Mountain Biking has Outgrown Colorado’s Most Popular Trails

A rider heads into Enchanted Forest. Photo: Hannah Morvay

The pandemic made one thing clear on Colorado’s Front Range trails: the already over-populated singletracks that wrap around the Rockies’ most eastern hills now needed to be shut down when they reached “capacity.” That wasn’t only to enforce and encourage social distancing. There simply weren’t enough parking spaces to accommodate everyone who wanted to visit an open space, and the land manager used that as the metric to define capacity.

Riding or walking into Jefferson County Open Space (JCOS) parks didn’t make a difference either. Rangers were turning visitors away and recommending that they didn’t try any other entrances. So on any given day under the assumption that a visitor can ride a park he or she normally does, that changed drastically in the Spring months of 2020 when coronavirus started spreading in the US and Colorado experienced its stay-at-home orders.

“We just had to hit some kind of pause button,” says JCOS Park Ranger Supervisor Martin Barwick. “It’s just unprecedented. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen. Especially in the spring when every other thing was closed as far as recreation opportunities, coming to a park was the only thing available.”

JCOS has known for some time though that parks and open spaces around the county, which stretches along the west side of Denver from far south of the city to just under Boulder, were getting too crowded. For comfort, safety, and an overall better experience, things were on course to change. Throw a pandemic in the mix, where people aren’t supposed to be in proximity to strangers, and the options are limited.

JCOS estimates that their trails typically see about seven million visitors per year, but they have a tough time estimating the number exactly, and the last time they conducted a survey was in 2018. Being that the county sits next to the Denver metro area, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country over the past decade, anyone who wants to hike or mountain bike on a weekday after work or on the weekend typically visits a JeffCo park.

“The visitation to our parks was on that upward trajectory within the past decade, but this year it just went through the roof. I would assume the current numbers have obliterated them,” says Barwick about current visitation compared to the survey.

“I’ve been with JeffCo for 16 years, and I think about what [traffic] has looked like throughout the stages of my career. You’d see a full parking lot at say, Lair of the Bear on July 4th, and say ‘this is going to be crazy.’ It’s that way every single weekend now and sometimes weekdays. Your craziest July 4th or Memorial Day 15 years ago, that’s every day now.” 

The parking lot at Apex Park on an even day, October 14 at 5:45PM.

Data from the US Census Bureau estimates that Colorado added close to 800,000 residents from 2010-2019, and over 400,000 of the new residents moved to a Denver metro area. Jefferson County, which holds the Denver metro area’s closest trails, did not experience a growth in recreational parks or trails anywhere near what would alleviate some of the problems residents and visitors are experiencing today. There are close to 600,000 residents in Jefferson County alone.

While North Table Mountain, Mount Falcon, and Lair of the Bear park are some of JCOS’ busiest parks, (the county doesn’t have data to say which parks are the busiest) the population growth in Colorado, and the increasing popularity of mountain biking have clashed in another park over the past few years.

An apex at Apex

JCOS employees install one of many new gates at the Apex Trail. Photo: Hannah Morvay

“We get complaints at other parks, but not to this level,” says Barwick. “Apex is sort of this epicenter.”

The Apex Park sits in Golden within two miles of the spot where three freeways intersect and exit. Interstate 70 and the 6th Avenue Freeways funnel people in from Denver, Lakewood, and other suburbs and C-470 runs from just near Apex to suburbs like Littleton and Morrison along the southwest side of Denver.

“It seems like the quickest drive to get the most variety, and vertical. And, shade,” says Suzan Lewis, a hiker we met on a warm, late August day. Lewis lives in Denver, which is roughly a fifteen minute drive for her and she’s been hiking there for years, usually twice a week, she says.

Before the current travel management plan change at Apex in September, there was a lot of confusion for hikers and mountain bikers as to how to navigate the trails at Apex Park. And likely, there is still confusion. The two main trails in the park, Apex and Enchanted Forest, connect for a four-ish mile stretch of steep, rocky singletrack that runs east to west. The trail used to be a toll road for miners heading to Central City in the late 1800s.

