Access Action: Michaux’s Grave Ridge

by James Murren

In the Access column of Issue 151, we interviewed Ashley Korenblat, Director of IMBA’s Public Lands Initiative. She spoke about the ways in which mountain bikers can work with land preservation advocates, and why Wilderness designations, even though they ban mountain biking, are not always a bad thing for mountain bikers in general. In this issue, we have an example of the other end of the land use spectrum, resource extraction, and how it can impact mountain biking.

Ridden by many, “cleaned” by some, conquered by none, Michaux State Forest’s infamous Grave Ridge trail is located in south-central Pennsylvania. A little over a mile long, Grave Ridge packs more technical mayhem in its rocky Appalachian spine than many trails several times its length. Some talk about riding between, over and through swaths of rocks that are like: shark fins, baby heads, tortoise shells, tombstones, and house-sized boulders.

Nearly all mountain bikers, when dropping off the bone-jarring line, talk about the short, ego deflator of a trail as being an epitome of east coast mountain biking. What many may not be aware of is that the Grave Ridge trail is on the boundary of an imminent timber sale, under contract through September 2012, and thus its surroundings will be irrevocably changed.

Sitting in the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge mountain range that stretches south through Virginia, Michaux’s rolling ridges, comprised of 85,000 acres, are widely considered to possess some of the most technically demanding and remote mountain biking trails in the eastern United States. Local riders understand the precarious balance of Pennsylvania’s state forest lands, where recreation, natural resource management and wildlife and plant habitat protection are all given a voice in determining land use practices.

Brett Weiser, spokesperson for Mountain Bikers of Michaux (MBM), stated in an email, “The foresters in Michaux have an exceptional challenge among Pennsylvania’s state forests. Michaux is one of the most heavily used state forests in the Commonwealth…I don’t envy their juggling act.” Most decision-making around mountain biking in Pennsylvania’s state forests is determined locally, requiring advocacy and trail maintenance involvement from local mountain bikers, if they would like to advance and expand their recreational opportunities.

With the exception of over forty miles of the Appalachian Trail, and a few other foot-traffic-only trails, the majority of official trails in Michaux are multi-use, meaning they are used in some capacity by any of the following recreationalists, or combination thereof: hikers and backpackers, horseback riders, ATV riders, dirt bike riders, cross country skiers, and mountain bikers.

Over the years, MBM has been working with these groups, along with the Bureau of Forestry, in developing a common ground where everyone comes together to promote the designation of “unofficial” trails as “official,” designated recreation trails. Doing so would mean that if an official trail area is to be logged, the logging company would be required to reestablish and reopen the trail to recreationalists when they are finished extracting the timber.

Listed on the forest maps as an ATV trail, which denotes it as a designated recreation trail, Grave Ridge will be reestablished and reopened when the logging is complete. “What’s going to possibly save Grave Ridge is its recognized status as an official trail,” remarked Weiser in an email. As of October 2010, the logging operation had not commenced.

Neal Mishler, Forester at Michaux, said in a phone interview that if the contractor does not get in and build the roads before winter, they will probably not get started until spring. Under the current logging contract, it is possible that Grave Ridge would be off-limits to riding through all of 2011 and most of the 2012 riding seasons. Mishler also added that if the contractor does not finish by September 2012, they could ask for an extension.

Grave Ridge trail will likely look a little different as a result of the impact of the logging. Levi Gelnett, State Forester at the Michaux district office, said in a phone interview, “The trail will be rebuilt and reopened when the logging is complete, and it will be better than it is now.”

MBM’s Weiser added in an email, “We’d like to see the focus of the land management policies in Michaux change to a greater emphasis on recreation. We’d like to see massive networks of singletrack recognized as official trails.”

Jes Stith, owner of Gettysburg Bicycle and Fitness, lead sponsor of perhaps the most-technically challenging mountain bike race series in the U.S., the Michaux Endurance Series, said that over the years some of Michaux’s singletrack has fallen victim to logging. He understands that Pennsylvania State Forests are designated as multi-use, which includes resource extraction, which in turn can sometimes result in the loss of trails.

Stith commented over the phone, “It will be interesting to see what Grave Ridge will be like after the trail is rebuilt.” He went on to say, “We are very fortunate to have the quality of trails and the miles of trails available for mountain biking at Michaux. There is so much great riding up there. We don’t like losing trails that we enjoy riding, but it’s part of the reality when mountain biking in Pennsylvania state forests.”

While Grave Ridge is one of Michaux’s more famous trails, hundreds of miles of singletrack, doubletrack and forest roads meander throughout the forest for the mountain bikers to test their technical riding mettle. Some of the world’s elite mountain bikers—Chris Eatough, Jeremiah Bishop, Harlan Price, Cheryl Sornson and Sue Haywood, to name a few of the more recent competitors—have used Michaux as training ground for national and international racing, and winning the Michaux Endurance Series has long been a much sought after bragging right by local and world class riders alike. Though Grave Ridge may not be open for a while, you can find its flavor elsewhere in Michaux State Forest.

UPDATE: Since this peice was published in Issue 153, we’ve learned that the area of the forest that includes Grave Ridge has been closed, first for hunting season and then for logging. We will keep you posted on its future.

Michaux Resources

Maps to pinpoint Grave Ridge, which is sometimes part of the race series, can be found on the Michaux Endurance Series website.

For local trail beta, contact Gettysburg Bicycle and Fitness.

To learn more about Michaux State Forest, visit the forest’s official website.