Bike Parks and Flow Trails

Presenters: Erez Lotan, Lotan Landscape Architecture; Julian Tyo, Sun Valley Ski Resort; and Bob Allen, author of Bike Parks: IMBA’s Guide to Purpose-built Bicycle Facilities and New School Trails

Overview: Once relegated to unattractive lots on the outskirts of town, bike parks and flow trails today are getting built in attractive, easily accessed locations, and municipalities are funding them much like traditional recreational facilities such as ball fields and swimming pools. Modern bike parks are designed to appeal to every skill level, with enough variety to keep riders coming back for years. Well-considered plans for maintenance and regular improvements ensure that these facilities will be attractive and fun to ride for the long term.

IMBA has encountered a growing demand for information about how to plan, build and maintain successful bike parks, along with flow trails and other purpose-built bicycling facilities. A new book, Bike Parks: IMBA’s Guide to New School Trails examines all phases of planning, designing, building, and operating these facilities, with real-world success stories and essays provided by leaders in the field.

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Planning a Flow Trail Project on Public Land

Presented by Julian Tyo, Sun Valley Resort

As with most of life’s endeavors, the foundation of a successful trail network is rooted in long-range planning. Whether on private or public land, utilizing big picture conceptualization of your trail network will result in an improved on-the-ground product while also demonstrating a high level of commitment to land managers and the riding public. By committing to a thorough master plan you will maintain forward trajectory and keep people engaged throughout each phase of trail development.

The rise of stacked-loop trail systems (see IMBA’s previous books Trail Solutions and Managing Mountain Biking for more on stacked loop designs) throughout the world has created dozens of success stories in riding communities, many of which substantially benefit local economies. Master planning is a key element of these systems—they depend on early conceptualization of a big-picture network, typically with phased implementation. This fundamental concept can be directly applied to bike facilities, whether pedal-only, like the widely successful Sandy Ridge network in Oregon; car shuttle-optimized downhill trails like in Draper, Utah; or resort-based trails systems with chairlift access, such as New Hampshire’s Highlands Bike Park, to name some of the examples cited in this book.

A long-term plan directly benefits two critical concerns: approval and implementation. Enthusiastic trail advocates often need to be reminded that land managers have to work with many groups and track multiple proposals. Whether the lands are public or private, city, county or federal, most managers have a long list of requests for how to use the resources they oversee. Groups that present well-organized plans have a big advantage over ones that seem disjointed or too focused on short-term goals. For example, it could be a mistake to suggest building a 2-mile intermediate flow trail, getting it approved, building it, and then going back to the land manager the following year to request permission to create a new trail for advanced riders. By including both trail plans from the get-go, you will be positioned to skip the second round of proposals and approvals.

For trail proposals on United States government property, particularly lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, proposals will likely need to be evaluated through a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The NEPA process is used by the federal government to evaluate the environmental effects of a proposed action on public lands including alternatives to the proposed action. Depending on the level of impact of your proposed trail, or trail network, it will go through one of three levels of evaluation, depending on the significance of its impact to the environment. Many resources are available online to help groups and individuals understand the NEPA process, but relative to trails and trail networks there are some basic concepts to understand:

  • The “environment” being evaluated is physical, social, and economic—not just flora and fauna.
  • The NEPA process is time consuming. Typically, an Environmental Assesment can take upwards of a year.
  • NEPA is expensive. Some people make their entire careers working as NEPA consultants. Every aspect of the environment being evaluated requires the time of an expert, and the time of those experts costs money.
  • Your trail network is not the first to go through the NEPA process. Existing NEPAs for other bike parks and trail networks are readily available online. With a simple search, you will find thousands of pages of material.

With these items in mind, submitting a comprehensive trail plan is infinitely more efficient than submitting individual trails piecemeal. For trail proposals located on Special Use Permits, such as ski areas, consider other actions that may be proposed in a 10-year window, and incorporate your trail network proposal into a larger scale proposal. The difference between a stand-alone trail proposal and one submitted in conjunction with a master plan or other projects can mean the difference between a single approval and years of submitting applications.

Another benefit of creating a comprehensive trail plan is that it will help generate a step-by-step build process and a timeline. With the design of a network comes an intrinsic trajectory for the trail plan: conceptualization, field study, design work, mapping, proposal generation, submittal, approval, and subsequent implementation. There are many great examples of successful bike parks and trail networks, and each of them has a unique story to tell. Do some research and you will discover that you are not alone in the world. Reach out to the leaders and project managers and learn from their successes, as well
as mistakes.

Finally, consider that a master plan for an expansive trail system will offer a more compelling vision than multiple proposals for small segments. Individuals will travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles to ride trail systems with IMBA’s Epic designation, or a bike facility recognized as an IMBA Ride Center. Ultimately, the land manager you partner with wants the same thing you do—lots of people enjoying a standout recreational facility. With long-term planning, it’s possible to streamline the process and shorten the project timeline, meaning you can put down the pens and shovels and get back to riding your bike.

Julian Tyo has been riding singletrack since 1995, developing a specific interest in downhill and trail construction not long after that. He is currently the Summer Trails Coordinator for Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort, where he has worked with local land managers for the proposal and implementation of lift-accessed flow trails on the ski area’s Special Use Permit