In Print: Community. Prosperity. Hope. Change.Originally posted on August 12, 2019 at 4:20 am by Marty Caivano
How catering to mountain bikers is helping small towns
Editor’s Note: This feature first appeared in issue 205 of our print edition of Dirt Rag Magazine. Like what you see? Subscribe today to catch issue 212, in production now and soon to set sail. Photos from this web edition taken by Brett Rothmeyer in Copper Harbor, Michigan, another rad small town with a fantastic mountain bike community.
by Marty Caivan0
Few people outside the cycling industry would use these words to describe what mountain biking can inspire. But for the folks in towns across the U.S. who work hard to create trail systems, these are the words they choose.
In fact, a growing number of cities are investing in trail systems and finding they gain far more than just the strips of dirt local riders are asking for.
In January, a Minnesota resources board approved nearly $5 million to fund three large trail projects in the Iron Range, a region in the northeastern corner of the state. Those board members spoke for many in the community — not just mountain bikers — who thought trail development could be a driving force for the area.
As anyone who has worked in trail advocacy knows, support on that level doesn’t happen overnight. Luckily, trail users in those project areas had an ace in their pockets: the success of a trail system in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, about two hours away.
“We’d been working on these projects for years — for decades on some of them,” says Benji Neff, a board member for Iron Range Off-Road Cyclists (IROC) and the director of mountain sports at Giants Ridge ski resort. “It really helped to use our neighbors as proof of concept. As they have been successful, their community has gotten even more behind it. They have been so instrumental in allowing everyone to see the benefits.”
The Cuyuna system has 30 miles of singletrack built along a string of lakes near the town of Crosby. They were some of the first machine-built flow trails — which few people had seen before — in the region. After the first phase of the system was built in 2011 and riders from all over the Midwest showed up to enjoy it, the effects began to trickle out to the community. Businesses grew and new ones were added; the recreation area improved its facilities for all users and new people moved in.
“We relocated to Crosby simply because we saw potential there and wanted to be a part of it,” says Julie McGinnis, who owns the Red Raven Bike Cafe with her husband, Patrick Stoffel. “We frequented the area and loved the Cuyuna Rec Area immediately; we were amazed by the bike trails.”
The couple thought the town needed a place where people could gather for food, coffee or beer, with the convenience of bike sales, rentals and repairs on site. They decided to do it themselves, and the cafe opened in 2016. “So far business is beyond expectations, and we feel we’ve been well-received. We love the community, and the trails really bring people together,” McGinnis says.
There are other stories like McGinnis’, but the effect isn’t just anecdotal. An economic impact study for the area was completed in 2014, and it shows an impressive figure: $2 million in spending by cyclists over the 2012-13 time period. Visitors on mountain bikes jumped from 15,552 in 2011 to 22,503 in 2012.
This was quite a change for an area that valued outdoor recreation but didn’t anticipate the draw of quality trails. “People in the community didn’t understand what bikes were going to do; they thought bikes were what you had when you didn’t have a car,” says Aaron Hautala, former president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew and current advisory-committee member for the rec area. “That’s changed tremendously. Now having a bike is a badge of honor, not just for visitors, but residents. It’s come an incredibly long way.”
Like much of northern Minnesota, the economy in Crosby historically was based on mining. Open-pit and shaft mines produced minerals for steel, much of which helped the U.S. win the two world wars. But in 1984 the last mine shut down, delivering a major blow to the region.
“It was like Mars around here when the mines went out. No trees, no water, no nothing,” Hautala remembers. The former mine sites were “turning into a dump, with drug use and trash. It was a cesspool.”
Health care and education remained important contributors, but the area was still reaching for the next big thing. Crosby tried a variety of new approaches, including antique stores, but the trails surprised many by filling in the gap.
“Crosby had a sadness after the mines went out, that this is where we’re at,” Hautala says. “So the positivity in the town, even with people who don’t use the trails, was unexpected. You have a community that has tried and failed a few times, so I know they were skeptical, but people have really embraced it.”
