Thursday, May 21, 2015

An Eastern Kentucky Mountain Biker's Manifesto

I am a Kentucky native.  I’ve lived most of my life in the Bluegrass State, though I’ve never really identified with Bluegrass culture.  I’m Eastern Kentucky through and through.  Except…I live in Powell County which is really on the fringe of Eastern Kentucky.  Technically the Knobs Region…I think.
Anyway, I’ve lived in three other states.  Most recently I lived with my family in Colorado for five years.  I left Kentucky a burned out rock climber looking for inspirations in the mountains, and I came back a rabid mountain biker.
Testing out a new turn on a backyard MTB trail somewhere in Powell County
The year before we moved back I made my first attempt to finish the infamous Leadville Trail 100.  I DNFed at mile 87.  When we moved back to Kentucky I was already signed up to return and try it again.  That first year back in Kentucky I looked high and low for mountain biking opportunities. 
I returned to Leadville a Kentuckian, and I finished.  But after leaving Colorado in 2013 I turned my mountain biking aspirations firmly toward the East.
I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the work done by the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association (KYMBA) in the short years while I was away.  My early mountain biking experiences before moving to Colorado included a couple of disappointing trips to Cave Run in the early ‘00s and tooling around the Red River Gorge area on old logging roads.  So when I came back and discovered that my old haunts had been obliterated by ORVs, ATVs, and ERVs (Equine Recreational Vehicles) I was thankful for KYMBA’s efforts in Central Kentucky.  There are dozens of miles of well-built and accessible trails from super smooth flow to techy and challenging.  But they're in Fayette and Franklin and Scott and Woodford Counties.
My new job was located in Lexington, so as soon as the winter trails dried up enough I hit Veteran’s Park.  The flow trails there became my lunch-time go to destination, but as I go out and about in the District I also visited Capitol View Park, Skullbuster, and eventually Life Adventure Center.
Somewhere along the Sheltowee Trace in Powell County

I got more adventurous and as I visited neighboring Districts I was able to visit the Pulaski County Eagle Scout Trails, Laurel Lake, and Cane Creek in Laurel County.  I trail ran on Cromer Ridge and was glad I didn’t take the mountain bike there.
Eventually I was able to make a few trips to Cave Run again and have been pleased with the progress that's been made there.  A friend who has now moved away had been working hard to get mountain biking in the Red River Gorge area.  He even had a Recreational Trails grant that eventually reverted back without being spent.  But he and others had managed to build a couple of short trails on Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition land in Lee County and I was stoked to ride his Flat Holler Trail.  But for the most part nothing has developed in the Gorge.
This past year I’ve managed to hit (for me) some outliers.  Greenbo Lake State Park was surprisingly awesome.  When I visited General Butler State Park this time last year all of the trails were closed for some kind of forestry work.  I’ve not made it back there yet.  But most recently my regular riding partner and I visited Jenny Wiley State Park and enjoyed stellar new trails—some only two months old! 
The day after we rode at Jenny Wiley I had the good fortune to be on the other end of the state in Owensboro and rode at Ben Hawes.  The worst thing about Ben Hawes is that it’s three hours from home.  I had so much fun I rode the entire trail system twice in one day.
Yesterday I revisited Skullbuster in Scott County.  I try to get up there any time I’ve have a meeting in Georgetown that corresponds with my lunch hour.  When we first moved back over two years ago I felt completely unschooled in Kentucky mountain biking.  Now it’s different.  I’ve got a lot of miles under my knobby tires.  And I’ve definitely got more to go.  I still haven’t really even touched anything in the Louisville area, and I am desperate to visit Big South Fork and the Breaks area.  I haven’t even bothered to look toward Western Kentucky beyond my recent window of opportunity in Owensboro.
Skullbuster Blue Loop
It seemed to me that my Colorado mountain biking experiences were limited as well, but when I started listing all of the areas I have ridden in my home state for this piece I went back to my recent Colorado stint and did an inventory.  I was somewhat surprised at the variety of areas I have been able to ride there. 
My very first mountain bike ride was in early 2008 when my old trusty ’94 Cannondale M300 arrived on a truck with our furniture.  The next day I hauled it up to Evergreen and beyond to the Alderfer/Three Sister Open Space Park owned by Jefferson County.  From the trailhead I pedaled my bike up an amazing trail to the summit of Evergreen Mountain.  I was hooked.
Most of my mountain biking experiences in Colorado were on Jefferson County Open Space; mainly because Jeffco has some exemplary open space parks and fantastic trails for hiking and mountain biking, but also because they were convenient for me.  Between home and work I could make slight detours and hit any one of eight public parks with legal mountain bike trails.  A short drive into the foothills afforded me access to a dozen more.  An hour from our home in Arvada was the world class Buffalo Creek.  Alas, I was only able to visit it three times with a bike!

I miss North and South Table Mountains
And finally, we made one family trip to mountain bike in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, only to be driven off by high winds and hot temperatures.
All-in-all I’ve had great experiences on my mountain bike.  The singular major void in that experience is my home stomping grounds of the Red River Gorge.
I’m hesitant to put it out in the universe that the Red River Gorge should be a mountain biking destination.  The Gorge is well known for being “loved to death.”  But I live near the Gorge and I love to mountain bike.  The landscape of the Gorge region is perfect for world class, epic and unforgettable mountain bike trails.  But there are none.  I won’t even mention the singular designated mountain bike trail in the Gorge section of the Daniel Boone National Forest.  It’s a travesty.
I’m not suggesting that the Auxier Ridge Trail should be designated as a mountain bike trail.  Most of the existing hiking trails were probably built in the ‘30s and ‘40s from the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps and in no way shape or form are suitable for mountain biking. 
But there’s a lot of National Forest land that would be perfect for mountain bike trails.  Possibly—literally—hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails. 
The Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition has over 1,200 acres of land designated for “human powered recreation.”  They welcome mountain biking and there are no governmental or regulatory restrictions on development there.  Of course the RRGCC should write a land management plan for the property to head off any user conflicts at the pass.  That’s the land use planner coming out in me.
There are large tracts of private land in Powell, Wolfe, Menifee, and Lee Counties that might be opened up for mountain biking trails if the right conversations were to occur. 
The Red River Gorge region has the potential to be for mountain biking what it already is for rock climbing.  And it’s the RED RIVER GORGE.
I don’t know what has prevented this from happening before now.  I’m determined that if any barrier can be removed to allow for more mountain bike trails in the Red River Watershed or nearby then I will do what I can to help remove them.
This is important to me because my community is one of the unhealthiest in the state.  And we live in one of the unhealthiest states in the nation.  This is important to me because mountain biking has provided for me the best therapy against depression and general poor health over any other activity I’ve ever engaged in.  I know it can provide the same benefits to others.  And I know so many others that need choices for fitness and recreation and better access to those choices. 
And I’m sick and tired of hearing people moan about how “there’s nothing to do around here!”

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