If You Build It- The Past, Present, and Future of Trail Development in the Wasatch

IfYouBuildIt

 

Vast and rugged, the terrain of the Wasatch is prime territory for mountain biking.  The “greatest snow on Earth” melts into the streams and rivers every spring and unveils a plethora of riding opportunities for cyclists of every ilk.  Countless threads of single track weave through the landscape as if carefully pulled towards a giant loom.  Each strand has its own unique color and character and they work together to form a tapestry that accentuates the beauty of our great state.  The seamstresses of this meticulously crafted work of art possess a deep passion for cycling and have dedicated a healthy portion of their lives to maintaining the integrity of their profession.  These are the trail builders, managers, and advocates that make riding in Utah so amazing.  Utilizing muscle and brainpower, these individuals coordinate with numerous entities and communities to develop solutions that fit rider’s needs and desires.  Without their determination and creativity, the Wasatch would be a very different place.

 

Genesis

Troy Duffin could be considered the grandfather of trail building along the Wasatch.  His resume includes over 500 miles of trails built, mostly in the state of Utah.  Relocating from the Bay Area to Park City in the Early 90’s enabled Duffin to pursue his dreams of living in the mountains and riding every day. During that era, the mountain biking scene in Park City was gaining momentum as more people started riding. “The community was pretty active.  We were riding stuff that was quasi-legal, mostly glorified game trails or old mining roads,” says Duffin.  He also states that there were only a few purpose built trails like TG and Sam’s Trail, as well as a couple more off of Empire Pass.  Unfortunately, land developers in the area brought the hammer down and started closing a lot of these renegade trail systems.  Duffin and his merry band of riders saw this as an opportunity to push back and advocate for legal trail development.  A turning point had been reached and the community looked toward a local non-profit for help.  The Mountain Trails Foundation (MTF) had been formed in 1993 with the intent to open up access to land and promote mountain biking. Duffin was hired as the first Executive Director and his efforts opened the door for extensive trail building.  The MTF worked alongside ski areas and land developers to allow the legal building of trail networks all along the Wasatch Back.  “The big successes came from the people at United Park City Mines Company.  They owned a lot of property back then and their willingness helped pave the way for those (developers) that were more reluctant,” says Duffin.

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Additional awareness of the rising mountain biking culture came from events like the National Off-Road Biking Associations (NORBA) Nationals held for many years at Deer Valley.  This event brought riders from around the country and outsiders were given a glimpse of what was to come.  More extensive trail networks began to crop up in the area and builders like Don Taylor were leading the charge.  Taylor’s involvement in off-road riding began in the 60’s and 70’s during his affair with dirt bikes.  He helped pioneer the original routes on Slick Rock in Moab and served as an advocate for access during that time.  When he redirected his efforts toward mountain biking, Taylor found his calling.  His tenure at Deer Valley Resort on the ski patrol led him to start the summer mountain biking program and build one of the first purpose driven trail systems in the country.  These trails have gained notoriety throughout the mountain biking world and have a special place in the hearts of many.  “Spin Cycle at Deer Valley is one of the trails I am most proud of building, partly because I get to enjoy riding it every week,” says Taylor.  His efforts would prove to be instrumental in further development and he is still active in the community today.

 

Working for the MTF allowed Duffin to reach out to many different individuals and his pioneering spirit was widely recognized.  In 1994, he was approached to build trails privately.  This dovetailed well with his work as an advocate and he started Alpine Trails later that year.  With the blessing from MTF to go ahead as a private builder, Duffin started working on various projects around the Wasatch Back.  His newly formed company was contracted to build some of the most famous trails in the area, many of which are still ridden today.  The Mid-Mountain Trail and Armstrong are two classic trails that challenge riders and provide scenic views of Park City. Each one of these trails was a labor of love and a good portion of them was hand built with a shovel and chainsaw.  “There were a lot of summers where I was up at four in the morning and in bed at midnight, seven days a week.  I got a little burnt out to be honest,” says Duffin.  The next step was to utilize machinery such as trail dozers and mini-excavators to expedite the process and maintain efficiency.  Using these tools of the trade enabled the creation of elaborate trail networks that incorporated a larger section of the landscape and promoted sustainability. The list of trails he has built goes on from Round Valley to Glenwild and has even transcended to the Wasatch Front.

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Ascension

The groundwork performed by Duffin and Taylor created an opportunity for mountain biking to gain traction in the public sector.  “We were busting our hump at MTF working to open access for trails.  Eventually it became apparent that we weren’t going to get anywhere unless we could force it.  Some of the land developers just flat out said screw you,” says Duffin.   The Snyderville Basin just outside of Park City proper was mostly open space at the time and had captured the attention of Duffin as a place to build more trails.  A local government entity had already been established in the late 80’s and served as an intermediary between the community and developers.  Duffin worked with the Snyderville Basin Special Recreation District and served as their first Trail Project Manager during the late 90’s.  His role working for the agency was instrumental in gaining more leverage with developers.

