It took years of waiting and countless hours of volunteer work, but the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont is finally welcoming mountain bike riders.
Cyclone Trail, Waitsfield, Vermont.
By Patrick Kell
Photos by Ryan Thibault courtesy of MTBVT.COM
Pedaling into the woods to work with trail crews on Chandler Ridge and Leicester Hollow in 2010 really drove the message home to me: mountain bike access in the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) was truly becoming a reality. After several years of meetings, proposals and field visits, we now had shovels in the dirt, and mountain bike trails were coming to life, inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot. It sure felt good, and we owe a lot to the Forest Service staff in Vermont for the progress.
Located in central and southern Vermont, the Green Mountain National Forest is a 400,000-acre parcel of public land, managed for timber harvesting, wildlife habitat, hiking, hunting, camping, snowmobiling and skiing. Legal mountain bike riding was long excluded from the GMNF—the largest parcel of public land in Vermont—frustrating local riders who so rightly felt excluded. We knew there were amazing trails in those green mountains, we just couldn’t ride them! Around 10 years ago, the USFS gave access to a short section of singletrack on a trial basis (the Contest Trail in Pittsfield, VT) and with some success, it highlighted the potential for increased access on this vast parcel of public land. In 2006, the Vermont Mountain Bike Association (VMBA) hired our first Executive Director who soon met with the USFS to pose the question—why was mountain biking so restricted in the GMNF? Our mission is: “Promoting trail advocacy through education, planning, funding, establishing and maintaining multi-use trails throughout Vermont.” Improving access in the GMNF fit perfectly within that mission.
The initial meetings revealed there was potential for increased access, given new personnel in key positions in the GMNF who respected the capabilities of an organized mountain bike advocacy group. A breakthrough came in 2007, when we obtained permission to ride the forbidden trails in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area (MNRA), a 16,000-acre recreation area within the GMNF. We reviewed trails in the area with interesting results: first, we realized that some of the Forest Service staff didn’t fully understand what we were looking for as they pointed us towards wide and wet logging roads, thinking that was what mountain bikers wanted.
On the flipside, they also allowed us to check out some “off-limits” singletrack, including some forgotten and overgrown trails along beautiful ridgelines deep in the National Forest. These different trail types gave us the opportunity to highlight what mountain bikers really wanted: dry, sustainable, flowy, technical singletrack. We emphasized that a lot of the infrastructure was already in place to support mountain biking in this region: parking lots, camping facilities, the unspoiled wild-country around Silver Lake, and more importantly, a trail system with the potential as a destination-quality network.
The riders who took part in the first exploratory rides were stoked at what they saw—we were looking at an opportunity to create a riding experience which was non-existent in Vermont—a true all-mountain, backcountry trail zone. We envisioned all-day epic rides along ridges and through valleys, weekend camping trips at Silver Lake, a sense of remoteness that didn’t exist on other trails, and the opportunity to really put Vermont on the map as the best riding in the northeast. Those first exploration rides were just a taste of what lay ahead. Then, another change in USFS personnel came along, we finally had the opportunity to work directly with recreation managers who ‘“got it.” They appreciated our lifestyle and understood that mountain biking was a compatible activity on federal land. These recreation managers attended IMBA training clinics and saw the potential for drawing tourists to the area—we felt that we were really starting to go somewhere!
In 2008, a group of local riders banded together as the Middlebury Bike Club to form a chapter of VMBA, and the USFS designated the Oakridge and Moosalamoo Trails as open to mountain bike access. Middlebury Bike Club members worked to make these trails sustainable by completing reroutes, armoring projects, and organizing gatherings for the obligatory beer and BBQ sessions to celebrate their success. Around this time, the Bikes Belong Coalition stepped in with a grant towards the project, so we now had some cash and permission from the Forest Service, which allowed us to get shovels in the dirt. Now the project was really heating up! The focus was on a nine-mile loop, which included the Rocky Point shoreline trail; the ridgeline trail on Chandler Ridge, with its amazing western vistas across southern Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks in upstate New York; and Leicester Hollow, which truly put the “green” in the Green Mountains, with its lush, ferny, rain-forest-like vegetation and boulder-strewn terrain, which presented a head-scratching situation for even the most experienced trail designer. We knew that Leicester Hollow would be a challenging trail-building opportunity, and that the end result would be a one-of-a-kind riding experience.
