When the Valley Fire stormed through Lake County, California in 2015, it devoured 50% of the homes in the small community of Cobb. It took the burger joint, the gas station, front porches and multiple photo albums. It left the family van on its axles—defeated, unrecognizable. It took the forest, of course—one million trees—and as a final insult, it took the trails too.
“Many people felt more grief over the loss of the trails and the forest than they did over the loss of their own homes,” said Debbie St. Cyr, Cobb resident and Executive Director of Redwood Trails Alliance (RTA). “That’s how important Boggs Mountain is to this community”
St. Cyr came late to mountain biking and trails. Personal losses and their attendant blackness sent her to nature for solace. Her nearest nature was Boggs Mountain Demonstration Forest, a 3,493-acre swath of land three hours north of San Francisco near the small resort town of Cobb, population 1,000 (+/-), owned and managed by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE. One of eight such “demonstration forests” around the state, the intention of this property is, according to a brochure, “to demonstrate the management of a Coast Range, Ponderosa Pine/Mixed Conifer forest. The primary purpose of the State Forest System is the demonstration of economical forest management and the land base is legislatively mandated to be retained in timber production for research and demonstration purposes.”
The Valley Fire burned 99% of the forest, taking 80% of the mature trees and 95% of the understory. Boggs Mountain was closed to the public for nearly three years while salvage operations were performed, and a massive reforestation effort involving the planting of 702,695 tree seedlings across 3,100 acres began.
Recreation is not the primary purpose of the State Demonstration Forests, and for that reason, the trail systems in such forests are intended to be low-maintenance, multi-use facilities that are self-policing, with campgrounds that provide a rustic experience.
Peter Leuzinger, CAL FIRE’s Forest Manager for Boggs Mountain notes that 50% of the recreation use at Boggs is by mountain bikers, and he credits the relatively speedy return of trails to the efforts by Friends of Boggs Mountain and Redwood Trails Alliance.
“We have a great relationship with the Friends of Boggs Mountain Demonstration Forest and RTA,” said Leuzinger. “They’ve done a great job raising money and organizing volunteers. We are happy to have their work on trail building and logistics so that we can focus on forest management, our primary responsibility.”
Leuzinger added that the intent is to establish a trail system nearly identical to what was destroyed by fire.
“There is a historical significance to many of these trails. They were originally constructed by our Helitack crews, and many were named for those folks. So while there is room for improvement by using more modern trail building techniques in some areas, we want to pay homage to those folks by keeping a similar system and retaining many of the trail names.”
Bay Area and Northern California mountain bikers are familiar with and quite fond of the riding at other State Demonstration Forests as well. Soquel in the Santa Cruz Mountains offers 30+ miles of dreamy, redwood shrouded flow and technical trails, and Jackson State Demonstration Forest in Mendocino County ups the ante with 91 miles of trails for riders of all levels.
Redwood Trails Alliance in 2022 is a force to be reckoned with. Formed in 2020, RTA works across three Northern California counties—Sonoma, Lake, and Napa—to “advocate for our diverse community of trail users. We teach responsible trail stewardship and offer volunteer trail work opportunities along with planning and construction services for trails for all to enjoy” according to their mission statement.
In collaboration with CAL FIRE and Friends of Boggs Mountain, a volunteer organization over 60-strong, eight miles of trail have been constructed in three years, and another four are currently in the works. When complete, the fully restored Boggs Mountain will again be home to hundreds of thousands of trees and 22 miles of trail open to hikers, runners, cyclists, equestrians and nature-seeking meanderers.
“Building trails brings people back, brings them together and gives a purpose—something to DO with their grief and loss” noted St. Cyr. And building trail in a burn scar is not the same as your average trail work day. The ground is blackened, burnt, and ashy. You end the day covered in soot. It smells bad. You smell bad.
Boggs Mountain was also home to mountain bike races near and dear to the hearts of many. The Boggs 8-Hour race began in 2004 and was about to celebrate its 12th year when the Valley Fire, the first in a new era of catastrophic wildfires in the west, turned the venue and surrounding area into a moonscape. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the umbrella organization for high school mountain biking, had some of its first championship races there. These events and their attendant dollars were important to the economic vitality of the area.
RTA and Friends of Boggs Mountain launched a major fundraising campaign in early 2022 to raise $100,000 for the rebuilding effort and they are 80% of the way there. $25,000 was donated from Lake County Supervisor Jessica Pyska, $15,000 from Calpine, a geothermal energy company, $10,000 from an anonymous donor, and $5,000 from Retro Cellars. While the raffle of a beautiful Specialized Stumpjumper encouraged dollars to flow, it had the desired side effect of juicing interest and excitement.
“We’re pretty pleased so far, and we will soon launch our Bring Back Boggs merchandise to continue our fundraising efforts,” said St. Cyr.
With apologies for the cliché, like a phoenix rising from the ash, Boggs Mountain Demonstration Forest will host Bike Monkey’s 8-Hours of Boggs race on May 7th. Two weeks later on May 21st, the NorCal High School mountain bike championship will return. Returning vendors, racers, volunteers, and coaches will find a mountain transformed first by fire, and then by hard physical labor by CAL FIRE crews, by countless volunteer hours, by thousands of sooty hands and sore muscles. And what about those 702,695 seedlings planted in 2017? CAL FIRE’s Peter Leuzinger says they need to evaluate the area for thinning—that’s how successful the re-planting has been.
“The State realizes the importance of recreation, and we want to collaborate with those communities. Land management, fire, and forestry are all connected, and it is important for the public to know what we’re doing here. The Demonstration Forests are a great platform for delivering information about forest management practices.”
True. Happily, they are also a great platform for rejuvenation, solace, shred, flow and stoke.