Over the weekend, at the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve in northern San Diego County, California, Department of Fish and Wildlife officers began citing mountain bike riders for riding in a reserve that is technically closed to bikes but that hadn’t been marked that way for years. CAFDW officers have periodically installed signs informing riders that trails were officially closed, and cameras in recent years have captured footage of riders ripping out “no bikes” signs and damaging trail areas by maintaining jumps and berms.
The reserve, called the “Lake Calavera Trails” by local riders, became off-limits, technically, to bikes back in 2000, but the San Diego Mountain Biking Association maintains that riders had been riding the trails there for 30 years, long before the area became a protected place. Not only that, but enforcement has never been particularly consistent at the reserve, bikers say, so it’s a firmly established part of the San Diego mountain biking community. It’s so ingrained in the bike community that the San Diego North Coastal Scholastic Mountain Bike practices at the reserve several times each week.
“I was really bummed because Calavera is probably the closest spot to my house where I can get out and have fun with my friends, but now that I can’t, it’s such a bummer,” Josh Lombardi, a freshman, told a San Diego news station.
SDMBA has countered that not only were mountain bikers there first, but the mountain biking population has exploded in San Diego County, especially in the north, as the population of the area has increased alongside new residential and commercial development. That development means less open land. So there are more bikers just as possible riding areas have diminished in size and number. Yet the Calavera Trails were never put under any kind of organized management that took existing use into account. CAFDW just closed it to bikes, but never enforced the rule, as more and more riders began using the trails.
Where once only areas important to biologists studying the local wetlands were marked as off-limits, now the entire reserve is closed to biking, with $250 fines the punishment for breaking the no-bikes rule.
Riders who built jumps, damaged trails, and removed signs prohibiting biking drew enough attention and ire that CADFW got involved and now nobody can bike at Calavera.
Where I ride, in Marin County, California, there are plenty of open fire roads, but very few legal singletrack options. Lots of riders use those trails anyway and consider a fine as a small price to pay for a season of singletrack fun. That $250 fine is “cheaper than a lift ticket,” I’ve heard more than once.
But many of those trails were made off-limits to bikes long before, like in San Diego, the biking population skyrocketed.
This is of course, not a new problem. Trail wars between hikers, equestrians, and cyclists have raged for decades. But as the population of people getting outside, on bikes and on foot climbs, as open spaces are increasingly taken up, grappling over trail use isn’t going away anytime soon.