Hautala credits the trails for helping to attract 15 new businesses over the past six years and giving the town additional leverage for its other economic drivers. “The Cuyuna Regional Medical Center goes out to recruit new employees and they put pictures of the trails and a mountain bike in their booth,” Hautala says. “People have heard about Cuyuna and they’re interested in the quality of life and affordability. It’s going to be a huge recruitment tool as people get tired of living in big cities due to the cost.”
Cuyuna has another 40 miles of trail listed in its master plan, and fundraising for those projects continues. Looking ahead to the additions, the economic study made a projection: Once the 75 total miles are in place, the annual impact could reach $21 million.
These numbers demonstrate the continued growth of the recreation sector overall. This year, for the first time ever, the contributions of the outdoor recreation economy were counted as a unique part of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that the outdoor industry accounts for 2 percent of the nation’s GDP, and that it’s growing faster than the U.S. economy as a whole.
It’s great news for other towns across the country that would like to embark on projects of their own. However, it’s not always simple. “I don’t think this is a copy-and-paste type of development,” Hautala says. “There are so many moving parts to making these economics come to life.”
Hansi Johnson agrees. He’s currently the director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, but when the Cuyuna trails were created, he was a key player through his role as a regional director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). He cautions other areas against taking a “me too” approach, thinking it’s an easy recipe to replicate.
While he gives full credit to Cuyuna for inspiring great trail systems all over the Midwest — in Minneapolis and Duluth, as well as Copper Harbor, Michigan, just to name a few — he encourages the next generation of trail cities to mix it up. “Make sure you differentiate yourself,” he advises. “For example, there’s a lot of flow trail out there now. It’s crazy to think this is where we’re at now, but there’s hundreds of miles of it, and it can get a bit vanilla if you don’t make it look different and create new flavors.”
Taking Advantage of What’s Already There
Chad Wolfe, owner of the Trek Bicycle Store in Johnson City, Tennessee, believes the answer lies in the inherent qualities of each location. “I wish I had the perfect formula for how trail towns are born,” he says, “but you have to find something unique to you.”
He has been working hard on trail projects in this town of 67,000 people, most specifically on Tannery Knobs, a 40-acre site overlooking downtown that is being built into a bike park.
He took inspiration from Bentonville, Arkansas, a town that has been adding trails as fast as they can be built in projects that are fully supported by the community. “Bentonville has no mountains, but it has rolling hills and trees. [Your trail system] has to create that quality-of-life experience for everyone,” says Wolfe. “We all want the big, rugged trails, but is that going to sell the concept? This is about making something everyone can enjoy.”
Johnson City possesses many qualities that place it on the mountain biking map. It sits at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, within 90 minutes of Pisgah National Forest and Dupont State Recreational Forest, two trail meccas that have long been on riders’ radars, as well as in quick proximity to the recent trail development in Knoxville. The town is right off the interstate, providing easy access for anyone stopping by to ride. Another city park could provide even more mileage, plus trail connectivity into the U.S. Forest Service land beyond it. And there are other outdoor opportunities, like hiking, fly-fishing and whitewater rafting. Wolfe describes it as a base camp for several days of adventure in the area.
But first, Johnson City needed to start somewhere.
“We have a lot of things going for us, but we were an industrial area that, like many parts of the country, has fallen a bit with manufacturing going out of the country,” vice mayor Jenny Brock shares. “We’re in that transformational place of looking forward, wondering what’s our competitive advantage to bring people here to work, play and live.”
The town had never really leveraged its outdoor amenities, so city staff began to explore the options. The struggling downtown suffered from a flooding problem, but instead of building a retention pond, they addressed it with a large park made to divert water. Then they built a paved and crushed-gravel bike path, the Tweetsie Trail, which connects Johnson City with the nearby community of Elizabethton. “People stop me on the trail and want to thank me,” Brock says. “People from Elizabethton say it’s the best thing that’s happened to their town.”
Along with these changes, revitalization flowered, bringing in businesses that wouldn’t have thrived before, including Wolfe’s Trek store.
