What makes a trail a trail?

A commenter on a recent blog post asked an interesting question: what makes a mountain bike trail a distinct trail? That is, if a single area (like Tsali in NC or Buffalo Creek in CO) has multiple trails, is each trail a distinct trail worthy of its own listing on singletracks? This is a question that we’ve struggled with for years and it’s one that mountain bike guidebook writers have wrestled for even longer. Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer.

First off, for a trail to be a trail it usually needs to have a name. Often trails take their names from the area where they’re located (Palmer Park for example) but in some areas individual trail segments may be named. Cutesy named trails like “The Drop Zone” at Beaverdam don’t really constitute a distinct trail listing, though this is certainly a subjective judgment.

Next up, trails need to have a public trailhead with parking for vehicles. That means the trails in your backyard and the unofficial network out at the local construction site don’t count. In fact, illegal trails in general SHOULD NOT be listed on singletracks or anywhere else for that matter. Unofficial equals unlisted.

I also think an official mountain bike trail needs to be of a certain length ~ 2 miles+. There’s a singletrack trail in my neighborhood that I jog that’s probably about a 1 mile loop and it seems like it would be fun to bike but it really isn’t singletracks worthy. Besides the fact that there really isn’t a good place to park it’s just too short to advertise to others.

Speaking of advertising, a trail becomes a trail when people (other than you and your friends) start riding there. Multiple independent riders can confirm the official status and worthiness of a mountain bike trail system.

Now for the tough question: what do you do with areas like Tsali and Buffalo Creek? The trails here often share the same trailhead (in the case of Tsali four named trails share the same TH) and the overall system is named. I would argue, however, that a few factors push these toward multiple listings. First, the trails at Tsali are all distinct singletrack loops (though they do share fireroads at a couple points). The trails are also longish (7+ miles each) and a lot of people end up riding only 1 loop in a trip. With alternating usage at Tsali half the trails are closed to mountain bikes each day which means there should be at least 2 listings since you can’t legally ride the entire system in one day.

Anyway, while listings help organize trail info, all of this isn’t that important since mountain biking isn’t about technicalities (no pun intended) – it’s about riding. Who cares if you rode three “trails” or just one “trail,” it’s all about having fun and enjoying your surroundings.

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