Image: JCOS

On odd-numbered calendar days, say the 3rd, 5th, and so on of whatever month, mountain bikers could only travel uphill on Apex and Enchanted Forest, while hikers could travel both ways. On even-numbered days, mountain bikers could go up or downhill on the two trails. Hikers could still travel both ways. It’s also important to note that Apex and Enchanted Forest together are a popular descent for riders who love fast and technical descending. Couple that with sharp turns, steep rock gardens, fast riders, and hikers who are quite possibly on their first-ever trail in Colorado and it can make for a volatile situation.

The majority of the mountain bike community understood that even days were the best days to ride, but without any incentive, and a community that is far more loosely-knit than that of MTBers, a lot of hikers could care less whether they show up on an even- or odd-numbered day.

Photo: Hannah Morvay

“I don’t really pay attention to it. I do wish there was a separation and that’s not a judgement against them, it’s just two different travel speeds,” said Lewis, about two weeks before JCOS changed the management plan at Apex. She was unaware that it would be changing. “Sometimes with the curves, they’ll overtake me pretty quickly, and it’s worse than like, coming upon a snake.” She doesn’t hold a grudge.

“I think the bikers are great, it’s really just blind corners and speed. I would say I’ve almost been hit a couple times, but it’s not because they’re being careless. I feel like everyone’s doing their best. It’s just how the [trail] is.”

A lot of people haven’t been as understanding though, and conflicts have been much more severe. Barwick, the supervising ranger, says they were out weekly responding to complaints.

“The pattern would be all along the gut and the canyon here. It’s the speed differential. People getting passed too closely and unsafely on the trail to the point where we had instances of people being hit as well.”

Last year, when JCOS realized the conflicts were reaching a boiling point, they tried a new strategy.

“We’d try and educate you here and write a ticket up there,” he says. That meant talking to visitors about courtesy, passing, and basic trail etiquette after they parked at the trailhead, and following that up with a citation if they saw violations on the trail. Barwick says they spent about 500 hours at Apex in 2019, teaching and ticketing. They realized it wasn’t working, there were two dozen other parks they needed to be at, and the travel management plan ultimately needed to change.

“I think the new system they have is going to be nice,” said mountain biker Phillip Porter back in August. “Because as a mountain biker I like to be able to fly. I like to let loose and not really be conscious too much about what’s coming up toward me, especially on corners. When you get in a rhythm and groove, that’s a great feeling. That’s what you’re there for.”

Porter lives 20 minutes north of Apex in Arvada and says he rides Apex about once a week. “I can get it done in a little more than an hour and be home after two hours and get done what I need to do.” He says he communicates with hikers when he needs to pass, but still, people new to the trail aren’t sure what a mountain biker in control looks like, no matter how fast or slow the rider is going.

In the second week of September, seven months after a contentious public meeting in February and a few revisions, JCOS changed the management plan for Apex again, a decade after the last plan that was developed as a response to increased traffic. Now on even days, Apex and Enchanted Forest are bike-only. On odd days, the two trails (parts of which had their names changed), are hiker- and equestrian-only.

There are gates at any and all entrance points for the trails, with bright red stop signs that call attention to visitors trying to get onto the trail and signal that they need to understand which calendar day it is. In the northern portion of the park, trails including Bonanza, Grubstake, and Argos are multi-use, every day.

“The mountain bikers I’ve talked to have been happy about it without a multitude of hikers coming down, and the same for hikers,” says Barwick. Two-and-a-half months later, JCOS says that incidents of complaints have dipped after the change, with more complaints now regarding hikers using the Apex trail on bike-only, even days. But, mostly the county has had a positive reaction from both groups.

“It’s a long time coming. We tried something about ten years ago and that management change, it never quite worked.” The old travel management plan ran from 2010-2020, and was also a response to an increase in traffic at Apex Park.

The birth of county-specific MTB advocacy

Riders descend into Enchanted Forest. Photo: Hannah Morvay

Trail traffic at the park had seen a big increase around 2010, and in the years shortly after. Al Head, a Golden resident and mountain bike advocate who lives in a neighborhood next to Apex, has an idea why it might’ve increased so much. In 2012, the City of Golden launched a tourism campaign called the ‘Two-hour Vacation.’ The campaign posted billboards around the Denver metro area, and put the idea in viewer’s heads that Golden is a great tourist destination just a half-hour or less from Denver.

Drive to Golden, have a beer or go for a ride, and drive back within two hours. I asked the City of Golden if they had any data or information on the campaign and its effectiveness. They remembered the campaign, but couldn’t find anything.