From there, the ball began to roll.
The owner of Summers-Taylor, a local concrete and materials company, is a mountain biker. He walked into Wolfe’s shop and said he owned a nice chunk of land overlooking downtown and wanted to build trails on it.
Eventually, the piece of property (elevation: 350 feet) was donated to the town as a city park, and the city funded all of phase one itself — which includes trails of all levels (both flow trails and traditional singletrack), a skills area and built-in progression.
Wolfe emphasizes that it takes a lot of explaining what natural-surface trails are and how people will use them to get a community excited. The next step involves doing some homework and taking a professional approach. “Most cities aren’t in the business of building trails. We researched professional trail builders and explained that it’s not burdening the parks department,” he explains. “And we did our due diligence on finding the best locations for the parking, how many spaces, other necessary facilities and so on. We had to be more than just some guys holding up our hands and asking for trails.”
As most advocates know, it’s also best to include other trail lovers in the process. “All the user groups had to come to the table,” Wolfe says. “Many of the trails are bike-optimized, but 40 percent of them are multi-use, so everyone can enjoy them.”
The trails will open in June and be easily accessible from town and the bike path. “That’s a key part of its success too,” Wolfe says. “If it was outside the city, it would lose a lot of its appeal and we would have struggled to get the funding. It’s a much harder story to tell.”
Phase two has already been funded, and the community is growing along with the project. Developers are renovating the Tannery Flats apartments at the base of the park with a bicycle theme, and over the course of the town’s improvements, there are now nine breweries and other retail development.
“If you do things that impact the citizens’ quality of life, there is economic development that occurs as a result, and we’re definitely seeing that,” Brock reports. “And we’re also seeing an uptick in hotel visits and outdoor events and festivals being scheduled here.”
Based on all of this, the city doesn’t hesitate to look ahead. “Beyond Tannery Knobs, we are seeing the light that we have a lot of mountain biking opportunities in our region,” Brock continues. “We have to look at the regional assets we have and improve them so someone could come here and mountain bike for a week until their legs fall off.”
Wolfe agrees: “Having the city growing in tandem with the trails, we’re realizing that, like Bentonville, we can invest in something unique to us, something that can’t be duplicated.”
Can the Process Work in Reverse?
The town of Oakridge, Oregon, sits in Willamette National Forest, about an hour from Eugene and two hours from Bend. It’s a destination for experienced mountain bikers looking for multi-hour adventures, many of which work best by using the local shuttle services. It’s an ideal spot for a long mountain bike vacation.
In Oakridge, however, the trails didn’t need to be built.
“Most of the trails have been here a really long time, back to the early days of the U.S. Forest Service,” says Benjamin Beamer, founder of the Greater Oakridge Area Trail Stewards (GOATS). “We’ve been lucky to be surrounded by national forest, but still have a lot of these trails left. There used to be a whole lot more, but as logging happened and roads were built, some were lost. The majority of the trails have been around 100 years.”
These trails were created during the time of growing fire protection in the forests, where lookouts and guard stations were built to keep watch. “When you look around at where these trails go, there are old lookout sites. One hundred years ago, the railroad just got to Oakridge from Eugene, and logging hadn’t happened yet, so it was a very rural area. All these places, you had to get to them somehow,” Beamer explains.
Oakridge remains a very small town. The 2010 census put the population at 3,205 people. The place began as a railroad boomtown, then transitioned to a logging economy, which faded out when the last mills closed in 1985. “Oakridge was rock bottom then, but a great place to be if you could scrape out a living here,” Beamer says.
The town had no other significant economic drivers, and the two largest employers continue to be the school district and the U.S. Forest Service. In the mid-1990s, when mountain biking was first becoming known, folks in Oakridge knew the area had a lot of trails, but they didn’t have the information they needed about who mountain bikers were or how to market to them.
