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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.