Follow the much-anticipated U.S. Forest Service decision on the proposed Stevens Pass mountain bike park in The World when it happens in early April.
Ask a mountain biker — from west of the mountains or east — what their favorite ride in the state happens to be, and invariably the answer will be Devil’s Gulch near Cashmere.
Inquire about their favorite spot — and you’re likely to hear the Methow Valley.
Ideal urban system? How about the Sage Hills trails bordering the city of Wenatchee.
North Central Washington boasts more than 2,000 miles of trails designated for mountain bikes — with the vast majority on the publicly owned Okanogan-Wenatcheee National Forest.
Combine that number with varied terrain, good weather eights months a year and ample services — hotels, restaurants and bike shops — and the region is considered one of the best places to ride in the state.
But it could be better, even world class, say the sport’s proponents.
While Devil’s Gulch, the Methow and Sage Hills have been featured in major newspapers and magazines in recent years, they aren’t considered “meccas” in the mountain biking universe.
That hallowed ground belongs to Moab in Utah, Fruita in Colorado, and Bend and perhaps Oakridge in Oregon.
“We have probably the best potential mountain biking area in the Pacific Northwest, if not the nation, but it’s totally underutilized,” says Wenatchee’s Matt Rose, a board member of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. “We can beat areas like Bend. We just haven’t developed it.”
Most point to fragmentation — a disjointed trail system and a disorganized mountain biking community — as the culprit.
“There is no driving force pushing it,” says Jason Jablonski, a Wenatchee sports trainer and former professional mountain bike rider.
While admitting that getting mountain bikers together is “akin to herding cats,” Rose believes the recent formation of a Central Washington chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance will pay dividends.
The Seattle-based alliance has won praise for building and maintaining the new Duthie Hill bike park near Falls City in King County.
Rose says it’s important for citizen groups to work hand-in-hand with the U.S. Forest Service — and not apart.
Others, too, are optimistic about transforming NCW into a hot spot for the sport.
For starters, they say, so much land is already in the public’s hands. The same goes for trails, although some have fallen into disrepair as money for maintenance has declined.
They point to recent developments, such as the anticipated groundbreaking of a chairlift-serviced Stevens Pass mountain biking park; work by the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust to retain public access to the Wenatchee foothills, to maintain trails and to construct trailheads; and the beginnings of a new trail between Wenatchee and Leavenworth.
They point to nationwide trends of communities connecting themselves with the backcountry (and frontcountry) through trails, and of volunteer groups taking over trail maintenance, a chore previously conducted largely by federal and state agencies.
“Picture the Methow Valley with what they’ve done,” Rose adds. “You can virtually cover that whole area on trails.”
But more needs to be done here, they say, starting with a regionwide trail network plan and the inventoring of trails. Such a master plan has never been developed for NCW.
While the total trail mileage in NCW is impressive, too many trails peter out or lack links to other trails. While Wenatchee, for instance, has a good trail system on its western boundary, getting from there to anywhere else is “basically a dead end,” Rose says.
Communitiees like Monitor, Cashmere and Leavenworth border national forest land but have few urban trailheads.
Confusion also exists on how to access some trails. Few trailheads have signage.
“There’s so much out there that people don’t tap into,” says Margo Peterson of Wenatchee, a former collegiate mountain biker at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C.
A developed mountain biking area — and accompanying exposure through signs, guidebooks and maps — would help solve that, Peterson and others say.
Jablonski says Moab attracted people by creating a handful of designated loop trail systems. The Utah community also has done a great job at promoting itself, says Jablonski, adding he believes the same could occur in NCW.
Questions remain, however, about who would pay for new trails — and who would maintain them.
Another thorn: Numerous trails need to be retired.
“Trail sustainability is critical,” Rose says. “It doesn’t help you to build a trail and then have to go back year after year to fix it.”