Word spread slowly, eventually reaching Randy Dreiling, who moved to town in 2002 to start Oregon Adventures, a mountain bike tour company. After a few years of leading small tours, he founded a mountain bike festival with an event company out of Portland, Oregon. The first Mountain Bike Oregon, in 2005, had only 34 riders, but as the buzz spread, it soon started to sell out and by 2007 required a second event later in the summer.
Locals already recognized that the trails needed some work to help them handle the increased use. “In ’06 to ’09 we worked on a trails plan that focused on connecting the community to the existing trails, and that is where GOATS was born,” Beamer says. “Like all good plans, it’s never going to happen without an advocacy group. We were chipping away on those ideas and trying to improve the trail network with the USFS.”
The area currently has 680 miles of trail, about 300 of which are widely appealing for mountain biking, spread throughout lush forests with heavy undergrowth of ferns and wildflowers. The area also draws visitors through hiking, trail running, fly-fishing and motorized recreation.
Tourism, especially in outdoor recreation, is important to the state of Oregon overall. In 2003 the legislature passed the Oregon Tourism Investment Proposal, which implemented a 1 percent statewide lodging tax. In 2016 the tax was raised to 1.8 percent, and 10 percent of the funds went into a competitive grants program.
Travel Oregon, a commission created by the legislature in 2003, has worked hard to promote bicycle tourism, even holding yearly summits on the topic. The agency reported in 2012 that visitors spent $400 million in bike-related travel expenditures.
Some of that has trickled down to Oakridge, which has a high-end bike shop, two shuttle companies and other businesses that cater to outdoors enthusiasts.
“There are people visiting town all the time,” says Kevin Rowell, trails program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in the Middle Fork Ranger District and a rider himself. “I get way more calls for trail information than I ever used to. Between us and the bike shop, we’ve noticed a really big upswing.”
Yet it’s not a magic bullet. “Tourism certainly hasn’t hurt,” Beamer says. “Oakridge is always held up as a poster child, but it’s not going to save the town. So Oakridge trying to pull itself up by the bootstraps is really about changing the identity. It used to be ‘that old timber town.’ Now this town is something again; it has something it can pride itself on again. Are people getting rich off mountain biking? No, but we wouldn’t have a brewery and B&Bs without it. It’s a very seasonable business here, and you can’t earn enough money to survive on that.”
The city isn’t able to offer a lot of help, either. Beamer feels that the town leadership is divided on the subject and doesn’t take an active role, while Rowell believes they support it in spirit but don’t have much financial ability. “The tax base of the city is not very wide and it’s been pretty up and down. They just don’t have the disposable income to support this,” Rowell says.
One thing Beamer knows is missing is the family vacation. “There isn’t really an easy trail, so GOATS has been working hard on this, to get something more family-friendly,” he shares. “Mountain biking used to be a bunch of dudes, and now they’ve grown up and they want a family experience while getting some riding in, too. You need to have that family opportunity when you start thinking about tourism.”
Rowell also points out that there is still room to grow: “This has been a timber town for a long time, and we are still early in the process of transitioning to a recreation town. There are lots of undeveloped opportunities. Every time I turn my head there’s an opportunity for something new, like fat-bike access.”
Improving any community, whether through trail tourism or otherwise, takes time. And Beamer is in for the long haul. “I grew up here, I live here, I’m going to die here,” he states. “My role is that I really wanted to see the community get beyond the struggles it was in 30 years ago. I’m 50 now, and it’s a hell of a lot better place than it was before.”
A Place That Paved the Way
As more places look ahead to their trail potential, they can also gain insight from looking back at a town that most mountain bikers already know. Does trail tourism pay off over the long haul?
Unlike many of today’s trail towns, which use broad community support to start destination trail systems, Fruita, Colorado, began as one man’s vision.
Troy Rarick opened his bike shop, Over the Edge Sports, in 1995. This little town of 13,000 people sits a few miles outside Grand Junction, which in turn sits in a relatively isolated area between the Colorado Rockies and the Utah desert. It seems like an unlikely spot to invest.