Head remembers seeing the ads picturing mountain bikers at places like Denver International Airport. In 2013, he formed Jefferson County’s first mountain bike advocacy group, The Friends of Apex, and they were instrumental in getting Apex Park reopened after the Colorado floods that year wrecked the trails and closed the park for months. Head used forums on MTBR to recruit more and more volunteers and they cleared foot-and-a-half deep rubble from the trail and rebuilt fallen sections.

“We just kept getting people out and it was awesome. Sometimes it was three or four people or one or two people after work,” he says. “Yeti would show up with 25 workers and they’d knock out a huge section.” Just a year after the trail was destroyed and buried in rock, it reopened fully, thanks to the group.

The Friends of Apex evolved into two additional groups, before coming together and rebranding themselves as the Golden Giddyup; a mountain bike advocacy group specific to JCOS trails and also, a yearly race that took place in three JCOS parks from 2016-2019. The group partnered with the Colorado Mountain Bike Association to offer input to JCOS with the Apex management change, and while they’re mostly happy with the change, they say it still feels like it’s a small piece of the puzzle in finding the equation to better trails on the Front Range.

The Giddyup worked with JCOS between 2013 and 2019, taking on a massive amount of trail work, but they had a hard time trying to get the county to approve and build new trails, something they feel would alleviate much of the conflict.

Jefferson County Open Space’s mission statement is to “Preserve open space and parkland, Protect park and natural resources, and Provide healthy, nature-based experiences,” and as Barwick said when we interviewed JCOS, that is basically an order of priorities for the county.

“The provide piece has been neglected,” says Jeff Watrobka, the executive director of the Golden Giddyup. “If we have over seven million people that visit JeffCo trails, and we’re not providing more trail opportunities in simply just net growth of trails, then JeffCo is failing.”

Discouraged by the slow growth in JCOS trails and opportunities for mountain bikers, the group said in the summer of 2020 along with the announcement of the cancellation of the popular Golden Giddyup race, that they would step back and re-form as strictly an advocacy group. It may be a while before anyone knows exactly what that means.

For their five year run, the Golden Giddyup amassed over 13,000 volunteer hours on JCOS trails, mainly on the Apex, Chimney Gulch, and North Table Mountain trails. With a huge and ambitious crew, the Giddyup says they often found themselves finished with maintenance tasks, and ready to build new trail, rather than doing the same maintenance tasks or rerouting outdated, eroded sections of trail.

“We would get all the maintenance done, that usually takes them all year long,” says Al Head. “We would be done by mid-June, and we’d say, ‘OK, we’re ready to build new trail.’” Eventually, they say, the Giddyup and its volunteers tired of what they felt was stagnation with the county and a lack of reception toward mountain bike input.

In the current format, the Giddyup race won’t continue. As for the Giddyup advocates, they’re re-forming as the Jefferson County Trails Coalition and hope to reach a broad base of outdoor enthusiasts to support progressive park management strategies and natural surface trail development.

Head says they are grateful to have JCOS and the work the county has done to acquire and preserve land over time. But, in the time of coronavirus, more and more people are getting out to the trails.

“Now, 50 years later, and with over 56,000 acres of land, we wonder if the focus of the organization shouldn’t move more of its internal funding towards the management of its lands, including the development of more trails,” he says. “Having said all of that, the reality is that few of us have the time to carry this torch.”

He’s optimistic with new members on JeffCo’s Board of Commissioners and Head encourages residents to make their voices heard and let local representatives know why natural surface trails are important.

Out of the 252 miles of trail in JCOS, 1.8 miles are mountain bike only. COMBA helped build an additional mile of bike-only trail at Dakota Ridge in 2018, and JCOS designated just over 3/4 of a mile of trail at White Ranch as bike-only. About 220 miles of the 252 are multi-use, 16 miles are hiker only, and 10 do not allow bikes.

COMBA worked with JCOS to reroute the exit to the bottom portion of Longhorn, a bike-only trail. Before, the exit was steep, unclimbable for most, and eroded. Photo: Matt Miller

New trails have been slow to come to JCOS, and the existing trails are showing their age, especially after their busiest summer and without any regular maintenance, which the Giddyup was spearheading on trails like Apex.

