Grand Canyon National Monument Could Offer MTB Trails

President Biden designated a new national monument near the Grand Canyon, explicitly mentioning mountain biking. Here are the details.
Mountain biking on the Rainbow Rim Trail. Photo: Maureen Gaffney

A little over a year ago, the Singletracks Podcast had a fascinating guest with an incredible story to tell. A man named Goat and two friends set off on a multi-year adventure, riding their bikes some 20,000 miles from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. To top that off, Goat did most of the adventure barefoot.

You would think riding over mountain passes and barefoot hike-a-bikes through the snow would be the wildest part of Goat’s journey, but nothing beats an arrest by Homeland Security.

Their crime? Riding bikes in the Grand Canyon National Park. 

Well, not technically. According to Goat, his group decided to ride south on the Arizona Trail. This meant crossing the Grand Canyon at Phantom Ranch on Bright Angel Trail, the only trail with a bridge.

During summer months, at peak tourism, the Bright Angel Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Park. Goat and his companions were there in winter, but rangers and visitors were still present.

After reaching the bottom of the Grand Canyon, they stashed their gear off the trail, strapped their bikes onto packs, and began hiking out of the canyon. They spent a night in a hotel, and returned the following morning to retrieve their gear. After packing everything out, they reloaded their bikes and kept riding.

Fast forward several weeks and the crew was passing through a bike event. A “journalist” approached them, wanting to do a story on the group. These “journalists” turned out to be Homeland Security agents, tracking and building a case against the group. “The Park Service, turns out, was on a kick of processing people for posting illegal activities on fledgling social media,” Goat explained.

Social media was still in its infancy, but Goat and his companions did have a steady stream of blog readers. He shared that others also found themselves in trouble, including the late Dean Potter, for posting about illegal things they had done inside the parks.

After some jail time, Goat and his friends pleaded “no contest” to federal misdemeanor charges, paid some hefty fines, and were on their way.

Many who plan to go on an adventure similar to Goat’s must find ways around Grand Canyon National Park. This means riding miles off their desired route and missing the beautiful landscape entirely. So, when we heard of potential trails at a nearby national monument, we naturally wondered if this was a step toward a rideable trail through the park. 

To help our understanding of national park and national monument policy, we sat down with Todd Keller, the Director of Government Affairs for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

Wording is essential

On August 8, 2023, President Biden designated our newest national monument, the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona. 

The monument protects and designates nearly 1 million acres of land north and south of Grand Canyon National Park for public use. It also preserves land sacred to native tribes who call the area home. The monument’s name means “where Indigenous peoples roam” (Baaj Nwaavjo) from the Havasupai Tribe and “our ancestral footprints” (I’tah Kukveni) from the Hopi.

National monuments are established under the Antiquities Act of 1906. These designated patches of public land protect and preserve objects or areas of historical importance. Federal land management agencies, often partnering with tribal land managers, are then tasked with managing the national monuments.

Obviously, outdoor recreation isn’t a part of any historic importance that is protected. However, outdoor recreation, such as hiking and mountain biking, become avenues for the public to access the different historical areas for which the monument was established.

Recreation is an important part of national monuments. President Biden has already stressed the need for infrastructure that accommodates activities such as mountain biking in the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, which helps boost Arizona’s economy. 

The official proclamation from President Biden reads, “…the Secretaries shall prepare a transportation plan that designates the roads and trails on which motorized and non-motorized mechanized vehicle use, including mountain biking, will be allowed.”

And, while we haven’t heard of any plans for new trails in the designated monument, having the term “mountain biking” in the language of the management plan is essential. 

“When they write the proclamation language,” Keller explained, “that really sets the tone for everything that’s going to be in the monument.”

Outdoor recreation in the newest national monument will include mountain biking, it seems. 

“If mountain biking specifically isn’t in there, then we essentially could be cut out of a management plan,” Keller said.

This doesn’t mean that mountain biking trails are automatically incorporated into the plan if they don’t already exist in the monument. Trails will still need to be proposed by local Arizona trail organizations and follow whatever procedures are required. 

According to Keller, trail organizations should find this process fairly similar to what they are used to if they have proposed on federal land before. Proposed trails will likely need to go through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, and there could be other restrictions, such as keeping clear of historical sites, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Mountain biking on the other side of Camp Hale. Photo: Matt Miller

Mountain bike policy in action

Camp Hale is an excellent example of IMBA getting mountain biking language in the wording of the monument’s designation. Keller quoted President Biden’s proclamation for the Camp Hale National Monument, where he again calls for the Secretary to prepare a travel management plan to accommodate mountain biking. President Biden uses the same language and phrasing in these two national monument proclamations.

This specific language isn’t by accident or happenstance. Keller spoke of working with the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which, working with other agencies and organizations, develops environmental policies and initiatives for the country.

“We had built out a really good rapport with [CEQ] and had given them language on mountain biking,” Keller said. “So it was our hope—and this is sort of how it played out—that they’re starting to insert specific mountain biking within the language, which is really, really important.”

And that isn’t the only time President Biden mentions mountain biking in the Camp Hale proclamation. In the document’s introduction, as a brief history of the area is told, “mountain bikers” are once again mentioned, accessing and using the land. 

“Especially in policy, words matter,” Keller reflected. “When a monument gets designated, it has higher levels of protection.” A national monument where potential mountain biking trails are approved from the beginning, pending following the appropriate channels, is much easier than getting approval on the back end.

With Trails in a National Monument, why not a National Park?

National monument mountain biking trails do not equal trails in a national park. While assuming one could lead to the other isn’t entirely out of the question, Keller doesn’t see a connection to future mountain biking trails going in Grand Canyon National Park.

In fact, Keller doubts it will ever happen. “I don’t know for sure,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who is advocating for it.”

This is for a couple of reasons. First, simply put, national parks are incredibly busy. This coincides with the already limited numbers being allowed in some national parks—the Parks Service likely would never consider adding another user group, especially one as big as mountain biking. 

“Yeah, [National Parks] are just too busy,” Keller commented, considering where trail advocacy groups, such as IMBA, focus their limited resources. 

Seeing the masses of people during peak tourism months at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite would confirm that idea for most people. 

“But it depends, right? If you’re in a location where that’s all you’re surrounded by is national park,” Keller continued, “getting access to the national park is going to be really important to you and your mountain biking community.”

Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a significant portion of the mountain bike community, as national park lands are reasonably small compared to national forests and other public lands.

Another reason is the restrictive nature of national parks. While a designation such as “National Monument” can be restrictive, which causes IMBA to get mountain biking language written into the proclamation, there are land designations that are even more restrictive.

“National Park” is one of them. The idea behind national parks was to “protect special places for visitors’ present and future enjoyment.” Keller’s take on national parks was to “showcase the greatest wonders we have.” 

Protecting these areas comes at the cost of many forms of recreation, including mountain biking. Even attendance numbers have been limited at some popular national parks.

Not only is a national park more restrictive than a national monument, national parks are managed by a completely different federal agency; the National Park Service, which is a bureau of the Department of the Interior.

So, while national monument legislation adjacent to the Grand Canyon National Park specifically stating mountain bike usage seems promising, new trails in the national park don’t seem to be on the horizon. But, we are excited to see what comes of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument and future mountain bike opportunities at the monument.