Wilderness and mountain biking: A strange divide in the outdoor community

It would be sweet to ride past this on your bike, but you can't. Lost Lake is in a wilderness area.

I was reading an article online recently (which I later shared over social media) that extolled what appeared to be a bi-partisan effort on Capitol Hill to create new wilderness areas across the western United States. The story went on to talk about how the designers of a bill had found interesting ways to sell the plan to Republican lawmakers, whose support would be needed for passage. The bill looks promising.

What was interesting, however, wasn’t just the content in the story itself, but the comments below. As it turns out, some people who love the outdoors are not too fond of designating new areas as wilderness.

The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits any form of mechanical transportation in wilderness areas. That means no cars, no trucks, no ATVs, no motorcycles — and no bicycles.

That’s right. Mountain bikers cannot take their beloved steeds into the singletrack paradises that cruelly beckon from within designated wilderness areas.

As you might guess, there is a lot of controversy about this in the outdoor community. There is a case to be made that the environmental impact of bicycles might be such that they tear up wild lands more than foot traffic, but biking enthusiasts dispute this. They also say that horses and mules are allowed in wilderness areas, concluding that a bike is not going to create a bigger footprint than the hooves of a 1,200-pound pack animal.

I find myself very divided on this subject. Mountain bikers are often vocal advocates for conservation. For those of us who love public lands and preserving our natural heritage, mountain bikers are kindred spirits. For the community to be divided on this seems strange.

On the other hand, there is something different about being in a wilderness area where the only way in and out is by way of your own two feet.

My thinking comes from experience. A few years ago, on a backpacking trip in New Mexico, I saw these two worlds collide. The early part of the hike up Wheeler Peak’s Middle Fork Trail saw us going up a broad, well-maintained trail for about three miles. As my group slogged upward, we were surprised to hear, from behind us, the mechanical strains of a couple of middle-aged mountain bikers cranking their way up higher.

I was impressed. We were hiking at somewhere around 10,000 to 10,500 feet by this time, and for biking, the trail going up was pretty steep. These guys were getting after it, shifted down to the granny gears, steadily ascending. The tourists who hiked up to the waterfalls or the first lake on the trail weren’t around these parts. We were in the realm of the fit by this point, and these guys were a couple of notches above that. We were two different types of outdoor enthusiasts enjoying the beauty and challenges of the Carson National Forest.

Awhile later, the bikers came back down and we kept going up. The trail narrowed considerably as we came up to a sign telling us that we were entering the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area and that no mechanical transportation was allowed.

I have to admit, the area we entered seemed just a little bit more wild and more pristine, than what we had lower on the trail. There were fewer people and more animals — particularly bighorn sheep. That may have had nothing to do with the lack bikers, I don’t know. But there was a pleasantness to the wilderness area that was a level above the rest of the forest, mostly because of the absence of other people.

Would I have minded had there been bikers that high? Probably not. But I can see where some people would.

I’m curious what other people think. Should mountain bikes be allowed in wilderness areas? Should they be kept out? Does the Wilderness Act need to be amended?

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


2 thoughts on “Wilderness and mountain biking: A strange divide in the outdoor community

  1. I love both mountain biking and Backcountry hiking/camping for two distinct reasons.

    Mountain biking is a physical challenge that I undertake to see where I am in a battle of man and machine against raw nature. I tackle any natural obstacle and attack it mentally as well as physically. If I see a rocky streambed I see it as an opportunity to traverse it for the sake of claiming my honors for my ego. However, I notice that when I do bike, I do not pay too much attention to the little details of my natural surroundings. Wilderness is just a backdrop to my experience, and it’s also an adversary to me and my bike.
    Meanwhile, when it comes to backcountry hiking/camping, I enjoy the seclusion and disconnect from the rest of society. The feeling that I get when in total isolation is comparable to looking down into an abyss. I soak up the peace and alien-ness of my surroundings. I look to leave no trace of my existence wherever I trod, and I am very focused to maintain the natural pristine conditions of the wilderness.

    In my humble opinion, when these two worlds collide it is an uncomfortable juxtaposition. It’s best to keep them separated.

    • Very interesting perspective, and very well put. I have a hard time with this because bikers and backpackers/hikers are of the same tribe, so to speak. So it’s weird to see folks from the same tribe at odds on this issue. I lean toward doing everything I can to preserve wilderness and expand it when possible. But I understand bikers’ complaints, and their argument that horses/mules leave behind an impact as large as that of a bike. Haven’t figured this one out yet.

      Thanks for your comment!

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