Over a Beer: Mountain Towns Don’t Always Welcome Mountain Bikers

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A “No Bicycles” sign located nowhere near a Wilderness area in Mammoth Lakes, CA.

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, any opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

The title statement may seem obvious to some people, but I think it’s a good reminder to those of us who either only travel to well-known mountain bike-friendly destinations, or who live in an area like Colorado where seemingly every single town is home to world-class singletrack… even podunk towns like Del Norte, population 1,655.

I was recently reminded of this truth while on vacation in Mammoth Lakes, California. Mammoth is a world-renowned mountain destination, thanks to the tallest (and one of the largest) ski resorts in California, drop-dead-gorgeous mountains, world-class trails like the John Muir Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and Mammoth’s proximity to national parks like Yosemite.

I had long heard about mountain biking in Mammoth, thanks to some of the earliest races like the Kamikaze Downhill, and the recent resurrection of racing thanks to the Kamikaze Bike Games. However, my digging online—both within our trail database, and outside of it—revealed very few singletrack trails beyond the bike park.

The 2.7-mile Mammoth Rock trail illustrates how great mountain biking in Mammoth Lakes COULD be... if only more trails were open to mountain bikes.
The 2.7-mile Mammoth Rock trail illustrates how great mountain biking in Mammoth Lakes COULD be… if only more trails were open to mountain bikes.

Now, if you want to go to Mammoth simply to ride DH, it’s the place to be! The bike park is home to over 80 miles of singletrack trails. But as I’ve argued before, freeride/downhill and trail riding are almost two separate sports. So what options are available to a mountain biker who wants to show up in Mammoth and trail ride: pedaling to the top of the climbs, and completing epic loops?

The answer is: not much. Mammoth Lakes is surrounded by three wilderness areas: the John Muir Wilderness, the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and the Owens River Headwater Wilderness. So most of that world-class singletrack that I mentioned is already located in those Wilderness areas.

But Mammoth takes it one step further.

Any and all trails that begin outside of Wilderness, but eventually do enter a Wilderness Area, are also off limits to mountain bikes. Based on the trail map I purchased, that adds up to a lot of singletrack.

Above and beyond that travesty, on one of my rides in Mammoth I planned a certain route based on the map at the trailhead, but found that when I reached some of the trails, they were actually posted as off limits to bikes, despite the fact that they didn’t enter wilderness at all, and that the map didn’t mark them as bike-illegal.

The maps all around town don’t provide any marking indicators for bike access, actually. Comparing the town maps to the information on my print map and the information provided to me by the bike shop, many of the trails on the town maps are actually off limits to bikes, despite not having a different color or design.

In short, Mammoth is a truly gorgeous destination with epic trails, but if you’re coming to trail ride, it’s not worth more than a single day of mountain biking. One day of riding does not a mountain bike destination make.

A local bike shop employee put it best: “Historically, we’ve been known for mountain bike RACING… not our mountain bike trails.”

…but it doesn’t have to be this way!

The thing is, Mammoth could be known not just for its mountain bike racing and downhilling, but also for its epic singletrack riding! If they wanted to up the ante, Mammoth could focus on building bike-legal singletrack outside of the ski area. Building epic mountain bike trails takes work and money, but every destination that has done so has reaped massive dividends in trail access and connectivity both for riders, and for other trail users as well.

Now granted, Mammoth’s ability to expand their mountain bike access is legally limited, thanks to Wilderness designations that prohibit mountain bikes. That’s why the Sustainable Trails Coalition’s ongoing work is so important. But even now, many of these great singletrack trails could be opened to bicycles to the Wilderness boundary, simply by moving the “No Bicycles” signs.

Mammoth Lakes could improve their mountain bike trail access through a combination of these methods. All they have to do is act.