Friday, July 15, 2016

Bikes in Wilderness Areas?

Lone Peak Wilderness Area, one of the great treasures of the central Wasatch Range
In what I thought was something from News of the Weird, Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act yesterday, which would allow local land managers to potentially allow mountain biking in wilderness areas (see Mike Lee Press Release).  My classification of this as a News of the Weird article is with all the issues that the two Senators deal with, I was quite surprised they've taken an interest in this one.

As it turns out, I took a day of vacation and climbed the Pfeifferhorn yesterday with my son.  The Pfeifferhorn lies in the Lone Peak Wilderness Area, the largest wilderness area in the Wasatch Mountains.  In addition, the terrain between the Pfeifferhorn and Lone Peak is remarkably rugged and the most difficult terrain to access in the central Wasatch.  

Looking west toward Lone Peak from the Pfeifferhorn reveals the most rugged and difficult-to-access terrain in the central Wasatch.
Mountain bikes are no threat in this area.  I suppose those with large lung capacity could ride up to Red Pine Lake or perhaps up the Dry Creek drainage (at left), but for the most part, this is tough country and hard to access by bike.  

The same can't be said, however, for other wilderness areas.  

I've been mountain biking now for more than 25 years.  If you like to laugh at those old fully rigid mountain bikes with road-frame angles, you know what my first mountain bike looked like.  I consider preservation of mountain bike access to existing trails that are open for riding to be very important.  I have lived in or regularly visit places (e.g., Seattle, Boulder) where trails have been closed to mountain bikes or where access is severely restricted.  I feel fortunate that so many trails along the Wasatch Front and Back are open for riding.  

I am, however, staunchly opposed to mountain bike access in wilderness areas.  I don't see such access as consistent with the Wilderness ethos.  I think the Wasatch Crest trail is a great mountain bike trail, but I don't particularly like hiking there due to the overwhelming number of mountain bikes.  Passage of the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Act opens up the possibility of mountain bike travel in, for example, the Mount Olympus Wilderness via the Desolation Trail, portions of which were originally built for motorcycles.  

Please share your thoughts.  I admit my perspective is strongly skewed by my experiences along the Wasatch Front where the mountains have a remarkably high intensity of usage.  Perhaps some arguments could be made for mountain bike access in some larger wilderness areas with lower intensity usage.  


  1. They see it as a wedge issue they can use to split environmentalists. This attack is repeated at intervals. Incidentally you can legally ride your bike to White Pine Lake in the next drainage east.

  2. I have also climbed the Pfeifferhorn. That's a fairly technical and long hike! I do get annoyed when seeing bikes on hiking trails, but I also get annoyed with motorized vehicles at the sand dunes... Are the mountain bikers whining about limited access just like the snowboarders tried to sue Alta? I'll stand by you on this one.

  3. Couple of points:
    1. Agree that certain Wilderness Areas are not compatible.
    2. Horses are allowed already, and IMHO are less compatible than mt. bikes.
    3. But I'd say there probably are some areas where mt bikes are OK. Not places that are likely to get very busy next to major cities. But further away places like the areas up by Stanley, Idaho, which were long-term biking areas that were closed by being declared Wilderness. This proposed law allows local, case-by-case decisions, which seems the right way to go.

  4. Walt is right about the wedge issue. The less solidarity there is in supporting Wilderness, the easier it will be to overturn the Act entirely, which would open scary amounts of land to extraction and exploitation. Aside from the obvious oil, gas, mining, and timber interests, the current proliferation of guide services and the push to get further and further afield could mean that the normally low(ish) impact mountain bike could become a much higher impact activity right quick.
    I have been riding mountain bikes for twelve years and make my living selling and fixing them. I want continued access to existing trails, and for there to be more purpose-built trails, but I do not want Wilderness to be opened up. Being bored with your local trails is a privilege, as the alternative is there are no more trails.

    -Bill in Harrisville.

  5. I ride mtb a lot, love it immensely, and I am also for keeping bikes out of Wilderness. Not everything should be about our fun and our toys. Wilderness is the highest level of protection and that means keeping it quiet and slow, and is about something bigger than our own form of personal recreation. Also, I get the sense that many mtb'ers don't get how imposing they are to hikers, nor can we really account for all those who no longer feel comfortable hiking trails that are frequented by bikes as you noted, Jim. I've been out hiking with my kid and encountered far too many bikers that were just oblivious about their effect on others, even when they have the best intentions. They may smile a lot, say "hi" and do all the pleasantries, but it doesn't matter when the bike's rate of speed on narrow trails with blind corners gave you a real fright. One wonders about the safety of children and grandmas and everyone who may not have the reflexes and appetite for adrenaline that a 20-something dude has. Wilderness is the refuge for everyone (else).