area makes it possible to take in the views a bit more instead of riding bent over the bars gasping for breath. Though, to be completely honest, on this particular ride I found myself staring at the wheel of the rider in front of me, trying to hang onto the group for dear life. Yes, riders still have to work — sometimes really hard — even on a e-bike.

Love ’em or hate ’em, e-bikes are pretty impressive from a technology standpoint. This is the Specialized Kenevo, a pedal-assist enduro bike, that I rode on the Imperial-Greenhorn loop. photo: Jeff Barber

While I really enjoyed riding the Greenhorn-Imperial loop, I can’t say I have a desire to ride it on my regular mountain bike. In a way, the e-bike spoiled the trail for me. Following this ride, pedaling the trail on a regular mountain bike would just seem slow and painful.

There’s a sense of accomplishment I get from reaching the top of a ridge under my own power, but I didn’t feel that after riding an e-bike. While feeling guilty about an e-bike ride is totally irrational, that’s not to say it’s not real, at least for me today. That’s not to say my perception won’t change over time, but for now, riding an e-bike sorta ruins trails like this for me.

User conflict

There goes the neighborhood. A pack of riders on eMTBs descends on the singletrack. photo: Jeff Barber

Based on the limited interactions and conversations I’ve had with off-road motorcyclists, it seems many moto riders prefer riding uphill to going down. This is great, because in my experience it makes it easy to share the trail with them on trails like Captain Jack’s in Colorado Springs or Green’s Creek Trail off the Monarch Crest. Motos up, bikes down, and everyone generally gets along.

photo: Jeff Barber

After test riding eMTBs for several years now, I’ve concluded they’re fun and comfortable on the climbs, but a little awkward and cumbersome on descents. If I could take an e-bike to the top of the hill, then descend on a regular mountain bike, that would be paradise.

Toward the end of my second e-bike ride at Greenhorn Gulch on the Cow Creek Connector trail, I crashed on a skinny, rocky section of singletrack that I’m sure would be a piece of cake on a regular mountain bike. Luckily I didn’t get too banged up, as a crash here could have easily been much worse.  

I crashed this bike hard on a rocky descent. photo: Jeff Barber

All of this is to say that I suspect riders on electric mountain bikes may end up preferring slightly different trails than riders on regular mountain bikes. Or, at least they may prefer to ride trails in the opposite direction, just as we did on the Imperial-Greenhorn loop. When the climbs are more fun and the descents slightly less so, riders see and attack trails in a new way.

One of the concerns among mountain bikers is that trail user conflict may become an issue as eMTBs become more common. Despite riding with a group of 10-15 others on eMTBs, I saw nothing but smiles and pleasant greetings from the hikers, trail runners, and regular mountain bike riders on the trails at Greenhorn Gulch.

Descents like this one are generally fun no matter what you’re riding. Plus, the sight lines make trail user conflicts virtually non-existent. photo: Jeff Barber

The BLM office in Shoshone, ID is actually studying electric mountain bike access to see if a modification to the agency’s travel management plan makes sense. Based on what I found at Greenhorn Gulch, it’s not hard to imagine the agency loosening rules on eMTBs on certain trails down the line.

Can eMTBs co-exist?

So if electric mountain bikes are already allowed to ride great trails like those in the Greenhorn Gulch area, why do e-bike advocates keep asking for access to more trails, including non-motorized ones? Probably for the same reason many of us want bike access to certain trails in designated Wilderness areas.

We all just want a place to do our thing outdoors in peace. At Greenhorn Gulch, it’s already happening.

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# Comments

  • charding

    Everytime I read an article about eMTBs, I make a face. lol

    Still, it’s nice to know that as I get older and less physically able, there are options that may still allow me to enjoy riding trails, even if I need a little help or assist. I’ll bet eMTBs really irk riders who are real serious about their Strava segments, though.

    Regarding potential conflict, I’d just treat them as I would a regular rider who is faster than me – let ’em pass with a nod, a smile and a wish to “have a great ride!”.

    • Jeff Barber

      I considered mentioning that the organizers of the ride, who live in the area and ride these trails often, reminded everyone to select the “e-bike” option for the ride in Strava. I did this, but realized weeks later that I was still on the leaderboard. Oops! Or maybe it was a separate e-bike leaderboard, I’m still not sure. I ended up checking the box that says, “exclude this from leaderboards” just to be sure.

    • savageasflux

      Not a fan on ebikes.
      The Ebikes and others who cheat on Strava have really turn me off on the app and slightly on biking altogether, at first it was a good and fun comparison tool, but its gotten to the point where the ebikes and especially motorcycles are using it in my area and taking over the bike leaderboards. Ive talked guys running 60 miles in 2 hours off road on motorcycles and brag about how they are now king of the hill on all Strava segments in that secion that i used to be king of the hill on some on my standard bicycle, and then also the ebikes that are running close to 15mph uphill while everyone is walking up at 3mph ive still seen at the top of leaderboards at the end of the day.

      Also regarding the uphills, i hate it that these ebikes are now coming up singletracks that used to be downhill only, its made for several dangerous scary corners, and very close calls of having to bail off bike even when im using my Timberbell as they feel im in their way.

    • Jeff Barber

      @savageasflux I’m pretty diligent about flagging rides on the leaderboard if it seems like they are not legit MTB rides. The riders rarely if ever push back (it’s often a mistake), and I feel good for doing my part to keep the leaderboard “clean.”

      E-bikes going uphill on DH-only trails is something I haven’t encountered, but I can see that being an issue. Unfortunately we can’t stop people from being idiots (or just clueless), whether they’re on a regular bike on an electric one.

  • Moto Bike Mike

    Never owned an Ebike, but glad to hear they are being accepted in more places. They sound like a fun option for many folks.

  • Matt Miller

    Super fun story to read. Love hearing the perspective on eBikes from both sides of the spectrum.

  • sgoeckner

    Ebikes are motorized vehicles. They don’t belong in non-motorized areas. We’re over complicating this whole issue. I’m tired of folks acting like stating the above opinion means you’re “anti older people/less physically fit people”. There are lots of legit ways to get shuttled to the top of a hill if you want to focus on the descent. Leave the uphill trails for those of us who actually want to ride them. I have no problem with ebikes for commuting, using on 4wheeler trails etc. but they don’t belong on singletrack or trails not open not open to other motorized rigs. As someone who lives in Idaho, the reality is that more back country areas are going to be closed to bikes BECAUSE of ebike overuse/abuse and the fact that most people don’t differentiate between an Ebike and an actual backcountry rider/mtn biker.

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