A trail of their own

Making Tracks: Mountain bikers long for off-road trail along the American River to call their own
The Sacramento Bee, November 21, 2003


One late morning on a sunny November Tuesday, a handful of bicyclists paused at a fork in a dirt trail on the lower American River Parkway.

They were waiting for their riding companions to catch up so that they wouldn’t make a wrong turn. After all, they were on a trail that doesn’t officially exist.

Thus, they were also breaking the law, to the tune of an $85 fine.

The group represented two dozen various sporting groups, as well as employees of several county and city agencies. They were brought together for this informational ride by organizer Bob Horowitz of the Sacramento Area Mountain Biking Association (SAMBA), who hopes it will inspire their support of his dream: the creation of a 15-mile off-road loop that he has dubbed the Discovery Loop Trail.

The trail would run from Discovery Park to California State University, Sacramento, and back, and if approved, would be the only sanctioned off-road biking area in urban Sacramento.

At this point, however, Horowitz’s dream is little more than that. The path toward amending the 1985 Parkway Plan, which governs the use of the 32-mile American River Parkway from Sacramento to Folsom, is even longer than the parkway itself: Citizens groups representing different sports and areas, various regulatory agencies and members of governing bodies from the Board of Supervisors to the state Legislature will study, vote on and ultimately enact any changes.

And this is not expected before 2006, says Sunny Williams, project manager for the American River Parkway Plan update process and a planner for the Sacramento County Planning and Community Development Department.

In the meantime, Horowitz thinks the time to start is now.

“There’s nowhere legal to ride off-road in urban Sacramento, so you have to drive a minimum of 45 minutes to Salmon Falls (in El Dorado Hills) or to Auburn,” he says. “With all the traffic, it’s become a tougher drive, and if you’re a little kid without a driver’s license, you either have to break the law (by riding on the parkway illegally) or get a ride.”

The off-road biking is not without its opposition, though the idea is in such early stages that most are reserving judgment.

But Horowitz argues that, in addition to the obvious benefits to mountain bikers, such a trail would help curtail the increasing problems of environmental damage and crime – largely the result of homeless encampments throughout the area – that have made the lower parkway seem nearly as dangerous as it is beautiful.

Which might be why this group of generally law-abiding lawbreakers doesn’t seem concerned when park ranger Will Safford rides up to the group. He is accompanying them as they explore the north side of the American River Parkway, through which half of the proposed trail would wind.

In fact, they look a bit relieved. Only seconds before, they were surprised by a towering middle-age man dressed in filthy clothes, his graying beard and hair matted and unkempt. He began yelling out helpful but ultimately disconcerting directions.

Mark Murray is a member of the Buffalo Chips running club and a member of the American River Parkway Update Citizen Advisory Committee, a panel of interested people who will advise the county on the new parkway plan.

“It’s frustrating that the only other people I see out here are the illegal campers,” Murray says.

It’s also frustrating, he says, because “I feel a bit of an ownership of these trails – these are my home trails. They’re not mountain trails, but there’s something wonderful about being out here with all these trees and wildlife and the river. It’s a very pristine place, and it’s something that should be utilized by everyone.”

Frank Cirill disagrees.

Cirill is president emeritus of Save the American River Association (SARA) and a longtime user of the parkway. He says that SARA is “strongly opposed” to off-road biking in the area.

“Opening up unpaved areas to bikes will increase the chances of habitat damage, conflict with other parkway users, and it will increase pressures on the overburdened parkway and the parkway ranger force attempting to enforce this additional use,” he says.

Cirill cites the damage that BMX riders have already done to natural areas. He concedes that BMXers and mountain bikers are two different types of users. But he contends that, while many mountain bikers would stay on the established trail, others would not, creating their own trails and thus degrading the habitat.

The argument that the increased presence of mountain bikers would reduce the number of homeless people and their encampments is “flawed thinking,” he adds.

“The off-road bikers would not be authorized to … interfere with the illegal activities on the parkway,” he says. “The control and removal of either the camps or persons can only be done by the park rangers or police, and they’ve already got two rangers doing that full time.”

Dave Lydick is head ranger for the parkway. He confirms that two rangers work full time clearing homeless encampments.

But, he concedes: “In any park area that has illegal, illegitimate use, the more legitimate use you can get, by making people feel safe, the greater impact you have in moving out illegitimate use. (Off-road biking) is not the only use that could be encouraged to make the illegal campers uncomfortable, but it could have that effect.”

The bottom line, he says, “is that we’d like to see increased legitimate use in that (lower parkway) area.”

Katie Baygell of Carmichael is also a passionate user of the parkway, usually on horseback. She’s along on this afternoon’s ride as a representative of the equestrian community and the citizen advisory committee. She’s also a member of the American River Parkway Volunteer Equestrian Trail Patrol.

She says equestrian concerns about mountain biking on the parkway are “primarily a safety issue.”

“I wouldn’t say there’s animosity (toward bikers),” she says. “Our concerns generally have to do with bikes coming up very fast to a horse, and the horse reacting very quickly, which could injure the rider or horse or cyclist.”

But, “there are certainly other areas where different users use the same trails and it works fine,” she says. “It comes down to people knowing proper yielding.”

Horowitz says he is sensitive to all these concerns, but he – as an environmentalist as well as mountain biker – thinks they can be resolved.

“Nobody wants to see people running amok on the parkway,” he says. “The parkway is precious. But now, if the trails are outlawed, only outlaws will ride the trails. And they are not going to be the most polite, upstanding riders. We need to attract the right folks.”

He admits that part of the problem he faces is the popular perception of mountain bikers.

“Mountain bikers tend to be pretty strong environmentalists,” he says. “But we have this reputation of being wild, out-of-control, young, pierced, tattooed troublemakers. We have a reputation to live down.”

There is precedent for a group with a “reputation to live down” adding its sport to the parkway. In the mid-’90s, in-line skaters got blading approved on the paved bike trail. Many bicyclists had opposed them.

“People said, ‘Oh my God, you can’t have Rollerbladers on the parkway.’ But we really haven’t had the problems that the bicyclists anticipated. There can be change and everything won’t fall apart,” Lydick says.

But, he adds, “We’ll wait and see how the process goes. Some of the parkway’s support groups are for it, others are against it. We’re just trying to make sure everyone’s educated, the laws are enforced evenly, and the parkway remains a beautiful, safe resource.”