Over a Beer: The Trails Don’t Belong to You…

Even after decades of mountain bike advocacy, learning to share the trail, yield, and respect other trail users is a topic that continues to deserve discussion. In this Over a Beer column Greg shares a story of a hiker who didn't share the trail, and what we can learn from it.
The Monarch Crest

…and they don’t belong to me, either.

It was late June, and the word was out that most of the snow on the iconic Monarch Crest Trail had finally melted. While I was definitely planning to get out and do the full shuttle ride once the weekend arrived, I decided to drive up to the pass for a quick above-treeline out-and-back after work. Normally the Crest is devoid of human life after 4pm on weekdays, and this early in the season I didn’t expect to see a soul.

The weather was absolutely glorious–the temperature was perfect, the sun was shining, and spring flowers were blooming on the alpine tundra. A couple of tall snow drifts were still clinging to their usual spots. Riding the Crest is always fabulous, but the first Crest ride of the year? Simply euphoric.

After crossing a drift or two and pedaling toward Fooses Creek, I saw a hiker and biker ahead of me, chatting in the middle of the trail. As I started to go around the pair, the hiker reached out with his trekking poles and attempted to block my way.

Our interaction went something like this:

“Mountain bikes aren’t allowed on this trail,” said the hiker. “This is the Collegiate West portion of the Continental Divide Trail, and you’re not allowed to mountain bike here. I can’t let you pass.” While the newly-constructed Collegiate West trail is indeed off-limits to mountain bikes, that was not the trail we were riding.

I wasn’t about to let some self-righteous hiker who obviously had no clue where in the world he happened to be harsh my euphoric flow. Since there were no trees here, I simply skirted around his trekking poles, talking as I went.

“Dude, you have no idea where you are right now,” I said. “This is the Monarch Crest Trail. While yes, it’s part of the Continental Divide Trail, this is one of the most famous mountain bike trails in the country! Bikes are totally legal here.”

The other rider, an older chap, piped in, “So this IS the Monarch Crest Trail?!” He appeared to be visiting from out of town and not very familiar with the area.

“Yes, this IS the Monarch Crest,” I affirmed. As I walked by, I took stock of the hiker. Unlike the stereotypical HOHA member, this guy appeared to be in his late 20s to early 30s–roughly my age. He was out for more than just a day-hike, geared up to backpack a long portion of the CDT. While he did try to block my way, he wasn’t super aggressive or shouting–but still, he didn’t intend to let us pass.

“Look, you obviously have no idea where you are,” I responded. “I live here. I’ve ridden these trails for years. I know which trails are open to bikes, and which trails aren’t. You have at least another 20 miles before you even reach the Collegiate West trail.”

“No dude, you’re wrong. This trail is off limits to bikes.”

By this point, I was already past the hiker, and I hollered back over my shoulder, as I remounted my bike, “Not only is this trail open to mountain bikes, it’s open to MOTORCYCLES as well! When you get to the end of this section in just a few miles you’ll see a sign showing that this trail is open to mountain bikes and motorcycles, in addition to hikers and horseback riders. While there’s a temporary sign up right now saying the trail is closed to motos until the snow drifts melt, in a few weeks you’ll see motorcycles on this trail.”

The ill-informed hiker continued to protest, but I was already pedaling off.

A few hundred yards later I glanced over my shoulder to see how the biker was getting on, and it appeared that the hiker had convinced him to turn around. On my return trip, I saw no sign of the other rider. Unfortunately for this out-of-towner, a self-righteous, ill-informed hiker ruined what may have been his only chance–EVER–to ride the Monarch Crest. But my euphoric first Crest ride of the season would not be ruined.

Since I was doing an out-and-back, I had to ride back to Monarch Pass, and lo and behold–I came upon the hiker again. It just so happened that he was at the end of the singletrack where it meets the dirt road, where the sign showing acceptable uses was posted. He was examining the sign, and looking at his phone.

