Ordinarily the opening of new, bike-legal singletrack in Marin County is greeted with great fanfare. Politicians, land-managers, and advocates jostle for space in the ribbon-cutting photo, booths are set up for bike this, bike that, perhaps hot dogs are grilling and beer chilling for the post-inaugural ride. Here in the “Birthplace of Mountain Biking,” even the shortest segment of narrow trail has likely been the subject of litigation and a years-long battle if not for its existence, then for cyclists’ access to it.
Bills’ is one such trail. A four-mile-long forested, fern-soaked ribbon of loam meandering 1,500 feet from Lagunitas Creek up to Barnabe Peak fire road in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Bills’ opened on April 27th, 2020, after three decades of advocacy. It was a muted, socially-distanced non-event.
Why so Long? Who’s Bill? Why doesn’t the author know how to use an apostrophe?
The trail is named for both Bill Lintow and Bill Taylor, former California State Parks maintenance division employees. Hence “Bills’” vs. “Bill’s” Trail. Take that ye mountain biking grammarians. The “why so long” question requires a longer explanation. The trail these Bills built was originally free from any bothersome restrictions. But its location next to a horse camp soon stirred acrimony and complaints were filed. Like a cranky parent sick of the kids bickering in the backseat over McDonald’s vs. Taco Bell, everyone but the hiker went home hungry when State Parks erected a sign: “Hiker Only.” Take that ye vocal equestrian.
While true that mountain bikers suffer from a dearth of access to trails, it is also true that there are not many horse-friendly campgrounds in the San Francisco Bay Area, and to have the only trail adjacent to one of the only horse camps be closed to horses was arbitrary and capricious. In the 1990s, equestrians managed to get the red circle/slash removed from around their preferred mount on the trailhead sign. The “no bikes” symbol, however, remained.
In the mid-2000’s, the California State Legislature noted that many State Parks were underutilized and set about to generally increase their use. To this end, Samuel P. Taylor State Park initiated a “change-in-use” to formally allow bicycle access to Bills’. Local conservation groups threatened to sue and State Parks pulled the plug in frustration with the continued noise and legal saber-rattling emanating from Marin. To their credit, State Parks went back to the drawing board and prepared a Programmatic Environmental Impact Report (PEIR) to cover all such change-in-use requests (where the only change to an existing trail is the addition or subtraction of a user group) statewide in addition to a full EIR specifically for Bills’ Trail.
In addition to legal and bureaucratic wrangling, actual construction of Bills’ was stymied again and again—by a particularly wet winter. By a particularly fearsome fire season. By funding shortfalls. Once constructed, there was the requisite one-year settling period. For the last ten years, mention of this trail among a herd of mountain bikers was at your own risk. “Bills’ Trail” had become a punch-line.
As I snaked my way up, past Stairstep Falls, around switchbacks, and through newly armored water crossings, I was treated to an occasional dramatic vista through a peephole in the redwood canopy. The steep grassy green hilltops of West Marin were yet unmoved by the drama recently concluded at their feet. And while not perfect, the PEIR process adopted by State Parks for making change-in-use easier to use appears to be working, albeit slowly. A trail on Mt. Tam—a holy land for many Marin mountain bikers—is in the queue, on track to becoming bike legal.
Bills’ Trail is not that long. It’s hard to get to. You have to watch for hikers and equestrians. And except for the annoying log-chicanes that dare you to target-fixate, it’s not technical. But it is beautiful, and it’s a testament to the perseverance of a small, fiercely dedicated band of bikers who would. Not. Let. It. Go. Hats off in heartfelt thanks.