Access Action: Portland, we have a problem

Editor’s note: This Access Action piece was published in Dirt Rag #158, in August 2011.


By Greg Galliano and Melanie Strong

Situated between the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Portland is cycling utopia, where cars yield to bike lanes and intersections feature green-painted bike boxes. This fine city is arguably home to the largest population of fixed gear pedaling in the country, and a thriving culture of cyclocross. For road riders, there are hundreds of miles of bike-lane lined roads to spin on inside and outside the city. However, if you’re a mountain biker in search of singletrack, you’ll need to strap your bike to your vehicle and hit the road. Although Portland is also home to the largest forested urban park in the United States—aptly named Forest Park—the majority of its 70 miles of recreational trails are closed to mountain bikes.

In 2008, Portland became the first large U.S. city to earn the Platinum Bicycling Friendly Community status from the League of American Bicyclists. This was due in part to the more than 270 miles of on-street bike lanes, the number of businesses providing employee incentives to commute by bike, and the growing popularity of community rides like the Providence Bridge Pedal.

“Portland has had the courage to lead, to innovate, and to pursue a vision of their community that emphasizes choice, equity and quality of life,” said the League’s president, Andy Clark. “The job isn’t done, however. Platinum status isn’t forever, and it carries with it the responsibility of setting a high standard for other communities to follow. We recognize that compared to other world class cities for cycling, Portland still has a long way to go.” One of the improvements Clark and the League recommended was ensuring better access to city parks and recreation areas for off-road riding.

Shortly after the announcement, the local mountain biking community revisited an issue the city had long grappled with: how to move forward with a plan to develop singletrack riding in Forest Park. Currently, mountain bikers have access to more than 28 miles of trails in the park. But these are comprised primarily of gravel roads and fire lanes, with some of the most attractive dirt trails such as the 30-mile Wildwood Trail completely off limits to bikes. The local cycling community has long advocated for either opening some of the existing trails to bikes, or investing in the development of new trails. But with this challenge from Clark and the League, they recognized an opportunity to make some significant progress.

Their renewed efforts, however, were met with concern from the Forest Park Conservancy, the Audubon Society and local community association and neighborhood leaders. They worried that opening these trails to bikes could lead to over-crowding, and further damage trails already heavily used by hikers. A Forest Park Singletrack Advisory Committee was formed, and for the next year local community leaders from both sides of the issue discussed the pros and cons, and possible solutions. In July 2010 the Committee issued a 178-page report, stating “after many difficult meetings, the Committee presented their recommendations… the Committee did not reach consensus on any proposed trail actions.”

More than 20 community members—including members of the Northwest Trails Alliance and IMBA, as well as Portland Parks & Rec., Forest Park Conservancy, the Audubon Society—met for a year, and at the end they still couldn’t agree.

“When the committee started meeting, the direction was that the group should identify opportunities for increased biking in Forest Park by 2010,” said Tom Archer, president of the Northwest Trail Alliance, a local biking advocacy group. “But there are a lot of factors at work.” Beyond the emotionally charged nature of the issue, the committee was also working through the complicated land-use guidelines laid out by the 1995 Forest Park Management Plan. Even if the committee had agreed to some development of new trails, they would have been required to submit a land use application that would require additional time and resources. “Opponents felt like, ‘we’re not currently funding the Park appropriately, so why would we invest in new uses?’” Archer said.

According to the report, the committee recommended “a group of management actions” including the completion of a wildlife and vegetation study in the park, and a recreational user survey to get a better understanding of how the community would like to use the park.

So now what?

“The decision concluded that within the next two years the Parks Bureau would focus on the management actions and would not be building new trails or open new trail-sharing opportunities,” said Emily Hicks, policy coordinator for Portland Parks and Recreation’s Commissioner Nick Fish. However, included in the Singletrack Advisory Committee’s report was a recommendation to improve two of the firelanes in Forest Park currently open to mountain bikers. “The idea,” Archer said, “is to ‘regreen’ the firelanes to give bikers more of a singletrack experience.” Portland Parks and Rec. has brought on a consultant from Vigil-Agrimis, a natural resource design agency based in Portland, to develop several scenarios for this project. His findings are expected shortly after this issue goes to press.

There are other more successful singletrack projects in the works in Portland as well. Improvements are underway along more than five miles of multi-use trail in Powell Butte, the second largest park in the city. An unused 30-acre parcel of land between two freeways called Gateway Green is being considered for development of bike trails. Plus Archer and NWTA are involved in two bike park projects, including what would become Portland’s first pumptrack bike park.

Until then, one need only take a look at any of the Portland-based cycling message boards to see that the Forest Park issue remains alive and well. Archer and others remain committed. “We will continue to engage the City of Portland, other local land managers, and stakeholders in a positive fashion, but with the expectation that they commit resources to providing recreational cycling opportunities in and around the urban core. It may take time, but it’s a worthy cause.”

