Avid Santa Cruz mountain biker and UC Santa Cruz student Lucas Chambliss calls the trails in upper campus some of the best riding in California. “Having [upper campus] right at our doorstep, it’s a playground,” he said.
Santa Cruz is growing into a renowned destination for mountain biking. But most of those trails are illegal to ride on per UCSC Traffic and Parking Regulations code 24. A violation of code 24 results in a $272 ticket.
“The campus enforces the policy prohibiting bike riding on the single-track trails. However, it is difficult, given the terrain and time required to patrol,” said director of news and media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason via email.
There is an unmarked boundary between UC-owned land and Henry Cowell State Park-owned land — that’s not technically open to the public — which makes it hard to know when the boundary is crossed.
“It’s been 20 plus years of people riding the area and use has increased dramatically in that time,” said Natural Reserves steward Alex Jones. “The whole trail system was never planned or developed in any kind of coherent way. It’s just kind of been ad hoc building here and there.”
The trails that cross from UC property to Henry Cowell property get about 80,000 riders per year and contain some tamer riding, as well as runs with jumps and steep technical descents. The illegality and potential fines aren’t discouraging people from riding on these trails, and the land will continue to be impacted by mountain biking as it becomes more of a mainstream sport.
With this increased ridership, the UC Administration and State Parks face land management decisions. Unmanaged trail systems aren’t constructed in a way that minimize impact to natural areas. Human infiltration into natural areas is one of the main issues.
“[Existing trails] become the pathways off of which other trails get built off, so there are lots of secondary and tertiary trails built off of those, and that’s where you find the trash piles, the party sites, the camps,” Jones said. “If mountain bikers are building new trails into those zones, more people go there. There are issues of erosion and sedimentation [on unmanaged trails].”
Mountain bike advocacy groups formed because of the criminalization of riding and to create a discourse about the implementation of sustainable trails.
“It makes a lot of sense to provide [mountain bikers] with well-designed trails with minimal ecological impact where you can manage risk,” said Matt De Young, Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz’s (MBoSC) trails officer. “Bottom line is people want to be allowed to ride their bikes there. We’d love to see those trails managed.”
MBoSC is a non-profit organization that advocates to create sustainable trails by working with land managers. They have helped create the Emma McRary trail in Pogonip and the Soquel Demonstration Forest Flow Trail — both legal trails. De Young said they build trails to “fit in with the land, not to impose them on the land.”
This process considers the end purpose of the trail, whether it be multi-use or mountain bike specific, along with environmental studies of the area and mapping work.
“The main thing that wears trails is water, so we’re always thinking about how we can get the water off the trails,” De Young said.
The average cost of building a trail for MBoSC is roughly $5-$6 per foot of trail. For a 3-mile trail it would cost $38,700 at $5 per foot, not including continued maintenance costs.
“People want a wide range of different types of trails,” De Young said. “You look at most of the campus trails, and they are more extreme. It’s clear that people need that type of outlet. It behooves our local land managers to acknowledge that.”
Providing more sanctioned trails could reduce the impact of illegal trails. De Young said only a small part of the mountain bike community builds new, illegal trails, so having a variety of legal options could reduce the persistence of illegal riding and building. So far, UCSC has had little involvement in this process.
“Something needs to change. I don’t feel like the status quo is working. If we’re concerned with stewardship and reducing [trail] erosion and other impacts to sensitive habitats and sensitive species, we’re doing nothing to really address that,” said Natural Reserves steward Alex Jones. “Changing policy up here needs to be done in concordance with State Parks because our trails currently feed on to their land.”
But for Bill Wolcott, State Parks public safety superintendent, this won’t become a reality any time soon.
“At this point, given our resources, we’re not anticipating expanding the mountain biking [in Henry Cowell and Wilder Ranch State Parks],” Wolcott said.