Why riding the muddy trails of Sonoma County isn’t a good idea

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Inside many of us lives a child who loved to play in the mud and still does. If you are one of us, and you’re planning on going mountain biking over the next several weeks, please keep that child on a leash.

With rain spilling into spring, Shane Bresnyan of the Trailhouse bicycle shop/brewpub, located a mile ride from Santa Rosa’s acclaimed Trione-Annadel State Park, says this would be a good time to stay away from what he calls “some of the best single track in Northern California.”

“Our recommendation is to avoid the park for three to four days after a storm,” he said. “Let it dry out. Go somewhere else. Or mix it up a bit and go for a hike.”

Mountain bike advocates and trail stewards have been advising their kin to keep off muddy trails since the invention of the sport. Debbie Bloomquist, chairwoman of the Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance (REMBA), has a fairly strict rule of thumb: “If you’re leaving tracks,” she said, “you don’t ride the trails.

“The tracks turn into ruts, cause drainage issues, and ultimately require somebody to come out and repair them.”

Bresnyan reports that Annadel “dries up fairly well, and the conditions will come back.” Meanwhile, he advises patience — which he and his fellow dirt-lovers have been practicing a lot of throughout this wet winter. Even trails that are fine in some years are fragile this spring.

“The first part of Ridge Trail is always good, but the second half, on the backside of the park, is an absolute mess,” he said. “And it’ll be an absolute mess for another week at least. Once things dry up, you still have wet spots — you can easily avoid those wet spots by slowing down, but not going around them and widening the trail.”

That last piece of advice is often disregarded. The Saturday before last was relatively dry on the lower, steeper reaches of Annadel’s Cobblestone Trail, but under the trees on the ridges there was still some slop. And every puddle was surrounded by newly cut “social trails.” Unless those get fixed, those puddles will get bigger and bigger every year.

Bloomquist remembers a time when other trail users — hikers and equestrians — felt a bit of hostility toward mountain bikers, blaming them for deteriorating trail conditions. REMBA, which was founded in 2015, is part of a worldwide effort to bring peace to the woods, mainly using elbow grease.

“We are not enforcers in our user group, but we can be educators,” she said. “And the greatest education on trail care is to get our user group out there working on the trails. That’s the way I learned. You know, we’re out having a good time on our bikes—it’s great for our minds; we feel empowered by it. But we don’t stop to think about the other aspect of riding, which is the trails. And there’s a lot of work involved to keep the trails open and functioning.”

Bloomquist encourages anyone who rides to come out with REMBA and grab a shovel. “That’s when you stop and say to yourself, ‘before I ride through this, maybe I should think about how much work is involved in repairing the damage,” he said.

Over the years, Bloomquist has seen a big improvement in mountain bikers’ reputations among other trail users: “I do still go into meetings where I’m called a hoodlum and told that we’re out on trails smoking weed and lighting fires. But I’ve only been told that twice.”

Ken Wells, director of the Sonoma County Trails Council and a veteran of the war in the woods, co-founded one of the first mountain bike advocacy organizations, Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers, in Santa Clara County in 1986.

After moving to Santa Rosa in 1992, Wells bought a house right next to Annadel so he and his family could have easy access to the park — but he seems to have a love-hate relationship with the place.

“I’ve been doing trail maintenance and building and designing since the ’80s, and I feel like I’m pretty competent at it,” he said. “And I have never seen a soil type as bad as Annadel. If it’s exposed to water, any kind of mechanical impact, whether it’s a foot or a tire, it will just wash away at the first rain.

“I’m not a geologist, but I think it’s a volcanic silt. It doesn’t have any structural integrity. And that’s the problem with Annadel. No matter how hard I work on it — and I’ve put in decades now of trying to fix the trails up there — it’s a hopeless task.”

Christy Hirsch, director of the Friends of Trione-Annadel State Park, would beg to differ. The organization, which came together in late 2017 and held its first fundraising event in June of last year, has begun plans to get Annadel back in shape.

“I’ve been using the park for 25 years,” Hirsch said, “and my hopes would be to get (the trails) back to the stage they were in 20 years ago. As a community member, that’s what motivated me to get involved. I thought, it’s such a loved resource that there’s gotta be a wellspring of community members who want to help.”

Job one was to hit the trails. For that task, FOTASP had the help of the Maria Carrillo High School cross country team. And over the past year, Hirsch and her colleagues have been bringing various user groups together with California State Parks folks, and beginning to hammer out a plan.

“We have REMBA, the Trails Council and other groups that are doing trail work,” Hirsch said. “We have the Sierra Club, the Oakmont Hikers, the Horse Council. We have the birdwatchers. There are so many different stakeholders that have an interest. And everyone has a little bit of different perspective.”

One user group does seem to be taking a bit of heat.

“The poor mountain bikers,” she said. “You get a few rogue ones, they make the whole category look rogue.”

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