Wilderness biking in the lower 48

Fat bikes are in the process of reshaping what a mountain bike is.  They’re a fad, insofar as their popularity is riding a cissoidal curve.  Doubtless in five years there will be a number of Pugsleys and Mukluks gathering dust. There will also be exponentially more fat frames and components.  In 20 years the average width of a commercial mountain bike tire will substantially bigger than the 2.2 of today.

Why might this not come to pass?  Or, what motivates much of the increasingly silly criticism of fat bikes?  An understanding of off-road cycling as exceedingly groomed-trail centric.  To use Roman’s distinction, mountain biking for the past three decades has been about backcountry riding, where human-made passage defines the route and experience, as opposed to wilderness riding (not juridical Wilderness) where route finding occurs on the landscapes’ terms.  After having the doors blown off my understanding of backcountry in Alaska this past summer, it is clear that I’ll need to find a way do some wilderness cycling, if mountain biking is not to waste away even further into a casual hobby.

The obstacles to doing this in the lower 48 are two-fold: what wild country we have left is largely truncated into rugged islands unsuitable for development, and most of that is Wilderness, where cycling is for the moment not allowed.  The lower 48 version of the Lost Coast, for example, would be a superlative and very rideable fat bike route were it not Wilderness.  This is an administrative rule, an interpretation of the Wilderness Act, and thus subject to change.  There are substantive arguments on both sides, and what has become clear in the past decade is that the debate is a purely ideological one.  Even when stock damage is taken out of the discussion, there is no case to be made that cycling is a greater threat to wilderness (or Wilderness).

(w)ilderness biking is thus an ethical practice, if a legally problematic one.  Where then can it be practiced in the lower 48, in the 30-50 years it will take for generational change to run pack stock into antiquation and install human powered recreation back into its rightful place?

I’ve got a few ideas, categories as well as specifics, and would gladly welcome further input.

-Dunes and Ocean beaches, like those in Oregon.  This might not be an enormously extensive option, as far as multi-day riding is concerned, but I presume there are many hidden pockets with legal public access and outstanding off-piste riding.

-Reservoirs at low water.  An increasingly common phenomena, given the USAs systemic magical thinking about long-term streamflow, and should function as an inland rats ocean substitute.  Sherborne as it exists in the fall looks fantastic, though I’m sure the park service would look dimly upon such shenanigans.  I will nonetheless be sorely tempted when the snow melts off a bit.

-The great wash systems of the desert southwest.  The first things which got me thinking about a Pugsley was driving through Arizona’s empty quarter, and in the basin and range provinces these rides likely exist on a multiday scale.

-The slickrock benches of the Colorado Plateau should also provide some good wilderness routes, linked with wash systems, and assiduously avoiding crypto forests.

-Lastly I hope to explore the gravel bars and floodplains of rivers, like the Flathead, pictured above.  Likely with a packraft.  This will seem contrived and slow, no doubt, especially near a road and absent the magical gravel plains of glacial rivers.

Edit: To be clear, I’m looking for routes where at least a significant minority of the ride would be off human-created trails/roads.

17 responses to “Wilderness biking in the lower 48”

  1. I recently acquired a Surly Pugsley, and it’s a wonderful bike for wandering. On my first ride, I explored some lesser traveled dirt roads and washes in Moab and even the same spots where Edward Abbey felt the inspiration for Desert Solitaire – an experience which I will probably never forget.

    A friend has done a fair deal of traveling around the coastal side of the Oregon Cascades: Nick, http://swervingexcursions.blogspot.com/ ..check it out.

    Lastly, the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona is currently ~80 miles and will eventually run from Flagstaff to Phoenix. It was an old trade route turned cattle route. It’s perfect for desert riding and bikepacking, and there’s quite a few dirt roads in the area. Take a map, LOTS of water, and you’re good to go.


  2. I’m glad they’re making such good progress with the BCT, I rode it first back when there was only 15 miles of singletrack. Not what I’m after here, however.

  3. Outside the die-hard winter ultra crowd, which is getting bigger every year, agree with you that fat bikes are a fad.

    One of my bike buds just bought one, and I can never see him in a winter ultra changing a tire at 3 am at -30F.

    I think they exploded in popularity when Surly started to sell complete bikes for a modest sum ($1500) instead of just frames.

    There are also a lot more for sale on Craigslist this year than last.

  4. BTW: Whenever something new comes along (e.g., mountain bikes, skate skis, etc.), there will always be criticism from the old school types.

    Having come from a nordic ski background, I always thought that people who ran snowshoe races or rode snow bikes were simply wasting good snow. I have since cast aside such old school preconceptions.

  5. Big Bend area in TX is also a place to be considered (State Park, not Federal). It seems the word has gotten out about the awesomeness of it.

