5 Reasons Why It’s (Still) the Golden Age of MTB Trail Development

We are currently enjoying a golden age of mountain bike trail development. To understand how we got here, we take a look at the five factors that have combined and fermented to make this golden age a reality.
Cedar City, UT. Photo: Liz Chrisman, courtesy IMBA

Way back in 2015, I hypothesized in one of my weekly columns that we were entering a “golden age of trail building.” In 2017, we released a podcast asking, “Is this the Golden Age of Mountain Biking?” and the explosion in mountain bike trail development was one critical factor we discussed.

Now, take a minute to reflect on the past nine years of mountain bike trail development. In that time, destinations like Bentonville, Arkansas, have gone from anonymity to now claiming to be the “Mountain Bike Capital of the World.” Communities across the nation have built thousands of miles of singletrack where none previously existed. Today, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is currently engaged with an astounding 530 communities across the nation who are currently planning to build more trails close to home. An additional 89 trail builds are already in progress, and since 2019, IMBA has assisted in the completion of 84 trail projects—for an astounding total of 703 communities.

While IMBA is involved in most trail projects in one capacity or another, there are also numerous successful projects with no IMBA involvement, especially in countries where IMBA’s presence isn’t as well-developed as it is here in North America. These numbers clearly show that my 2015 hypothesis has been proven correct.

But how has this golden age of mountain bike trail development come to be? What are the various factors that have combined and fermented to create such a magical time in history where more mountain bike trails are being built than ever before? To find out, I spoke with Eleanor Blick, Director of Communications for IMBA; Ashley Korenblat, Managing Director at Public Land Solutions; and Nathan “Woody” Woodruff, President and Founder of Progressive Trail Design. 

Cedar City, UT. Photo: Liz Chrisman, courtesy IMBA

1. Trails are no longer about just getting from A to B.

When we look way back at the history of trail building in the USA, many of our classic backcountry mountain bike trails were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. Some of these trails followed even older routes established by indigenous peoples. In eons past, trails were about one thing and one thing only: getting from point A to point B. The CCC also adhered to this ethos, even if points A and B were natural attractions like a waterfall, river corridors, or getting from Georgia to Maine.

Today, modern mountain bike trail development often has nothing to do with getting from A to B. Instead, “the biggest, most dramatic shift” in mountain bike trail building “is going from a practical paradigm to an experiential paradigm,” said Nathan “Woody” Woodruff, President and Founder of Progressive Trail Design (PTD). PTD knows a thing or two about building engaging experiential trails—they helped pioneer the development of Bentonville’s world-famous purpose-built flow trails, and now build mountain bike trails of all types all around the world. 

Woodruff said that as mountain bike technology improved, it enabled people to ride new and different types of trails. And then, “as more and more people got into the sport, more and more people realized, ‘hey, we can build some really cool shit that would make this trail experience a lot better. Why do we have these flat turns? Let’s build up a berm so we can rail these turns faster.’ And then it’s like, ‘oh, that was fun hitting that log. Maybe we should build a jump to go over it?'” 

Today, dense trail networks with feature-filled trails are the norm, and these types of trail systems can be built on relatively small plots of public land that were ignored for many years. “While long point-to-point trails are still important, public land parcels that don’t necessarily connect to anything have become highly successful recreation assets for communities of every description,” said Ashley Korenblat, Managing Director at Public Land Solutions.

Prescott, AZ. Photo: Liz Chrisman, courtesy IMBA

2. Professional trail builders are changing the game.

Professional trail building companies have dramatically improved the quality of trails being built, as well as the speed with which those trails are constructed. “Thirty years ago, all this stuff was built by volunteers, and look how far we’ve come and how much that professionalism has played a role in sustainable trail systems,” said Eleanor Blick, Director of Communications for IMBA. When volunteers were the only people building trails, it took an incredible amount of time and effort to get a trail on the ground. But now that we can pay professionals armed with specialized tools and machines to do the work—and who can dedicate their full-time careers to building trails—an entire trail system can be built in a shockingly short amount of time.

“We’re part of the Professional Trail Builders Association, and in just the past five years, it seems like every other day there’s a new applicant popping up to be a part of that organization,” said Woodruff. He doesn’t view the additional competition negatively because more legitimate businesses building high-quality trails “will ultimately create cooler trail experiences and more trail.” Business is booming, and if job postings on social media are any indication, companies like PTD have a difficult time hiring enough builders to meet the demand.