“Hey man, I’m really sorry,” he said as I rolled up. “I thought for sure this trail was closed to bikes. I have a map and everything,” he said.

“Can you show me your map?” I asked. “I can let you know where you are so you know how to get to Collegiate West.”

The hiker pulled out his phone to show me, and his so-called “map” consisted of one squiggly red line, with a split denoting the diversion of the Collegiate West section with another route option. However, there was absolutely no context on the map, with no trail intersections, topographic lines, or other identifying features marked. I have literally hand-drawn better maps than the one he showed me on his phone.

“Well, here’s Collegiate West,” I pointed at the split, “but you’re actually way down here somewhere. You have probably another 20 to 30 miles to get to Collegiate West.”

At this point, clearly in the wrong, he felt the need to justify his actions. “Hey I’m sorry man, but I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life backpacking. You know that mountain bikes tear the crap out of the trail, so you can understand my frustration.”

This ill-informed soul had just been hiking on a trail that was open to both mountain bikes and motorcycles, without realizing it. Apparently, bikes don’t do enough damage for it to be noticeable. I wasn’t about to get into a debate that would ruin my rider’s high, so I just said, “Hope you have a safe hike, man,” and went on my way.

As I drove home, I kept replaying the conversation in my head. “Who did that guy think he was?!” I thought to myself. “He’s not even from here, and he had the audacity to act like he owned the trail! He saw not one, but two separate riders come up to the same place on the trail, fully prepared to ride that stretch of singletrack. How could he be such a pompous ass that he assumed he was in the right and we were in the wrong, even though he had a useless map?”

I decided to let it go. Beginning the next day, the trail would be flooded with mountain bikers, with July 4th marking the unofficial start of the Monarch Crest trail riding season. Soon, there would be no mistaking that mountain bikers are common on the trail.

A photo from the day in question — pretty euphoric!

Mountain Bikers Can Be Just as Wrong as that Hiker

I live in a small mountain town that, generally speaking, doesn’t see the negative trail interactions that are more common on crowded trails near big cities. Nobody has ever been assaulted. No one has ever installed hidden spike strips or neck-high fishing line. And yet, there’s still the rare negative interaction. As a board member for the local trail advocacy group–a non-motorized multi-user group–I hear reports of the rare bad behavior on our local trails. And sometimes, the mountain bikers are the ones at fault.

I once heard a report of a mountain biker on the nearby Rainbow Trail throwing down a bike in front of a motorcycle rider, screaming at the moto rider that they were tearing up the trails and not allowed to be riding there. The mountain biker then attempted to prevent the moto rider from continuing on. The problem is, the Rainbow Trail is 100% motorcycle legal for its entire 140-mile length, and the moto riders do a ton of maintenance on this trail.

A moto rider riding a moto-legal trail? Shocker!

Even on our nonmotorized trails I’ve heard multiple reports of mountain bikers screaming down trails and not yielding–or even slowing down–for hikers and runners, forcing those on foot to jump off the trail to avoid being run down.

Here’s the moral of the story: you don’t own the trails. And I don’t own them, either.

The trails belong to all of us collectively, and when we don’t treat each other with respect on the trails, everyone loses. The asshole mountain biker who runs the hiker off the trail loses, because now that’s one more hiker who might choose to fight against mountain bike access, who might not feel safe on the sweet singletrack in their own backyard.

Even in what turned out to be a relatively benign interaction with a hiker on the Crest, we both lost. My euphoric first Crest ride was tainted by an ignoramous, and I suspect the ignoramous felt bad about wrongly confronting two riders.

Here’s my final takeaway: If you’re tempted to tell someone off for using a trail–for example, if you see someone riding an e-bike on a trail that you think doesn’t allow e-bikes–take a second to check yourself. Are you sure you know the rules on that particular trail? Even if you do, is going out of your way to confront this other trail user going to help the situation? Or will it just make things worse?

Be nice, say hi. I’m convinced that if everyone were to choose to treat other trail users like valuable human beings, trail conflicts would cease to be an issue.

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