Mountain bikers: Continue to stay socially distant, notice wildlife closures, wet trails

As the snow melts and the novel coronavirus lingers, getting out on the mountain bike trails will become difficult to pass up. And while local officials are encouraging people to get outside and exercise, it needs to be done in a way that won’t go against social distancing protocols or ruin the trails for other riders.

“You can definitely go to trailheads and go out and do exercise, but it’s not really meant for you to do with a ton of friends and hang out in the parking lot,” Pitkin County Open Space and Trails director Gary Tennenbaum said. “As long as you practice social distancing and you really limit your group size, getting out for a bike ride is completely healthy and really something that will reduce your stress and it’s totally something we want people to be able to do.”

However, the spread of COVID-19 isn’t the only concern. Many of the trails in the Roaring Fork Valley, especially from the midvalley up, are far from ready and it’s important that people stay off of them despite having cabin fever.

The reasoning is twofold: seasonal closures for wildlife and limiting trail damage.

“If the trails are dry, we are not telling people to hold off. Our biggest thing is don’t ride muddy trails,” Tennenbaum said. “And whichever ones are closed seasonally are still closed seasonally. Wildlife doesn’t know anything about this virus whatsoever. So the reality for the seasonal trails is you need to stay off of those until they are open.”

There are many trails that won’t be open until later this month, if not well into the summer months, for wildlife, and notably for elk calving. Regardless of the weather or any pandemics, wildlife has priority in those areas and recreation is strictly forbidden until those closures are lifted. This includes popular routes such as the Government Trail.

“That’s one of the reasons a lot of people enjoy living in Colorado and in the mountains, is that we are sharing our spaces with beautiful creatures and we want the populations to remain healthy,” said Mike Pritchard, the executive director for the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, which does a lot of trail maintenance in the valley. “But respecting those closures is important for the mountain bike community as a whole because when we respect the closures the land managers gain confidence when they build, let’s say, a new trail that has to have a similar closure. They can proceed with confidence that that sensitive season and that closure will be respected.”

Other trails that may not be in sensitive wildlife management areas can remain closed as the trails dry. Whether it’s the county or independent organizations like RFMBA, one message remains the same: do not ride on muddy trails. Tennenbaum called it a “major no-no” and Pritchard wanted to emphasize the work and manpower that is involved to repair trails damaged while ridden in wet conditions.

“We’ve got our slogan out there on a bunch of trails in the valley; we like to say, ‘Ride dirt, not mud.’ It’s not just in the spring. It can happen all summer long, especially in late summer and monsoon season with afternoon thunderstorms,” Pritchard said. “So if people are patient and wait until the trails are dry, it means less maintenance. It means trails stay in better shape.”

Pritchard said most mountain bike trails are built in a way where water runs off the side and not down the trail itself. When trails are ridden while wet, such as during mudseason, small ruts can develop, as well as berm-like features that can trap water on the trails. This, over time, can ruin trails and ruin a rider’s experience.

“A lot of the spring season we spend time educating people about those closures and openings, and the reminder is to ride dirt, not mud,” Pritchard said. “We are lucky we live in a fairly dry environment where the trails do dry out pretty quickly after rainstorms. But whether it’s after a rainstorm or in the spring when a lot of snow is melting and the trails are still wet in certain sections, you are right to bring up that ruts can easily be formed.”

As it goes every spring, mountain bikers are encouraged to stay away from those wet trails and out of wildlife areas. While Gov. Jared Polis has extended the state’s stay-at-home order through April, Tennenbaum said there is nothing wrong with going for a ride as long as people follow social distancing protocol and stick to the dirt.

Unfortunately for those in Aspen, this can mean longer drives to find dry trails, including trips out of the valley. And as long as COVID-19 continues to be present, such travel is discouraged. Meaning, locals will need to be extra patient and extra smart about their two-wheeled adventures this spring.

“I would emphasize people need to be kind to each other and friendly and they need to step off the trail extra distance and turn your face away, if that makes sense,” Pritchard suggested of riding crowded trails. “It’s a time to go out and enjoy this pursuit solo. At this point I wouldn’t encourage people to gather or even ride with a group of friends, even if they are trying to keep their distance. It’s just not a good time for that yet.”