Two public trails in the Laguna Greenbelt were reserved last month for only downhill mountain biking as part of an OC Parks pilot program intended to reduce conflict between bicyclists and other trail users.
The Lynx Trail in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park and the Laguna Ridge Trail in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park were identified as candidates for the 90-day trial by the Orange County Parks Commission and county park staffers, according to a staff report.
“I think it will reduce the traffic on any given trail,” Orange County Parks Commission Chairman Joe Muller said at a March meeting. “It does reduce the congestion on the trail because you don’t have people going in opposite directions.”
Simultaneously, Cholla Trail in Aliso and Wood Canyons has limited mountain bikers to uphill use only, while permitting bi-directional traffic by other users. Similarly, Old Emerald Trail in Laguna Coast has limited bikes to downhill only, while hiker traffic remains bidirectional.
Amid a record number of park visitors during the pandemic, county officials came under pressure to add safeguards that would prevent speed-hungry bicyclists from colliding with hikers and bird watchers, protect environmental resources from trail congestion, and continue to offer coastal access for all Californians.
Collisions between bicyclists and hikers have proven to be quite injurious, if not life-altering.
John Squicciarini wrote in an email he was hiking at Whiting Ranch with friends last September when he was struck from behind by a bicyclist on a single path trail, lifting him over the handlebars and into the bushes. A fellow hiker grabbed Squicciarini and pulled him back from a cliff’s edge. He was then transported to a hospital where he received X-Rays of his injuries.
Since the collision, he’s been to physical therapy numerous times, wears knee braces daily, his hiking is very limited, and expects to get knee replacement soon.
“[Mountain bikers] believe the trails are for them and we are invading their spaces,” Squicciarini wrote. “Also, there is no accountability when they crash into hikers, as they are typically able to escape.”
Tests of designated trails are underway throughout the OC Parks system and outdoor enthusiasts are offering mixed reviews. Some hikers and birdwatchers have questioned whether it is laying the groundwork for permanent bike-only trails in open space set aside decades ago as ecological preserves.
“The manner in which the OC Parks Commissioners has gone about crafting and implementing this ‘pilot program’ is disappointing,” Richard Hawthorne, a 34-year Laguna Beach resident, wrote in an email. “It is the result of a biased Commission towards bicycles in our increasingly dangerous trails.”
These temporary changes have apparently escaped public attention even though park officials promised to advertise the program through social media, signage, and outreach to recreational associations and environmental advocacy groups.
“It appears the Commission quietly approved a pilot program, while doing the bare minimum to notify the public who regularly uses the affected Wilderness Parks,” Hawthorne said.
Some leaders in the environmentalist community believe the pilot program is a positive change to improve tail safety, including Friends of Harbors, Beaches and Parks (FHBP).
“We think this is a very good first step of how we deal with the congestion on our trails,” FHBP president Michael Wellborn said.
Pam Passow, deputy director of OC Parks, told commissioners at a March meeting that her agency agreed enforcement of trail rules would be key.
“The plan is to educate and give verbal advisement in the first month of implementation and start enforcement in the second month,” she said.
However, Passow pointed out that OC Parks employs 45 park rangers to oversee and patrol 60,000 acres and 350 miles of off-road trails.
“To implement this project, OC Parks is partnering with an academic institution to conduct a study on the user experience and biophysical condition of the trails resulting from the pilot’s use modifications,” agency spokesperson Marisa O’Neil wrote in an email. “Great care went into selecting the temporary trail use designations and all trail user groups were considered when making these changes.”
SHARE Mountain Bike Club, which promotes safe and respectful biking behavior, was involved in a trail subcommittee advising county officials on what trails would be good candidates for the pilot program, club president Steve Larson said.
Laguna Ridge Trail’s “steep and nasty” terrain make it popular for thrill-seeking mountain bikers and a serious challenge for casual hiking, Larson said. Over the last 16 months, Larson said the popularity of Orange County trails, including those in the Laguna Greenbelt, has exploded as people sought outdoor recreation.
“People needed to do something—they couldn’t go to the moves—so they wanted to get outside,” Larson said.
Those who criticize the OC Parks pilot program as gifting public land to a special interest group should remember that certain trails were previously set aside for hikers and equestrians.
“We have many trails in our parks that mountain bikes aren’t allowed on,” Larson said. “To be able to say, ‘we’re only giving public land to mountain bikers,’’ there is plenty of public land that mountain bikers aren’t allowed on at all.”
The Coastal Greenbelt Authority is scheduled to receive an update and hear public comments on the pilot program’s progress during a virtual meeting at 3 p.m. on July 14. Greenbelt Authority Chairwoman Mary Fegraus encourages members of the public to share their experiences from the trail pilot program by tuning in at ocparks.com/about-us/coastal-greenbelt-authority.