Mountain Bike Trail Building: Giving Back To The Riding Community
Every trail is unique. But while some are fast and flowy, and others are rough and technical, they all must be properly maintained in order ensure an incredible riding experience. If you haven’t been involved in the creation or maintenance of your favorite trail (often colloquially referred under the catch-all term, “trail building”), have you ever stopped to consider who is? Have you ever traversed that trail on foot, and taken the time to inspect its nuances, its ruts, and its lines up close and personal?
Most mountain bikers haven’t, and that’s okay. Several of our own team members at Felt hadn’t been involved in trail building efforts, either. But that all changed on a pleasant November morning near our Southern California headquarters when we were invited by the Laguna Canyon Foundation to participate in a trail building day. Fourteen of us set out with a trio of trail stewards from the foundation, armed with shovels and pickaxes. Our goal was to ensure future rainfall wouldn’t permanently damage one of our favorite trails, Car Wreck (named for an jalopy that mysteriously crashed at the bottom of the trail several decades ago). The result was a day filled with sweat and smiles, and one that opened up both eyes and minds to the importance of giving back to one’s community.
Building and maintaining a mountain bike trail involves a lot more planning and labor than simply shoveling dirt around and piling up some rocks. Many are part of complex networks of thoroughfares that are part of a bigger ecological picture, and must be designed and utilized in such a way as to preserve the surrounding landscape, prevent unnecessary erosion, and ensure effective watershed. This is especially true of multi-use trails that are shared with equestrian enthusiasts and hikers, and the careful upkeep and intensive labor involved is exponentially more than a dedicated swath of rip-worthy singletrack.
Every trail is unique. So every trail requires its own type of maintenance. To find out how to help care for your favorite trails and get involved more with your local mountain bike community, contact the entity in charge of your local riding area, such as a county or state park association, or ask the friendly faces at your local bike shop. Another great resource is IMBA. We got the skinny on one of our favorite riding locales from Mike Hall, avid rider and trail coordinator for the Laguna Canyon Foundation. His is a unique story of a place near and dear to our hearts, and he’s got some advice for all mountain bikers out there who are interested in preserving their favorite places to ride.
Felt Bicycles Senior Graphic Designer Jeff Heesch is an avid rider and trail building enthusiast.
FELT: Tell us about the Laguna Canyon Foundation.
Mike Hall: The Laguna Canyon Foundation was founded around 25 years ago and, long story short, it was done so by a group of people who banded together at the eleventh hour to save the wilderness area. They chained themselves to bulldozers to stop the development of what is now the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. That land, at the time, was slated for hotels, condominiums, a golf course, and homes. It was going to be like “Newport Beach South.” So they got together and convinced the developer to sell the land to the city and private parties. They got a bond measure together and the people who created the Laguna Canyon Foundation were the agents of escrow, meaning that they did all the deeds, and all that kind of stuff. They thought they’d get around 5,000 acres, and it ended up at around 22,000 acres. So today, the Laguna Canyon Foundation doesn’t own any land in particular. The managing entity that is in control of the park today is Orange County Parks. Laguna Canyon Foundation has transitioned into stewardship. They asked themselves, “What do we do with the land, now that we have it?”
FELT: What is the Laguna Canyon Foundation's role within the landscape these days?
MH: Orange County Parks doesn’t have as much of their infrastructure in place to take care of the trails as much as they need to be. They’re doing their jobs well, but they simply don’t have the time and necessary resources to do it as effectively as possible because it’s such a large area. So they’ve contracted with the Laguna Canyon Foundation, through a memorandum of understanding, and we bring in all the volunteer efforts to do all the trail work. This includes restoration projects such as removing invasive plants and reintroducing native plants, and reversing the tide, so to speak, as far as that goes. The foundation also has projects scattered throughout the land, including youth programs where they bring kids from underserved communities to the park for education, bike rides, nature walks, and even stargazing. The unofficial credo of the foundation is, “You’re only going to protect what you love.” So it’s all about being actively involved, taking care of the land, and helping people discover a love for the land.
FELT: How did you personally become involved in the Laguna Canyon Foundation?
MH: I was hired four years ago to be the trail coordinator. So I have the enviable job of going out and making all the decisions about how we’re going to maintain what we have in terms of the legal trails. That involves two major goals: keep the water off the trail, and keep the riders on the trail. Most of these trails are all inherited, meaning we acquired them as former ranch roads, old rogue trails, or game trails that turned into multi-use trails. They were adopted into the park at various points in time, and that’s what we’re now taking care of. And none of them were really set up to maintain themselves. They needed a lot of help. So that’s where we come in.
FELT: What are the primary tasks of the trail coordinator and the trail stewards?
MH: We fix the trails, make them drain better, make them ride better, and we help define the riding paths so people know where to go. Sometimes there are too many line choices, and riders don’t know where to go. So they ride hither and thither; today they ride here, tomorrow they ride there. The trail then gets wider and wider over time, and it keeps creeping outward. So it’s all about maintaining a somewhat strict corridor for the trail that’s rideable and maintainable. We’d love to have it sustainable on its own, but the area around here is too steep, so it won’t sustain itself. That’s really the idea of trail sustainability: you should be able to put in a trail and then walk away. But you simply can’t around here because it’s too steep, and you have to constantly maintain the trail. So that’s where the volunteer effort comes in. It’s important for all the heavy trail users to become heavy givers at some point.
FELT: How can local mountain bikers in Southern California help out the Laguna Canyon Foundation, and how can mountain bikers in other areas help their local communities?
MH: To help support trail access entities like the Laguna Canyon Foundation, you can give time, money or props. Give us your time if you can come out and work on the trails with us during volunteer days. You can give us money by writing a check and making a donation. It’s a 501(c)(3) organization, so donations can be a tax write-off. Or give us props: write a letter to the board of supervisors, or to the rangers, or support the foundation and it’s efforts to encourage respectable trail use within the community and get people involved. All users should be givers at some point.
FELT: What are some tips for all mountain bikers in regards to taking care of their local trails?
MH: Be respectful of the habitat. The reason that these two wilderness parks in this area were saved was because of the habitat. There’s a recreation element that’s codified within the use of the park. And if the habitat suffers too much, that recreation element can be pulled. So if people make illegal trails, or ride off-trail, or they make shortcuts between different points of a trail, or any of those kinds of things, it degrades the habitat. So it becomes unviable to maintain that trail or to keep that trail in existence. There’s always the chance that we can lose legal trails if people don’t adhere to the path that’s there.
For more information on volunteer opportunities with the Laguna Canyon Foundation, visit their website.