 

Miles of trail systems were built in the Snyderville Basin during this era and a strong cast of characters began to emerge.  Bob Radke, for which the trail system “Bob’s Basin” originates, worked alongside Duffin at Alpine Trails and learned a great deal about the design and building process.  Radke became increasing involved within the cycling community and channeled his love for the sport into building trail.  He became the Trail Maintenance Supervisor at Basin Recreation in 2003.  Being responsible for such a large area, Radke implemented the use of additional machines and builders to keep the trail systems in top form.  His tireless efforts and dedication have led to his long career with the agency.

Senta Beyer moved over from Summit County and joined up with Basin Recreation during this timeframe.  She cut her teeth in coordinating the desires of the community with the funding available.  Talking with the land developers and facilitating the creation of new trail systems allowed her to witness the intricacies of the design process and the implementation of plans.  She would eventually be groomed as Duffin’s replacement and spend the next 15 years managing Basin Recreation’s trail program.

 

The turn of the century was definitely and exciting time to see the progression of trail building along the Wasatch.  Each entity from non-profit, to private, to government worked harmoniously to provide the communities with a wide array of recreation opportunities.  Users of theses trails would vary from biking to equestrian and special consideration was given to ensue maximum enjoyment for the greatest number.  The individuals behind the scenes like Taylor, Duffin, Radke, and Beyer were backed up by the wishes of the locals and each year saw more development and fresh ideas.  These forefathers paved the way for the next generation of advocates, builders, and mangers to take the reins and guide the industry into a new realm.

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Lay of the Land

Understanding the topography of an area is the backbone of building a proper trail system.  Countless hours are spent poring over maps and walking through the terrain to determine the course a new trail will take.  The land itself may be publicly owned or consist of swaths of private development, and each one carries its own set of unique characteristics.  Moving from concept to construction finds the builder flagging a potential route using their trusty clinometers, a device for measuring slope angle.  According to Duffin, bicycles are the most grade restrictive users.  This means that a builder must find the optimal route and try to stay below an 8% grade for a trail to be climbable.  Armstrong and Pinecone trails are 6% and 7% grades respectively, while the Spiro trail pushes above 10% in some places.  The real work now comes once the proposed route is flagged and has been crosschecked by land developers and ecologists to ensure that no wetlands or environmentally sensitive areas are disturbed.  Once the shovels hit the dirt, it is a labor and time intensive process to put the trail in place.  Proper drainage is essential for any trail to be able to shed water and keep erosion to a minimum.  Additional consideration is given to the potential users of the trail and hikers and horseback riders are factored into the mix.  Each builder and their respective entity must take into account that nearly every trail has to be multi-use and serve the overall needs of the community for which it is built.

There are various options for physically carving out the actual trail.  A trail dozer or Bobcat has the ability to cut a four-foot bench, while a mini-excavator can create trails that are up to two feet wide.  Shovels and pick axes come in to deliver the finishing touches.  Chainsaws are also an indispensable weapon in the trail builder’s arsenal.  Each tool requires a certain skill set and Duffin says that some of his best builders have come from a farming background.  Having a mechanical aptitude also helps when dealing with machinery in the field.  Radke adds that most of his crew’s experience comes from on the job training and that it “takes a bit of artistry” to become a proficient builder. Having the vision on where to put a berm or accentuate a natural rock feature is also an important attribute.  One thing that all builders have in common is their love for riding.  Putting tires on a new trail for the first time is what inspires builders to continue creating and has even spurred the formation of the Professional Trail Builders Association.  The PTBA works to promote craftsmanship in the industry and create a climate of collaboration and information sharing to develop the best trails possible.

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Forward Momentum

Bob Radke considers himself a map guy, and his small office is littered with them.  His penchant for seeing a piece of land and visualizing a curvaceous line from point A to point B is admirable.  Serving as the Trails Manager at Basin Recreation for the past year, Radke has been given the torch to spark new trail building initiatives and help grow the useable open space.  “The public has set a precedent by asking for more trails,” says Radke.  At present, there are multiple land easements that are being transferred to Basin Recreation and the potential for additional trail development and extensions is staggering.  The next three to five years will see new trail construction and cooperation with other entities will be paramount to the success of these systems.

Radke’s counterparts at Park City Municipal, Summit, and Wasatch Counties work together to spur initiatives that benefit the community by installing more trails and reducing user conflict.  Heinrich Dieters of Park City Municipal says “etiquette, crowding, and events are most burdensome. I don’t like being a regulator. But creating more options and access to the network has been very successful.”  Dieter’s sentiment is echoed by Rick Fournier of the MTF when he says, “The challenge is how to find balance on a multi-use trail system and put emphasis on dispersing users- we’ve got over 300-miles of trail, so why not encourage folks to explore a new trail.”