“Like many JeffCo parks, these are old trails,” says Eric Fields, a team lead for the JCOS Trails Team. “They’ve got 30 years on them. Some have 40 years on them. You have a different trail design and philosophy 30 years ago, just like anything. Now, you’ve got a seasoned trail, with motocross bike technology. You can stop on a dime. You don’t feel a bump. They’re amazing bikes, but mixing those two is a new world.”

Fields says that because of the process that must happen to approve any new trail, things take a while. New trails require planning, environmental impact statements, and much more than what a lot of the public sees.

“We don’t have a magic wand that puts a new trail in. There’s planning involved, there’s permitting, natural resources, cultural surveys. It’s more of a patience test while the population is climbing.”

Left: Eric Fields. Right: Martin Barwick. Photo: Hannah Morvay

One thing that has changed though, is their outlook on how a trail should be built. Reroutes and new trails that have been developed in JCOS over the past few years feature more switchbacks with new drainage techniques. Rather than having a water bar dissect the turn, they’ve opened up to more sweeping corners, which are easier for mountain bikers to handle, and for runners too. Grade reversals or down-sloping sections of trail after a switchback allow for drainage and less pooling water in switchbacks.

The county’s five-year plan, which they call the Conservation Greenprint includes 50 miles of new trail, some of which came from proposals the Giddyup and COMBA submitted together in 2018.

This includes 7 miles of trail at South Table Mountain – replacing unofficial social trails that have been decommissioned lately, 2 miles of new trail at Lair of the Bear Park which will make a loop and have been proposed as bike-only, a new 2.2-mile loop at Matthews/Winters Park, and a 3-mile trail that runs along Highway 93 underneath the Dakota Ridge trail, which should mitigate the number of people who ride the busy road back up to the parking lot after descending the trail. In total, it’s just over 14 miles of trail.

In JCOS’ Conservation Greenprint, the county plans to spend $70 million on trail access and expanding the parks with new trails. $15 million will go toward Goal 8 in the Greenprint, a plan to make a park accessible within ten minutes of all Jefferson County residents, and $55 million will go toward building 50 miles of new trail. It’s also important to note that JCOS is funded by a half-cent sales tax on every dollar, so taxes aren’t taken directly from Jefferson County residents, unlike the general fund which keeps things like social services and county law enforcement afloat.

Of the 50 miles, 44 are planned to be natural surface trails, with 50% of the new trails being placed in the central corridor of JCOS, the most trafficked corridor of the county, where busy parks like Apex and Matthews/Winters park are located.

Photo: Hannah Morvay

Summed up, JCOS calls the Conservation Greenprint a strategic framework for open space preservation and a provision of nature-based experiences with measurable goals for the next five years, achieved with public conversation and collaboration. In Goal 4 of their Greenprint is a mission to acquire more land in order to preserve more of it and provide more recreation-based opportunities as a result of “an increase in population growth and park visitation.” Other goals include forest health, habitat restoration, and enhancing visitor stewardship and courtesy.

The trails JCOS plans to put in are connecters, bridging two networks to allow more continuous mileage, or new opportunities for scenic experiences, like a new route to the top of Mount Morrison. There will be new trail in JeffCo, but it will be spread throughout 56,000 square acres, or 87.5 square miles, with a little here and a little there. It likely won’t satisfy what a lot of the growing mountain bike community in Colorado is looking for in new trails.

“I think a lot of people get trapped in that glossy photo of a Fruita ride or in Moab, somewhere that’s not a metro area where there’s not millions of people crammed in,” says Fields. “We’re right next to Denver and we’re the first stop for people looking to get a trail experience. We don’t offer that BLM style, black diamond and big banks, because we cater to hikers, mountain bikers, equestrians. All of it.”

Looking beyond the metro area

COMBA volunteers build a berm for new trails in Blackhawk. Photo: Matt Miller

Fortunately, not far beyond the boundaries of Jefferson County Open Space, COMBA has been making strides with neighboring counties. Clear Creek and Gilpin counties have been working with COMBA to develop bike-optimized and bike-only directional trails with features, rock walls, jumps, and drops that signify the presence and demand of thousands of mountain bikers.