Rarick was from Grand Junction, but he’d been working in a bike shop in Denver before being hired at a shop in Moab. He saw all the people driving to Moab from the Denver area and realized that Fruita/GJ was ripe to capitalize on that traffic.
The two towns are situated on the arid Western Slope, which is blessed with lots of sunshine, big views over the Colorado River and large amounts of land ideal for trails — especially purpose-built singletrack, since at that time Moab’s riding was primarily jeep roads and slickrock.
Rarick and a few other riders set out on their own to build, focusing on an area north of town known as the Book Cliffs. Trouble was, the land wasn’t theirs to build on.
“We didn’t know we were doing something technically wrong,” remembers George Gatseos, general manager of the shop and one of Rarick’s early riding and building partners. “For all intents and purposes, the area wasn’t very well treated by the general public. It was covered in trash, old refrigerators. … In a large part, we felt like we were helping the area. The BLM has a huge task of looking after all the land they have out here.”
In spite of the good intentions, the Bureau of Land Management didn’t take too kindly to illegal trail building, and the inevitable backlash occurred. Over the years, however, the relationship between the BLM and local riders began to improve, especially as the tourism benefits to the area became evident. Today, the BLM lists the Fruita and Grand Junction trails among its top 20 nationwide mountain biking opportunities.
Integration with local officials came over time as well. “Our last city manager [Clint Kinney, now town manager for Snowmass, Colorado] was an amazing guy,” Gatseos says. “The leadership and understanding that he provided was critical to city government here. Before, we were the weird people in tights, right? It’s a lot of farmers here. His vision and understanding of what was happening was crucial in getting us involved.”
But many years of work, in building both trails and Fruita’s reputation, had to come first. Rarick told all of his Denver/Front Range friends that they should come check out the trails. They did, had a good time, told their friends and word continued to spread.
The turning point with the community, however, where the town began to embrace trail tourism, didn’t occur until quite a bit later. “I would say that it took the financial stuff in the late 2000s for the city of Fruita to realize what it had going for itself,” Gatseos says.
Like many places in this part of the country, Fruita’s main industry is oil and gas extraction. The area experienced several boom and bust cycles, spanning the uranium mining of the 1950s, the oil shale boom of the 1970s and another bubble in the late 2000s with natural gas. The effect on the town wasn’t always pretty.
“In the early ’90s, Fruita as a town was bankrupt,” Gatseos says. During the oil shale boom, the Grand Junction area population jumped from 40,000 people to 100,000 over a three-year span. “Then Exxon pulled out and laid off the whole workforce in basically an afternoon. This whole valley was just crushed.”
The area worked hard to diversify, investing in GJ’s high-level trauma center, its university, the growing wine industry in nearby Palisade and in outdoor recreation.
“After that last run-up of natural gas was over, Fruita held its own, to a large extent due to bike tourism,” Gatseos says. “Now it’s enough revenue to be a driving force in the economy. I have 12 people working at the shop, new restaurants are popping up and it’s bigger than most people think it is, by dollars.”
“It’s been such a gradual process over the last 10 to 15 years that people have looked around and said, ‘Wow, we’ve really got something here,’” says Ture Nycum, parks and recreation director for the city of Fruita. “There’s been a community transformation where everyone sees the trails having a big impact on the town.”
As a result, the overall approach has evolved. “One of the changes is that the BLM, the city of Fruita and the local businesses have come full circle since I first came here,” Nycum says. “Now we have monthly meetings together, along with the local mountain bike organization, to talk about issues, trail development and maintenance. These conversations have really allowed us to look ahead and plan together.”
Things don’t seem to be slowing down for Fruita, in spite of its long history as a destination. Trail-based visitation continues to rise, even though overall visitation to these BLM lands has declined slightly. The BLM field office in Grand Junction reports mountain biking, hiking and trail running in a single category, and these users logged 299,000 visits in 2016 (the latest report), up from 248,163 in 2014.
With this steady rise of visitors, the town can’t help but adapt. “It has changed the flavor of Fruita, and we’re trying to be diligent in how that’s being done,” Nycum says. “We don’t want to alienate our history or our past, or the citizens who have been here a long time.”
