Are Your Favorite Trails Getting Rockier?

Mt. Tamalpais Railroad Grade in 2007. Erosion washes away topsoil to reveal rocks, rocks, and more rocks.


Today while on my 10-mile loop ride through Almaden Quicksilver County Park I thought about the condition of Mine Hill “Trail” and other “trails” open to bikes here. They’re really roads previously used for mining operations. Are they better or worse than when I started riding in the park 10 years ago?

And what about the rest of the trails and dirt roads I’ve been riding on the past 32 years in the Santa Cruz Mountains? Better? Worse? Same?

On the whole, they’re about the same, with some notable exceptions. Locations with heavy bike use are noticeably worse, in my opinion. I can’t pull out a ruler and measure the difference, can’t show you pictures of then and now.

As we know, erosion is a 24×7 process — rain, wind, ice, earthquakes, and other natural forces change our landscape. Humans on foot, horse, and bike erode roads and trails, but to what degree is open to interpretation. I’ve read some studies, but they leave you with this “what does it all mean?” feeling.

Bikes also erode trails to varying degrees depending on the location. I’ve noticed trails through the redwoods where there’s a lot of topsoil, leaves and branches erode the least, while trails in dry, rocky areas with lots of trail traffic are worse for wear.

My time on the bike came at a pivotal moment in cycling — the birth of the mountain bike. It was only a few years riding with Jobst Brandt and friends on trails with our racing bikes before I started seeing mountain bikers. Trails have changed since then, but I can’t tell you how much is due to mountain bikes and how much is just erosion over time and lack of road maintenance.

I don’t have a laundry list of locations where I can see the change, but here are a few:

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve
Hickory Oaks Trail and Peters Creek Trail used to be an easy ride on a racing bike. Not so anymore. They’re much more technical now with rocky sections and ruts. If you’ve always ridden a mountain bike, you won’t notice the difference. But having ridden a road bike, it’s noticeable.

Monte Bello Open Space Preserve
Canyon Trail has become much more rocky, with ruts created by runoff. Montebello Road, which used to be an easy road ride, has become more of a challenge. This is partly from rock ballast dumped on the road for maintenance. It all circles back to increased use, as when I started riding here in the late 1970s there was no traffic and no maintenance. There is a trade-off though. When it wasn’t graveled, there were more ruts.

Santa Teresa County Park
I can’t imagine anyone riding on Rocky Ridge Trail, up or down. What little soil there was is gone, exposing sharp and round rocks that make riding treacherous. It was bad enough when I rode here for my Bay Area Bike Rides book in 2007. I’m told it’s even worse today.

Aptos Creek Fire Road

The fire road beyond the green gate from the Buzzard Lagoon Road approach isn’t all that bad. However, the approach to the green gate has become a rocky moonscape. When I rode here a year ago I was on a mountain bike and had difficulty. It used to be doable on a road bike; albeit somewhat technical, it could be ridden non-stop.

Mt. Tamalpais Railroad Grade
When I last rode here about four years ago, after a long absence, I immediately noticed the road had gotten rockier. It’s still doable on a road bike, but less comfortable than 30 years ago when the road had no bike traffic to speak of.

Trails and dirt roads need maintenance or they’ll wash away. I’ve notice considerable degradation on the Toll Road and I don’t have to tell you what I think about the loss of Alpine Road at Coal Creek.

I’ve compensated by riding a mountain bike more often. That’s not such a bad thing, and what was 30 years ago is but a memory.

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