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Alternative day zoning: handling heavy trail use

Can managers provide a better experience for hikers without eliminating other users?

By Eric Finstick

Map of Colorado

In crowded recreational locales such as open space parks, bikers and hikers increasingly are finding that their recreational outing has evolved into a series of maneuvers to avoid other users. Hikers are constantly dodging bikers, stepping aside to let the faster bikers pass. Bikers have to slow down or stop frequently for hikers in places where they can't pass safely. Wider track trails, which allow faster biking speeds, can also result in conflicts if the bikers don't slow down when passing hikers because some bikers regard this as an inconvenience.

Experience in Colorado
When mountain bike use levels get really high as they have, for example, in Jefferson County (directly west of Denver), hikers are displaced from trails by the sheer number of such encounters. A hiker on some Jefferson County trails may expect to encounter as many as seventy bikers in an hour.

"As population and use continues to increase over time, these problems can be expected to increase exponentially. What's a land-use manager to do?"

Because of the differences in speed, the laws of physics dictate that the slower moving user will have more encounters with the faster user even when the actual numbers of different users on the trail are the same. On a single-track trail, it only makes sense that the hiker allow the faster uses to pass. But after seventy passages, even the most tolerant hiker finds his recreational experience diminished.

As a result, we find few, if any, hikers on multiple use trails at high use periods. Seniors, families with young children, and dog walkers are especially likely to avoid such trails during "rush hour.' Some local guidebooks even caution against families using trails where the bike use is heavy. As population and use continues to increase over time, these problems can be expected to increase exponentially. What's a land-use manager to do?

Possible solutions
Some trails could be closed to bikers in order to provide a higher quality hiking experience, but this, of course, means that bikers have reduced opportunities. On the other hand, continuing the status quo results in the effective exclusion of hikers from trails at peak times. Jefferson County provides a few hiker-only trails in newly acquired parcels, but these trails are currently very few and far between, leaving hikers minimal options at peak times to find safe and enjoyable experiences.

We live during an age when population pressures result in inadequate resources or conflicts over competing uses. Consequently, we have learned to expect restrictions on some uses at some times. For example, we have lawn watering days. We have fireplace no burning days. We have separate hunting seasons for bow, black powder, and rifle hunting. We have some areas where all use is restricted in order to protect wildlife during critical times. We have car pool lanes or bus lanes in rush hour periods. Can't we apply reasonable rules so that everyone can have a better (and safe) experience?

Managers in other states with similar trail use issues have opted for a creative solution. They have established an "alternative day" scheme in which the trail is open one day for hikers and the next day for bikers. Such systems have been implemented on Forest Service trails just outside of Salt Lake City, in North Carolina, and on a portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The trailheads are well signed, and after an initial break-in period, the systems work well.

Under an alternate day–use system, the trails continue to be open to all users, but hikers and bikers can each choose days when the trails are best suited to their needs. Bikers will have few if any hikers on the trails on their days, although they are not closed to hikers on those days. Hikers can pick days when no bikes will be on the trail, providing a safer, more peaceful hiking opportunity, especially for families, seniors, or hikers with dogs.

We would like your opinion on such a system. As hikers and bikers, would you like to see such a system implemented in specific high-use areas in Colorado? Do you think this approach provides an equitable resolution?

Eric Finstick is a board member of Plan Jeffco and sits on the Jefferson County Open Space Advisory Council. He is a member of the Denver Group of the Colorado Mountain Club. Contact him at (303) 278-7276.

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