Gatseos feels that the balance is working. “Fruita is a hopeful place now. When I came here in the ’90s, there wasn’t a lot to feel positive about,” he says. “But over the years, people are starting to think, ‘This is really cool and it’s something to be proud of.’”
Nor is Gatseos jaded after working with tourists for 20 years. “The opportunity to be here, when you look at the history — we don’t take it for granted that our customers are here, even to this day,” he maintains. “Everyone who walks in the door is special.”
Better Living Through Trails
To reach a level of success as a trail destination, each of these cities has taken its own evolving path. There are many other great locations on this journey too: Draper, Utah; East Burke, Vermont; Eagle, Colorado; Anniston, Alabama; Downieville, California. (Keep an eye on Caliente, Nevada.) While no perfect formula exists for creating trail towns, it’s clear that what was once a fringe sport now helps communities grow and thrive.
“It’s amazing to see the gradual unity and positivity that we as mountain bikers helped to inject into the community,” Hautala says of Cuyuna. “The mayor said he’d lived here his whole life, and he’s never seen the community this positive, even though he lived here in the mining days.”
For every locale, no matter how big or small, the growth of trails preserves land and inspires appreciation of the great outdoors for all of its residents. “I love this place; to me, it’s one of the places worth caring for,” says Gatseos of Fruita. “It’s important to have places that are special and keep them special, but also welcoming.”
It takes a Village
Cuyuna Area, northern Minnesota
Trails: Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, 30 miles of singletrack. Topography is rolling hills; bluff-like features with hundreds of feet of elevation.
Trail highlights: Sidewinder, Bobsled
Town: Crosby and surrounding communities, although support for the project came from the larger region’s 50-mile radius
Local organizations: Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew; Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC)
Land manager: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
Funding sources for original 25 miles: Federal funds ($770,000 from the Federal Highway Administration through the Minnesota Department of Transportation to the Minnesota DNR); state funds ($125,000 in 2007; $1.2 million in 2009); donation from Quality Bicycle Products of $50,000 and a loan of $50,000 from the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota (repaid by IMBA) for the comprehensive trails plan that was required to receive the federal funds. Other donors: Hallett Charitable Trusts, Trek Bicycles and the greater community through MORC.
Special sauce: Pioneers of the flow-trail movement. Rich history of steel mining that helped the U.S. win the first two world wars. Many of the trails are named for the area’s mining heritage, and the land itself has been beautifully reclaimed since the mining boom ended.
Bike-related local amenities: Bike shops, Red Raven Bike Cafe (food, beer, coffee, bike sales, rentals, repairs) and True North Basecamp, a campground providing ride-in, ride-out lodging, even in the winter
What’s next? Continued expansion of the rec area, including new gravity flow trails, a connector trail between systems, a new backcountry trail and an 8-mile loop specifically for high school racing
Funding for these projects: Minnesota’s Legacy Parks & Trails Fund and state appropriation bonds; private fundraising with matching grant from the Hallett Charitable Trusts.
Iron Range area, northeastern Minnesota
Towns: Biwabik, Chisholm, Cohasset
Trails: Trail systems in three locations: Giants Ridge ski resort, RedHead, Tioga
Trail highlights: Giants Ridge gravity trail in 2017; Lookout Mountain (more technical, hand-built) and Maple Hill in Hibbing
Local organizations: Iron Range Off-Road Cyclists; Grand Rapids and Itasca Mountain Bicycling Association
Land managers: Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB); Giants Ridge ski resort; Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; cities of Cohasset and Chisholm
Funding sources for the current mileage: Giants Ridge: amenities fund (percentage of hotel room stays, golf course fees, etc.) and IRRRB funds. RedHead: IRRRB, with some local contributions from the Chisholm Community Foundation. Tioga: IRRRB, city funds, local fundraising.