Gary Moore, COMBA’s president, points out that JCOS is trying to accommodate a much broader base and bigger population in a county that isn’t too concerned with a lack of tourism. Gilpin and Clear Creek counties though are trying to look past old mining economies and an economy that relies on gambling. With folks from all over the country visiting Golden to drink the freshest Coors on earth or to get a peek at the Rockies when they are in Denver for the weekend, JCOS has less incentive to build a bunch of mountain bike features.

 “They are the welcome mat to the Rockies and they sit between the Rockies and the biggest populations. Half the people in Colorado live in the Denver metro area and the closest trail is a JCOS trail.” On top of that, the county is trying to actively preserve land. “We certainly don’t agree with them 100% either. We just have lower expectations is ultimately what it comes down to,” Moore says about COMBA’s relationship with the county.

That preserve piece might have some credence to it also, especially right now. “They do seem to take a slant toward preservation and I think all of Colorado is feeling that way because of the population explosion here.

One of the Sluice’s many features. Photo: Jason Holzworth / COMBA

Over the past several years as the population has increased, there has also been a lot of tragedy in the commons. Maroon Bells, the wilderness area outside of Aspen has had to revise its management policies and implement a reservation policy to deal with overcrowding and issues from wildlife disturbance due to a huge amount of unburied human waste. Camping around the Buffalo Creek network has changed recently from dispersed to permit-required after record visitation, human waste issues, and other impacts on the habitat. Hanging Lake, a beautiful, photogenic hike in Western Colorado has clamped down on visitation, and now requires visitors to secure a reservation.

Humans, and the outdoor-crazed types that move to and live in Colorado love spending time in the outdoors, but don’t always make the most responsible decisions between the trees. Preservation as a response might not be the worst reaction for JCOS to have.

“Look at what they get away with in Utah. The whole state is about money and extraction economies. The last thing they are worried about is running over a snake or an endangered flower. So, where is a lot of the best mountain biking? Largely it’s in Utah,” says Moore.

With the success COMBA has had in other Colorado counties recently, it hasn’t been worth it for them to focus on more trail in Jefferson County either. Floyd Hill opened along I-70 in 2019, with The Sluice as the network’s featured trail, a one-mile, downhill, bike-only trail that loses 600 feet of elevation over drops, rock rolls, and jumps all the way down.

They helped complete the Elk Creek trail at Staunton State Park, 35 minutes outside of the Denver metro area and they started building a new network with bike-optimized trails and bike-only trails in Blackhawk, an old mining town and current gambling town, funded entirely by the city.

A COMBA volunteer crew making new trail in Blackhawk. Photo: Matt Miller

COMBA will also be developing trails in Idaho Springs, a pit stop between Denver and the ski destinations in Summit and Grand Counties. Idaho Springs has a reputation for gnarly, unsanctioned downhill trails and COMBA plans to honor that spirit with progressive and difficult mountain bike trails in Virginia Canyon, part of the town’s new plans to enhance recreation and visitation.

Along the beginning of Highway 285, which flows from the west side of Denver and takes drivers to Salida or Crested Butte, COMBA is working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Pike National Forest for Outside 285, a plan to identify wildlife habitat conservation and recreation opportunities along the highway’s corridor.

The committee for the project includes 38 people from 30 different groups including cycling advocates, the Backcountry Anglers and Hunters, the Front Range Backcountry Horsemen, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Trout Unlimited, and others. Again, mountain bikers are far from the only group interested in recreation or conservation in the project. This gives more perspective to the issues we see in Jefferson County.

“I think our gains in Jefferson County will always be incremental just because of the size of [what] they are managing. You wouldn’t expect to see a huge hiking or preservation action. Everything that they do is going to be in baby steps and with an eye toward public opinion.”

Colorado is expected to grow 30% by 2040, for a total population of 7.5 million, and the Denver metro area could likely be in the same position when it comes to available trails compared to the population. The mountain bike community will still need shovel-ready groups like the Golden Giddyup and COMBA to pitch new trails and ideas to land managers like JCOS, and beyond.

“As mountain bikers we don’t have great experiences available to us in the quantity and the level we would like,” says Moore. “We’re riding multi-use, bi-directional trails, and we have to yield to everybody including ourselves if they are coming up. And, they weren’t built for our experience.”

“They were built for hiking or they’re old logging roads, or equestrian trails. We have a lot to accomplish here on the Front Range to bring mountain biking to the level we aspire to and maybe the first trails in the county that are closest to the population center aren’t going to be those trails.”

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