His advice for locals wanting to do more: “Become part of the movement. Join Northwest Trail Alliance, come to a work party, and make your opinions known. Tell your local policymakers that we need recreational cycling opportunities closer to where you live.”

Five Fantastic Rides outside Portland

While Portlanders may not have miles of singletrack in their backyards just yet, there’s some incredible riding outside the city. So group up to save gas, and check out these local treasures.

Gales Creek/Browns Camp, Oregon

Lush fir forest, ferns and moss abound as the scenery layers green on top of green. Trails here can get muddy but drain well, making them rideable year-round. Barring occasional coastal range snow, several singletrack loops can be ridden from the Gales Campground parking lot. Be prepared to climb from the start: 3-5 miles depending on which way you choose. Look for the Sickter Lars sign when you get to the top of Story Burn. It’s a 2-mile roller coaster ride full of bermed log-overs and bridges. All trails are well-marked and easy to follow. The longer Gales Creek trail will re-open in Spring 2012. Browns/Rogers camp is the more technical singletrack within this trail system, and can also be the muddier trail. Combining Story Burn, Sickter Lars and Browns Camp loop will net you more than 20 miles of challenging, blissful Northwest singletrack. On the way home, stop at the Rogue Pub in North Plains for a tasty burger and beers.

Wilson River Trail, Oregon

This is the same section of Tillamook Forest as Gales Creek, and has a similar feel. Don’t be fooled by the shuttle option of this ride: this is not a strictly downhill trail. As soon as you exit the Elk Creek campground, the trail goes straight up a leg-searing initial climb. The first climb isn’t long, but makes up for that by being steep. Not to worry— longer climbs await. You’ll ride roughly 4,000 ft of vertical in all. The trail treats you to a series of rocky stream crossings throughout the length of the ride. If you do the ride from Elk Creek to Keenig Creek, you’ll have 20.6 miles of pain and pleasure in the saddle. Bring plenty of food and water. This can be a long day if you have a big group or any mechanical difficulties. On the way home, try McMenamins Roadhouse on Cornelius Pass Rd in Hillsboro to refuel.

Three Corner Rock, Washington

This is a challenging, but extremely fun 27 miles of out-and-back trail. From the parking lot you can go up the gravel road for 9.5 miles to the trailhead. Or, head down the road you drove in on for 100 yards, and take the trail up. We recommend the trail. Roughly sixty switchbacks await on the way out alone. This trail is very difficult from a fitness perspective, and the tight rocky switchbacks near the top will push any rider to his limit. When you get to the top, you’re rewarded with 360-degree views of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, and you’re only halfway through the ride! One word of caution: don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a free ride back to the car. The way back is not all downhill. Initially you descend to a creek crossing, but then it’s a gut-busting switchback climb back up and over the ridge you started on. Thankfully it’s a downhill finish to the lot, giving you a little time to revel in the pleasure, and forget the pain. Kind of… Bring a cooler and grill, as there aren’t many options for post-ride grub. If you go in the heat of the summer, take a bathing suit, as there are some amazing swimming holes right next to the trailhead.

Sandy Ridge Trail, Oregon

This new trail system adjacent to Mt. Hood National Forest is a partnership between the BLM and IMBA. It’s a biker/hiker-only trail system, and definitely has the feel of a trail built by and for mountain bikers. Bermed transitions and rollers are a highlight of the Hide and Seek section. The trails here have amazing flow. As soon as you’re done, you’ll want to ride it again. And since it’s fairly short—7 miles of singletrack when we went to press—you can do it a few times. Due to traffic and the nature of the trail, it’s best to be ridden one way downhill, riding up the private road to the top of the trail. The long-term plan for this area is to have approximately 18 miles of singletrack. This season will see the completion of an additional 7 miles of trail, as well as the development of a trailhead facility consisting of restrooms, parking spaces, pump track, warm-up trail options and visitor information. The last stage of trail development is scheduled for completion by the Spring of 2013. Stop at Joe’s Donuts in Sandy for caffeine and some pre- or post-ride carb-loading.

Post Canyon, Oregon

There’s something for everyone here. The home of the first stop of the Oregon Super D series, Post Canyon has some of the most difficult technical riding in the area. There are many large bridges and built features sure to satisfy even the most skilled riders. No matter your skill level, make sure to take a couple laps on Family Man. This section of trail consists of a series of bridges and skinnies 12”-18” off the ground to hone your skills. If you feel good on Family Man, you can head for Middle School or tackle Frankenstein. Or combine buff, twisting singletrack loops into endless miles of fun. Many trails can be tied together into one nice loop without having to do the stunts. These trails usually escape the winter snow, but can be very wet in the winter months. Post-ride, hit 6th Street Bistro in Hood River for great, fresh food and frosty beverages.

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