Friday, March 3, 2023

Opinion: No Backhoes in the Backcountry

Loose rocks clatter against my steel frame and mountain laurels scrape my arms as I weave my bike down a steep rocky chute on Wildcat Gap Trail. It's a mountain biking trail in Rothrock State Forest in central Pennsylvania, although you might not guess that from the looks of it. There are no berms. There are no jumps. In fact, there are barely any turns. For the most part, it's extremely steep and points straight down the mountain - a trail style known as a fall line trail.

Many trails in Rothrock State Forest share a similar background. They began as a logging access road; a way for loggers to access the forest and remove the harvested timber. Many of these access roads were carved as early as the late 1800s, and after falling into dis-use, they began to be converted to trails for recreational use. Over time, the wide logging paths devolve back into singletrack. 

What we now call Croyle Run or Old Laurel or Pigpile Trail, to name a few, are the remnants of a bygone era of Appalachian mountain history. They're the result of creative mountain bikers and hikers in the late 20th century who saw the opportunity to turn forgotten paths into recreational trails. 

The trails all have a defining characteristic: they don't have berms or jumps or many man-made features at all, and they don't have wide sections of machine-built trail. They're narrow, rocky, and they're unpredictable. The trail surfaces are the result of Mother Nature exposing hidden rocks, as the Appalachians slowly crumble away. Nothing is perfect. The rocks aren't positioned in a specific way, and the trail doesn't hesitate to dive straight down a steep chute without use of switchbacks. 

Those trails are Rothrock, and to me, those trails are mountain biking. Today, there's a tendency toward machine-built trails and more electronics on bikes than a rocket ship. Rather than using mountain bikes to disappear into nature, some people want to turn rugged backcountry into the next bike park.

I guess I'll just go right out and say it: machine-built trails have no place in the backcountry and remote forests. If you want to ride berms or jumps, go find some at a city park or a bike park or, well, anywhere except the backcountry. 

A common response to skepticism about machine-built trails is the assurance that the trails "won't be getting any easier", or, "there are still plenty of rocks". That's not the point. Not every backcountry trail is technical, and I don't think every trail needs to be technical. The point is that the trail is largely natural and not the result of a heavy-machinery piling up mounds of dirt and cutting down trees. I'll emphasize that again, it isn't a matter of trail difficulty. If the trail crosses a naturally rocky section of woods, then it should be rocky. If it crosses a smooth section, then it should be smooth.

What's natural and what isn't, of course, is up for debate. Even my favorite backcountry trails like Ruff Gap (also in Rothrock) were obviously built by people using tools. Shovels, saws, and more than a few rakes were used to construct every trail. I'm not naive. But if you can't see a difference between shovels and a backhoe, then I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you.

I've heard the arguments for closing certain trails. They're unsustainable, or their erosion washes sediment into creeks which pollutes the waterways. That's certainly possible. But can you really compare the environmental impact of an eroded mountain bike trail with logging hundreds of acres of forest, as they still do to this day in Rothrock?

As for sustainability, I can understand that argument, but I just don't think it's as urgent as it's made to be. I see it as an excuse to change the trails. Sand Springs and Sassafrass Trail are both downhills slated to be closed, but after riding them, I struggle to see why. They're technical, sure, and they're washed out in places, but they're fun. If you don't like them, don't ride them. The same as how I don't go to bike parks because I don't like them.

If in twenty years the trail becomes unrideable, then I guess it'll be time to re-evaluate. But nature is a changing thing, and to think we can create a perfect trail that will last for hundreds of years is just silly. There's nothing wrong with those trails right now, so even if they may need some help in the future, I see no reason to close them and bring backhoes into the backcountry right now.

Personally, I think the whole "destroyed trails" notion is a little overdramatic. I don't doubt there are some pretty awful washed out trails in places, but none of the trails slated to be closed in Rothrock thar I've ridden are like that (to me). If a trail should be completely closed, with no chance of fixing it with just shovels and a rake, then it should be a pretty clear and unanimous decision. A trail certainly isn't unanimously unrideable if hundreds of people ride it every year. Even then, if a backcountry trail has to be closed, I would still advocate to replace it with a trail built with shovels and a rake. Mark my words, I've done trail work on my hometown trails in the past, and I'd be happy to pitch in with a shovel and rake wherever need be.

Now it comes time for me to make a concession. I took a pretty hardline stance earlier about no machine-built trails in the backcountry. While that is still my belief, I acknowledge that what is backcountry is open to interpretation. Most of Rothrock is certainly backcountry by east-coast standards, but some trails, like Lonberger, get so much traffic that they're not really backcountry. So for those trails, like Lonberger, I'm don't feel as strongly about using machines to construct a trail that holds up in the rain better. 

Another thing I'd like to stress very strongly is that none of this is personal or a critique of anyone's work. The new Lonberger Trail is very high-quality, and I absolutely have nothing to criticize about the trail. Plus, even if I did, who really cares? I'm just some random dude sharing my opinion. But I'll say it again just for emphasis: this is not a personal critique on anyone or any trail. It's a stylistic disagreement, and that's it. I highly doubt anyone involved in any trail building in Rothrock reads this post, and if they did, it's even less likely that they read this far. But in that rare occurrence, I really want to mention that despite differing opinions on trail construction, I am nothing but thankful to the people who maintain the trails. The people who build trails have nothing but love for our forests, and I think we should all be grateful that people care enough about mountain biking to advocate for it and maintain a trail system. At the very base level, we have a fantastic forest to ride bikes in, and it needs to stay that way. How we build trails is up for debate, and we may disagree on that, but the basic premise of maintaining a place to ride mountain bikes is something we can all agree on.

I think perhaps the best way to close this out is with a bit of a big picture view. I mentioned it earlier, but I really do think that being in nature and in the forests can be a spiritual thing. Maybe it's just me, but eventually, I get tired of being around skyscrapers and cellphones and paved roads with traffic lights. That's why I love mountain biking. It's just a trail through the woods, meandering over natural rock piles, across creeks, and along ridge-tops. When you start to bring backhoes in and dig out drainage ditches or make jumps or berms on trails, that takes away from the allure of nature. You're no longer escaping, you're bringing all that man-made stuff with you into the woods. I'm not crazy, I know there's a balance. I'm not saying we have to use only our bare hands to build trails. I just think the goal of a backcountry trail should be to blend into nature, not to stand out. There's a balance, and we need to find that.

A prime example of a Pennsylvania ridge-top trail


  1. This is super important to bring up. Thank you. This reminds me a lot of the debate on managing wilderness areas in Natl forests and Natl parks. I’m glad someone is addressing this and I hope something can be done.

  2. This issue is something you are not alone in. Many people are skeptical and critical of the Rothrock Trail Assessment that was created in 2018. It pointed out minor problems and created solutions that the community is not on board with. Another problem with a lot of these reroutes are the price tags. At $10-30 per foot a reroute on a trail like wildcat would likely cost over $150,000. Meanwhile a better approach could be to reroute or armor the most vulnerable sections of a trail.