Special sauce: Mine sites provide an interesting cultural and historical element as well as good draining and compacting trail-building materials that will make the trails attractive in the full range of Minnesota weather. Three different ride centers will provide unique riding feels all within about an hour’s drive. With Duluth and Cuyuna in driving distance, northern Minnesota offers enough riding for a long trip beyond just a weekend.
Bike-related local amenities: Bike shops in Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia; hand-built singletrack in Hibbing and Virginia; the 135-mile-long paved Mesabi Trail, which connects to all three trail systems; a new brewery in Hibbing, as well as all of the amenities that Giants Ridge ski resort offers, including lodging, an excellent restaurant, disc golf, climbing wall, etc.
What’s next? Continued build-out on each project, with the goal of each system reaching approximately 25 miles. Design and predesign work are in process and will continue into spring 2018, with the plan of moving dirt in the current building season.
Funding for these projects: $5 million allocation from the IRRRB; city and state dollars; local fundraising
Town: Johnson City
Trails: Tannery Knobs, Winged Deer Park, several more within a 15-minute drive from town
Local organization: Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) Tri-Cities
Land managers: Johnson City; U.S. Forest Service
Funding sources for the current mileage: City of Johnson City; Trek Bicycles; private donations
Special sauce: Tannery Knobs overlooks downtown, providing ride-to-trail access for residents and tourists alike. Town makes a great base camp for area adventures that include the trail systems of Pisgah and Dupont, as well as many other outdoor activities.
Bike-related local amenities: Several bike shops, including Chad Wolfe’s Trek Bike Store; the Tweetsie Trail bike path, less than a mile from downtown; over 50 miles of forest roads for gravel adventures; nearby Buffalo Mountain (national forest land) is being developed to add trails; ample bike racks with work stations and bike-friendly lodging and restaurants/breweries
What’s next? The city has funded the conceptual plan for developing trails on the 800-plus-acre city park located just a few miles from downtown. Currently, Buffalo Mountain Park is a blank canvas with only one hiking trail. It butts up against Cherokee National Forest, so there is room to grow.
Funding for these projects: City funds; money from local nonprofit Up and At ’Em; Tennessee Health Department grant awarded in March 2018
Trail highlights: Alpine, Dead Mountain, Heckletooth, Waldo Lake (IMBA Epic), Middle Fork
Local organizations: Greater Oakridge Area Trail Stewards (GOATS); Disciples of Dirt (out of Eugene, Oregon); Alpine Trail Crew Association; Trans-Cascadia (nonprofit that runs the race of the same name plus trail-work days); Oregon Timber Trail Alliance (nonprofit dedicated to the 668-mile bikepacking loop)
Land manager: U.S. Forest Service (USFS)
Funding sources for the current mileage: Mostly pre-existing trails; additional building funded by USFS, GOATS and Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grants.
Special sauce: Epic intermediate-to-advanced backcountry mileage in lush forests; Mountain Bike Oregon festival with camping, food, shuttles and guided rides
Bike-related local amenities: Great bike shop and brewery in town; shuttle services; quaint and friendly Westfir Lodge, a B&B located at the bottom of the famed Alpine Trail in nearby Westfir
What’s next? More connecting trails and family-friendly/beginner trails; improvements to existing trails; future expansion of the Larison Rock Trail area
Funding for these projects: USFS; GOATS; RTP grants; private donations; fundraising
Grand Valley Area, western Colorado
Town: Fruita, as well as nearby Grand Junction and Palisade)
Trails: 18 Road area, Kokopelli trails, Rabbit Valley area, Lunch Loops area, Palisade Rim
Trail highlights: Joe’s Ridge, Horsethief Bench, Western Rim, The Ribbon, Kokopelli Trail to Moab
Local organization: Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA)
Land manager: Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Funding sources for the current mileage: BLM; grants; local fundraising
Special sauce: Great backcountry feel and scenery, even on trails close to civilization. The town works hard to make visitors feel like locals. The Fruita Fat Tire Festival celebrates 23 years in May 2018.
