Mountain bikes in the wilderness


Mountain bike trail sign from Rockart.

Another bill is in the pipeline that will allow mountain bikes in wilderness lands.

The bill is not a blanket one.

The manager of each wilderness area will have two years to decide if mountain bikes will be allowed or not within their jurisdiction.

If no decision is made, mountain bikes will be allowed in the wilderness area by default.

In other words, a wilderness management official has to ban mountain bikes in their jurisdiction outright if this bill was to pass.

A lesser-known provision to this bill is that the bill would also allow chainsaws, wheelbarrows and other similar tools for trail maintenance.

Admittedly, this job would have been easier with a chainsaw!

I am not going to argue about the impacts mountain bikes make on the environment. There are too many statistics to quote. Many of them refute each other.  Both sides of the debate can make a compelling argument for pro- or anti-mountain biking based on environmental concerns.

My views tend to be ones of moderation when it comes to mountain bike access in general.

I’ve been in favor of mountain bikes in some of the non-Wilderness portions of the Pacific Crest or similar trails. Why not gain advocates to protect, promote and preserve the trail among the groups of people who also love the outdoors?  

Trail projects have been done with mountain bikers, and they take an obvious pride and love for the stretch of trails they maintain. 


Quite a few projects were done here over a few seasons. The local mountain bike community was always present when constructing this trail.

Even portions of some trails in National Parks (old service roads or similar perhaps) could allow mountain bikes with minimal or even no impact.


from Wiki Commons

But the permitting of mountain bikes into designated wilderness areas is one area where I am not a moderate.

I think the wilderness lands need to be as wild as possible and mountain bike access changes the character of that wildness.

I could mention how bikes are faster than humans or horses and that speed alone changes the nature of wilderness.

Or how what is a two, three or even four-day trip becomes done-in-a-day on a mountain bike and that alone changes the character of a wilderness area.

And perhaps this bill is a clever gambit from our Congress Critters. A way to eventually open up the wilderness areas to other mechanical means and make resource extraction a bit easier.  The bill just may be the nose of the camel under the tent…

But my plea is strictly emotional.

Many even a bit overly romantic.

With less than 3% of public lands in the continental United States declared as wilderness lands,  let us continue to set aside some of this land for foot (and horse traffic) only.

We need these places.

I welcome our mountain bike allies as fellow advocates for the public lands.

But this is one area where we disagree.

Sometimes a person just wants to walk where it is quieter and a little more contemplative. Where it takes everyone days to get immersed and done-in-a-day is rare.  

I suspect people who feel the way I do are on the losing side of this debate.

More of the designated wilderness lands will be open to mountain bikes at some point I suspect.

Beautiful single track in the Lost Creek Wilderness.

Even if the area is not “mountain bikeable”, there are always people willing to push what can be done once it is legally permissible.   With eager volunteers happy at this new access to public land, the trails may be made truly “mountain bikeable.” And a good chance any new wilderness lands will be made with the stipulation that they are legally mountain bike accessible.

Much as with bear canisters becoming common place in the backcountry, I see a time in the near future where mountain bikes in the designated wilderness areas are typical rather than an oddity.

Life will go on.

We’ll all accommodate ourselves to this new reality well enough.

Any reasonable person will smile and say hello to any fellow wilderness traveler.

And some places will perhaps still not allow mountain bikes for various reasons.

But the emotional and perhaps overly romantic part of me will think something is missing and has changed: The Wilderness Areas are maybe a little less wild when mountain bike access is present in our increasingly rare wild places.

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7 years ago

Ever since hearing about this from a friend at the ATC, I’ve been against the idea of opening Wilderness to any more accessibility for about the same reason as you– it changes the character of the areas to make them more accessible, since the Wilderness Act was all about limiting access. I don’t know if you’ve seen the website of the group that started lobbying for this, but their arguments are also disingenuous and misleading. They show pictures of people pushing baby strollers or riding pedal-boats, claiming “this is illegal in wilderness areas”, or pictures of people riding mountain bikes… Read more »

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Too true– For me, cynicism is an unfortunate side effect of paying attention to current and past events, but a good antidote from time to time is spending time in the wilderness (big or little ‘w’, doesn’t matter) 😉

Doug K
7 years ago
Reply to  Guthook

I try to be cynical, but I just can’t keep up – Lily Tomlin

Doug K
7 years ago

Senators Hatch and Lee are behind this bill. They are also on record as being in favor of removing all public land from federal control. It’s hard not to see this as the camel’s nose, a most unappealing hairy smelly thing. We can and should fight this as best we can. A similar bill was proposed to open the rivers of Yellowstone to commercial rafting, by a similar radical right-wing representative. See That one appears to be stalled, last action was in 2014 to place it on the Union Calendar, which is some machination of the House that I… Read more »

6 years ago

I was a federal land manager (US Fish&Wildlife Service) for just a hair under 30 years…the last 14 in law enforcement…and some of those lands were designated Wilderness Areas. I have seen the very good and unfortunately, the very, very bad (evil, in some cases!) in land users of all kinds: hikers, campers, photographers, kayakers, hunters, fishermen — even laughably “birdwatchers” — and yes, mountain bikers (open transparency, I mountain bike myself). I firmly believe, that the “good ones” outnumber the “evil ones”….and that the good ones try very hard to “police themselves and like-minded others” to do the least… Read more »