The Trails are More Crowded Than Ever. Should They be Closed? [Opinion]

Should mountain bike trailheads and even trails shut down for public safety in response to overcrowding?
The trailhead parking lot to Green Mountain in Lakewood, Colorado on April 1, 2020.

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Two-and-a-half weeks ago when I went on my last ride with friends, before a mandate to exercise alone or only with members of your household, I drove up to a trailhead only to find every square inch of parking lot crammed full of cars.

“The trailhead is full, so I’m going to park at the brewery. See you there,” I texted my buddies. It was a Tuesday at 1:30PM. Since I always work from home, my schedule is often flexible and I can swing lunch rides pretty regularly. The trailheads along the Front Range of Colorado don’t usually fill up until 4 or 5PM, when people are done with work and flock west for a ride, but that’s in peak summer.

Since thousands of people lost their jobs a few days earlier, things had changed. As we chugged along the main climb, we weaved through clusters of hikers, trying to keep our distance, but also trying to stay in a semi-tight group, as to not break up others’ flow too much.

Near the end of our loop, as we tried to enjoy the descent, it became more of a skate, with one foot off a pedal, riding gravity for a few yards, and pulling over to let groups by, heads turned away from the trail. Sharing singletrack had become akin to my childhood days hovering over a Nintendo with a group of friends, eagerly grasping at the only available controller for a turn.

After I loaded my bike up and drove off, I told myself that would probably be my last ride with friends for who knows how long, and that I’d have to change my expectations. In Colorado, we’re caught in temperamental spring days with temperatures in the 60s, melting the snow off of a few trails, and condensing hikers and bikers until more trails dry out and the crowds can spread.

By now, most of us in the US who frequent the outdoors have noticed a spike in other outdoor enthusiasts. Some of them might have already been regular riders or hikers and have more time because they are out of work now, and others might be getting out to trails for the first time because before, going to work was the only escape from their home walls.

Although it’s a little frustrating to have our regular hangouts crowded by irregulars, the silver lining might be that people gain a greater appreciation for the outdoors. And since bike shops across the nation have been declared essential by many local governments, maybe the upside is that shops will gain some customers interested in a new sport.

The downside is that it feels like being a core skater or BMXer when the Razor scooter was released and having to compete for lines with the others, or worse, the others are jeopardizing access to your happy place. Another downside is that land management agencies all over have started taking actions at parks and open spaces because they have become overly crowded, and we don’t know how to police ourselves properly.

Right now, in most places across North America, it’s still acceptable to mountain bike, given a few exceptions. Riders should bike alone, or only with other members of their household. They should ride safely, well within their limits, and they should not travel far in order to ride. Unfortunately, this means that many who can’t afford to live near the trails — because often there is a price attached to living close to open spaces — are socially encouraged not to visit trail systems. Yes, it’s the right thing to do, but it sucks more for some than others.

In Western North Carolina around Asheville, the Forest Service has been shutting down facilities like restrooms and campsites, although the trails are still open, and are said to be crowded, with the parking lots “overflowing.”

In North Vancouver, home to some of the world’s best trails, the city has been shutting down parking lots and access points to many of the city’s trails, including Mt. Fromme, to reduce the amount of people recreating.

In New Zealand, even though cases of coronavirus aren’t as widespread as in other countries, they are getting an early start on restricting unnecessary movement, and some trail organizations are shutting down access to their trails in response, ending the season early for communities of mountain bikers.

Even Sedona, a community that is dependent on the tourist dollar, announced that they would be shutting down trailheads by Saturday because of overcrowding and a lack of consideration for social distancing.

Back home in Colorado, mixed messaging from state and local governments continues to confuse the masses. Under the state order, “State parks will remain open to the public who live in the vicinity to engage in walking, hiking, biking, running, and similar outdoor activities,” although “vicinity” can be interpreted in a number of ways. Denver County took it one step further, saying that it is not OK to travel to neighboring communities to recreate.

Still, guidelines from local governments haven’t helped quell crowds. As a resident of Jefferson County, I appreciate the effort that the county is making to keep trails open to the public because fresh air and nature is vital for any sense of normalcy right now, but that sense of normalcy is killed when the crowding is so bad that they are employing sheriff’s deputies to enforce physical distancing on the trails.

Two riders pedal toward the trail for a ride.

As I headed home from a solo ride the other evening, I passed the Green Mountain trailhead, which is the closest open space to Denver to ride or hike. The lot was jam-packed with cars spilling out onto the road. People just arriving were not deterred and circled the lot for a parking space. Some of the visitors looked mindful of social distancing. Others couldn’t care less.

As bad as I do want to ride, the risk is starting to outweigh the reward in my own calculation. It’s not that I’m worried about contracting or spreading the virus on the trail. If you’re riding alone, and not using any of the facilities, it’s pretty unlikely, and it would take a well-timed hacking fit from a sick passerby to increase the odds.

Even though a lot of us are still allowed to ride, this isn’t an easy time for anyone, and I don’t want to feel like I’m skating along with a breeze on my back while millions are suffering.

Since gyms, theaters, bars, and restaurants have all closed across the globe, the great outdoors appears to be the final frontier for people to enjoy anything outside of their house. Local governments are slowly evaluating trailhead closures, which puts a greater pressure on individuals to make the right decisions. And who is going to revoke their own access? It’s a strange time right now, but maybe we all need to pause and think about what’s healthy for us, for others, and for the outdoors.