Prescott, AZ. Photo: Liz Chrisman, courtesy IMBA

3. Mountain bikers are the trail building experts.

While trail building companies come in a wide variety of flavors and aren’t all mountain bike-specific, in truth many of the companies pioneering modern trail innovations are, first and foremost, mountain bike trail builders. Mountain bike-first companies often branch out and build multi-use trails, wide paths, or even hiking-only projects—but there’s a reason why mountain bikers are leading the charge. We are the trail building experts—IMBA literally wrote the book on sustainable trail building.

“It always sounds so cocky when we say we’ve written the book, but we’ve written four books,” said Blick, referencing IMBA’s quartet of literary iterations published by their trail building arm, IMBA Trail Solutions. Their classic tome was Trail Solutions: IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack, and IMBA’s latest book is Mountain Bike Trail Development Guide: Guidelines for Managing the Process.

IMBA, and specifically IMBA Trail Solutions, has pioneered sustainable mountain bike trail building techniques well beyond anything the US Forest Service was doing at the time. IMBA has even funded its own scientific studies to analyze the environmental impact of different user groups, impacts of use in different soil conditions, and much more. No other user group was funding such studies, and the land management agencies were only moderately interested in taking a scientific deep dive into things like e-bike impact. IMBA is the true pioneer.

Omaha, NE. Photo: Liz Chrisman, courtesy IMBA

4. Youth riding and racing programs like NICA are accelerating trail development across the nation.

The massive growth in youth riding and racing programs, ranging from youth skill development groups to high school mountain bike race leagues, has dramatically accelerated trail development in communities across the country. Even communities that already had a respectable mountain bike trail system are now building purpose-built NICA race tracks, which are then usable by the entire community for the rest of the year.

“What community doesn’t want to invest in something that is clearly benefiting its kids?” asks Blick. “Everybody wants the best for their community and the best for their kids.”

“There are six high schools in Salt Lake City that have over 200 kids on their mountain bike racing teams each,” said Korenblat. “This explosive growth has led conservative county and city officials to seek out all kinds of public lands to build trails along the very urban Wasatch Front. Plus, rural communities who have built race-ready loops are attracting not just NICA racers and their families (who are collectively spending $3 million to $5 million in a weekend), but race promoters of all types. And this phenomenon is being noticed in all 30 states with high school racing.”

File photo, Bentonville, AR. Photo: Daniel Palma.

5. Mountain bike trails have become mainstream economic development.

The most important factor in this entire equation is that mountain bike trails have moved from serving a fringe user group to being viewed as a mainstream economic development. However, this didn’t happen overnight—it took years for this trend to evolve.

In order to move from fringe to mainstream, mountain bikers had to prove the value of their constituency. This work was pioneered by trail advocacy groups like IMBA who “worked to make the case for bike access at both the federal and local level, not by fighting for access but rather by showing land managers that mountain bikers on all types of public lands would increase public support for keeping public lands public,” according to Korenblat.

The second part of this transition was the demand for the experiential trails mentioned earlier—as kinesthetic flow trails and feature-rich lines grew in popularity, mountain bikers began to seek out these experiences—and then ask for those types of trails to be built in their own town.

As a result, “people who used to think that public land was just for mining, grazing, and drilling have begun to see the power of trails,” said Korenblat. “In eastern states without public land, communities are scrambling to find places to build trails. This is not just for local mountain bikers or even to attract visitors. Today, access to natural places—aka trails—are attracting business investment. Economic development officials in all kinds of cities and towns now see outdoor access as a needed component of business recruitment and economic prosperity.” 

For many communities, this investment in trails is critical for their future survival, as we’ve covered previously on Singletracks. When government officials realize this truth, that their resource extraction-based economies need to adapt or they’ll die, then they begin to understand the massive benefits that mountain bike trails can bring to communities. Once you have those people on board, the red tape slowly begins to disappear, and you reach the point where IMBA is working with 703 communities around the nation to build more trails close to home.

The mountain bike trail development landscape has changed dramatically since I first hypothesized that we were entering a golden age of trail building. With the thousands of incredible trail advocates, professional trail builders, government employees, elected officials, and passionate volunteers hard at work across the nation, hopefully in another decade we’ll be able to look back and say, “wow, if only we knew what great things were still to come!”