Turkey Trot Trail, Cadys Falls, Vermont
In summer 2009, the Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew visited the MNRA to hold a workshop for local club members and USFS staff. This session included time in the field building a trial section of singletrack. Thanks to IMBA and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which bought resources to road and trail projects across the country, the project took another step forward. The GMNF was allocated funds to complete bridge, forest road and campground upgrades with some of the funds allocated to trail construction projects in the MNRA. Our timing couldn’t have been better, and the stars truly lined up when the USFS allocated $40,000 to VMBA to work with crews from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) on Chandler Ridge and Leicester Hollow in 2010. In late summer 2010, the Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew paid another visit to the GMNF and by fall several sections of the Leicester Hollow Trail had been rebuilt; bridges were laid across Leicester Brook; nine switchbacks had been built by the VYCC and the Sierra Club on the north end of Chandler Ridge; and a lot of rock armoring, bench-cutting and drainage had been completed on the Rocky Point Trail, literally feet from shores of Silver Lake. We now had a rideable route from the Silver Lake Campground up to the ridgeline offering glimpses of the two lakes below.
In December 2010, the USFS allocated $154,000 from ARRA funds to continue rebuilding the Chandler Ridge and Leicester Hollow Loop with the funds being used to hire crews from the VYCC. Along with this federal funding, we received grants from Norco Bikes, truly making this a public/private-sector partnership. The work will kick-off again in May 2011, beginning with flagging the reroutes before the trail crews hit the ground in June and work through the fall. One crew will continue the challenging construction work in Leicester Hollow, including setting huge rocks and backfilling to create a sustainable tread surface. That’s right, VMBA trails are built to last! Other crews will be based in remote backcountry locations atop Chandler Ridge, completing long bench-cuts, switchbacks and rock armoring. The Chandler Ridge portion of the loop is a unique 3.5-mile ridgeline section, dropping through glades and hollows, offering views of Silver Lake to the east and Lake Dunmore to the west. There is a magical quality to Chandler Ridge, as anyone who has been up there on a mountain bike will tell you, it’s a trail like no other in Vermont.
The Meadow Trail, Cadys Falls, Vermont
When looking back at the evolution of this project, we learned several important lessons. Mountain bikers and land managers are all too often locked in disagreement, we quickly found that it doesn’t have to be that way! Cooperate, listen and learn from each other, follow through on commitments, take care of the details, gather everyone together around a BBQ grill and a cooler, and access will happen! With this project, the USFS emphasized that they want to work with a cohesive organization with a central point person. OK, so VMBA and the local riders got organized, check that one of the list. This was an important piece and should be understood by other groups seeking access on public land—coming together with a unified voice is paramount.
Another lesson we quickly learned was that there was a misunderstanding among GMNF staff regarding mountain bike trail design and construction, and that education was necessary. VMBA brought in the Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew on two occasions to help us clear up these misunderstandings. The Subaru-IMBA Trail Care Crew is highly recommended for organizations working to access public land, the key is getting the land managers to attend the field sessions to see the design and construction techniques on the ground.
The project was recently featured at the National Bike Summit in Washington D.C., when we presented it during the IMBA Public Lands Initiative workshop. It was also discussed by Holly Knox, Trails Coordinator from the GMNF during a panel discussion, which included staff from the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers. Once the Chandler Ridge and Leicester Hollow Loop is complete, the focus will be on the Oakridge and Moosalamoo Trails and developing a connection from the Silver Lake Campground to the Moosalamoo Campground. We hope to design new beginner level trails around the campgrounds to encourage greater participation from children, families and riders of all ages. At other locations throughout the GMNF, our local chapters are working on trail access projects including those in Pittsfield, Utley Brook and the Hapgood Pond areas. Should construction be completed this fall, we will host group rides on Chandler Ridge and Leicester Hollow, offering guided tours that could lead to a regular fall event in this phenomenal location. Keep an eye on VMBA.org for more details on these projects, and follow Vermont Mountain Bike Association on Facebook.