Bike-related local amenities: Two great bike shops; quality camping right at the 18 Road trail system; supported hut tours through Colorado Backcountry Biker
What’s next? Sooner: Expansion of the Colorado Riverfront Trail, a paved trail from Palisade to Fruita. This expansion will add the 4.5 miles needed to connect Fruita to the Kokopelli trailhead, with singletrack options alongside the main paved trail. Later: The Palisade Plunge, a proposed 30-mile downhill trail from the top of the Grand Mesa to the valley floor. More mileage and expanded camping in the 18 Road area.
Funding for these projects: The Palisade Plunge received $90,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado (nonprofit grant organization); other grants are being pursued by the city. Over the Edge bike shop donates 1 percent from every sale; COPMOBA does ongoing fundraising; the BLM allocates some of its own funds.
ADVICE FROM TRAIL TOWNS
“We raised $670,000 on our own to build two trails ourselves so we could show the state of Minnesota that we could bring money to the table, so they would know we weren’t asking for a handout. What I’ve learned is that you don’t build trail without getting skin in the game.” — Aaron Hautala, advisory committee member for the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
“People need to understand maintenance and stewardship and investment. When the first 25 miles opened, I was riding it in the rain, because I didn’t know any better then. Not everyone intuitively knows that trails need care and maintenance, so you have to factor that into your plans.” — Aaron Hautala
“We went to St. Paul, to the legislature, and it wasn’t just the cycling community asking for [the trails]; it was the region, employers, everyone asking for it. This changed the narrative. We told them this was our No. 1 thing to fund, and then the elected officials got behind it, but they led the charge. It was their project just as much as ours.” — Aaron Hautala
“In a region that’s fueled by iron mining, it’s a tough sell to take lands that could be mined again and put trails on them. We’re telling the story that if we want to mine this land again in 10 years, the trails can be moved. It’s a cool way to approach land that’s already been used for mining and reuse it. It’s not like we’re building a football stadium here and can never mine it again. We have to do what makes sense as a region.” — Benji Neff, director of mountain sports at the Giants Ridge ski area and board member of Iron Range Off-Road Cyclists
“Quality of life: That’s my No. 1 driver of economic development. Entrepreneurs start companies where they want to live. If you improve quality of life with recreational opportunities, and then you have affordable housing and good public infrastructure, it adds to the whole equation.” — Mark Phillips, commissioner, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board
“Don’t be afraid to start small. Johnson City built a bike path; it was the smart thing to do, and it was a smashing success. Then have a plan for what happens next. The exciting part is that once you start trails, the explosion after that can’t be stopped.” — Chad Wolfe, Trek Bicycle Store owner
“Property values have increased along the bike path, and downtown residential opportunities are being frantically built to keep up with the demand. People love bikes; sometimes they just don’t know it until you show them.” — Chad Wolfe
“If you want to get somebody on a plane [to visit your area], you need those big trail systems that will last several days. We have that in the region, which really helps. Trails will help tourism to Tennessee and North Carolina for sure, but the relocation effort to Johnson City is a big deal.” — Chad Wolfe
“Every decision I make today is about the future, and that Tweetsie Trail will be here forever. We’re making these investments for the young people, and they’re 100 percent of the future. We need to be a destination for them, and that’s what this is all about.” — Jenny Brock, Johnson City vice mayor
“There are people coming here for an experience, and our businesses can provide it for them. Riding bikes is a real experience, and that’s a special thing in our society today.” — George Gatseos, Over the Edge Sports bike shop owner/general manager
“We’ve taken a really proactive approach to create partnerships with local businesses, the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association and the BLM. We’ve all pulled resources together because we really see the value for the community, and now we’ve been successful recently at retaining pretty large grants for trail projects.” — Mike Bennett, Fruita city manager
“Mountain biking is definitely one of our massive strengths. As we recruit businesses, we’re not out there recruiting with massive benefits packages. We sell our value proposition as first and foremost the people here, but also the recreation. Mountain biking has become a huge driver, because whether you ride or not, you see the benefits.” — Mike Bennett