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Across the Wasatch, new trail systems are emerging to the delight of valley dwellers.  The Corner Canyon area in particular has seen abundant growth since its acquisition by Draper City in 2005.  Acres of this enclave have been engineered to provide access to a wide array of trails that give riders of every level an opportunity to perfect their craft.  Brad Jensen has worked for Draper City since 1996 and is one of the aspiring young minds that are perpetuating the growth of mountain biking in Utah.  As an Engineering Project Manager, Jensen is responsible for maintaining the vast network of trails in Corner Canyon.  He has worked with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) to learn more about sustainable trail building practices and understand industry trends.  The proliferation of long-travel, full-suspension mountain bikes has totally changed the way builders look at a trail.  This facet of the biking world has forced Jensen to look at designing directional trails like the Rush and Maple Hollow Downhill trails.  “The biggest issue we have on our trails is user conflict.  Most all the trails built to date have been multi-use bi-directional.  It can sometimes be a challenge to balance the wants and needs of the mountain biking communities with the other trail users,” says Jensen.  Facing these issues head on, involving the public, and looking for innovative solutions to problems will foster good will in the community and keep the tax dollars flowing for future development.  Draper City recently purchased land in Suncrest, an area twice the size of Corner Canyon.  Jensen notes that more directional, single-use trails will be developed in clusters on this property to better address conflict.

 

Privatization of trail building is again becoming popular along the Wasatch as resorts like Canyons and Snowbird join the party with Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and Sundance.  “These areas are already disturbed and so the Forest Service is more apt to allow development,” says Duffin.  Purpose built downhill trails and mountain bike parks are a great way for ski areas to supplement their annual income and the uphill transportation is already in place.  Mountains like Whistler, Keystone, and Winter Park boast elaborate trail systems and are a huge attraction for summer business.  Last fall, Snowbird contracted Alpine Trails to build the Gad Valley Flow Trail, which runs from the top of the Tram all the way to the base.  The trail is nearly seven miles long and offers 3,000 vertical feet of descent.  The trail was built at an 8% grade to allow climbing before the mountain opens each day.  “A challenge somewhat unique to Snowbird’s mountain bike operation is snow. While other resorts’ bike parks are already open, we still have too much snow on the upper mountain. So our seasons will be shorter,” says Dave Fields, Snowbird’s Vice President of Operations.  His outlook on future trail building is optimistic and the resort has invested heavily in a rental fleet and additional infrastructure.

Road to Arcylon

Revelations

We in the Wasatch are blessed to have such a diverse array of usable terrain and passionate people.  Throughout the range there are advancements being made to expand trail networks and spread to new areas.  Park City’s storied past has placed it as the first IMBA Gold Level Ride Center as of 2012, giving it a leg up when garnering international attention and attracting more tourism dollars.  The Wasatch Trails Alliance, headed by Don Taylor, has also been instrumental in building trails in Heber.  “Utah has one of the most vibrant mountain biking communities in the country. It is right up there with Colorado and California, and you can see it in any race or magazine you pick up,” says Taylor.  He realizes the importance of spurring advocacy and involving volunteers to progress projects like the proposed WOW Trail, which will connect the Heber and Park City systems.

Resorts like Snowbird will also help drive change by incorporating public opinion in their expansion process. “We held an open house last summer and there’s a lot of interest in more downhill riding close to SLC. That segment of the Utah mountain bike scene came out in force and was very supportive and willing to donate time and energy to building trails, fundraising and being involved,” says Fields.  He further explains that Snowbird has an application put in with the Forest Service to put in a second trail with more aggressive downhill lines and features.

All of these initiatives mean more trails to spread out crowds, reduce conflict, and promote the sport.  As these changes come about, a new non-profit has emerged to act as an additional advocate on a state-wide level.  Trails Utah will serve as a type of trails guidance counselor.   They will work directly with different communities throughout Utah and facilitate grant writing, deal with land easements, educate users on environmental impact, and even consult on the design, plan, and build stages.  Trails Utah is directed Troy Duffin and Senta Beyer with the help of Sarah Bennett.  Their current projects include trail renovations in Emigration Canyon and on the Bonneville Shoreline, as well as trail expansion at Alta.  They are also engaged in developing a multitude of trails in Flaming Gorge and speculate that it could be the state’s next Moab- a lofty goal no doubt.

With summer in full swing, it is prime time to get out and enjoy our plentiful earthen pathways.  It is also a good time to think about getting involved in community volunteer programs where you can take part in building and maintaining trail systems across the range.  Wherever you may roam, remember to thank the builders, managers, and advocates that keep the wheels rolling.

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