  6. Well, I guess I’ll cast a partly dissenting vote here, and not just against the fat tired bikes. I don’t own one, so can’t reasonably speak from experience. But I’ve been bicycling for upwards of 40 years all year long in Cleveland. Lots of snow on the roads and the trails. Not wilderness like out west, of course. But..
    First: I don’t think there is enough wilderness in my neck of the woods to share with off trail bikes of any type. There just aren’t hundreds of square miles of blank spots on the map. What woods there are, are limited. And Cleveland has a better share of ‘wilderness-ish’ woods than most eastern cities. It really is not enjoyable to be hiking on a trail and have mountain bikers come past. Not because they are juvenile yahoos who make a nuisance of themselves, but because the inherent speed of their travel clashes badly with hiking. It’s disruptive. More disruptive than horse back riding, even though, those horses chew up the trail far worse. Hiking and trail biking are incompatible, in my opinion. So the latter are wisely shunted off to other trails. But there isn’t that much wilderness for other trails. So mountain bikers get short shrift. And hikers get less trails.
    Second: This must be a personal bias, but I can’t understand why anyone would want to bike through a forest. It’s too fast. You miss everything. It’s a blur. You can’t really identify trees, spot wildlife, examine tracks, holes in trees, burrows in the ground at the speed of a mountain bike. I’ve done it, and I find it a distinct loss compared to the hiking experience.
    I find bikes work nicely on the road where the scenery does not change that quickly. There’s no loss cycling down a country road with a farm house in the distance. You don’t really get drawn to examining the pebbles in the pavement, so the bicycle’s speed is appropriate to the terrain and scenery. Much different than cycling in Manhattan where you’d miss everything at cycling speed. There, foot travel is far better, never mind the traffic. So, basically, I think mountain bike riding on trails is a net loss. It’s the wrong speed for the terrain. Just like walking down a long rural road is the wrong speed for that terrain. I suspect this is true for fat tire bike riding in wilderness as well.
    Maybe in deep wilderness, where there’s more than enough room for all and perpetual snow that requires fat tired bikes to negotiate, they make sense.
    The only place I can see them being useful around here is on a frozen Lake Erie. Come to think of it, I wonder if I could use one to cross over to Canada sometime….
    Marty Cooperman

    1. On the other hand, it’s easy to argue that mountain biking is a more intimate way to move through the woods, and that the enhanced technical and kinesthetic dimensions provide a more comprehensive and detailed impression of the terrain. We humans get too stuck on merely looking as the only aspect of experiencing.

      This is to ignore the other issue, of user conflict in densely populated areas. Bikes make places functionally smaller, and that can create serious problems in places like Ohio. As a native son of that state, I long ago came to the conclusion that such places are so developed they are unfit for human habitation.

    2. Wow, Marty, and an even better reason to ONLY allow fat bike single or dingle speeds on trails: they are slow and don’t appeal as much to the young and rude as they may appeal to the slow and polite, maybe.

      Also Martin, my arthritis is acting up after a few years of walking (in forests and other places), and I still like to get outside (on this fatbike my new “wheelchair” giving me wilderness access I may not otherwise get), and again, a bike can be slow on trails and is especially slow on animal trails. Like I said, I am/have been a walker and a wilderness cyclist and much of what you claim is, perhaps — no insult intended to you — theoretically based opinion, rather than empirically derived fact.

      I hate to say this (no actually I derive great pleasure from it) but I think roads are for cars, trails are for bikes (and fat bikes specifically because they are pure, soft on the trail, simple, and slow so actually address many of your concerns), and off-trail is for feet.

  7. As a former Wilderness Ranger for the US Forest Service I am all for allowing mt. biking in certain Wilderness areas. Anywhere a horse is allowed to go a bike should be allowed. Horses are far more destructive to trails, spread invasive species and giardia from their poop, and encountering a poorly trained horse on a trail is far scarier than a bicycle. As for the speed factor, I have seen horses galloping on trails at least as fast as a mt. bike and trail runners moving almost as quickly. To say that somehow my wilderness experience is less than another simply because I choose to enjoy it from the seat of a bicycle is completely asinine. In my thirty years of hiking, backpacking, and mt. biking I have NEVER had a collision. I for one think everyone can get along and that excluding mt. bikers(the fastest growing user group in the nation) from the Wilderness conversation is going to hurt land preservation in the long run. I know this rant is kinda off the fat bike topic but I think they go hand in hand. Mt. bikes of all kinds including fat bikes are here to stay and more importantly are getting the ipad generation interested in the outdoors. Take a 10 year old kid for hike and they will most likely be bored, take them for a mt. bike ride and they will be far more focused on reading the terrain and staying upright. So you tell me who is more engaged in their surroundings?

    1. So back in the early 90s I used to go on weekend rides in the bay area with Jobst Brandt (likely spelled wrong), who rode trails on his road bike. I of course rode a men bike, and we had discussions about impact of user groups on trails. physical impact. Like what causes erosion and trail damage.

      Jobst would ask, “why not have the land managers put their hand on the trail and have a hiker’s boot, a horse’s hoof, and a bike pass over their hand to see what damages the trail most.”

      So consider a low pressure fat bike to have the most gentle impact of all.

      As for where to go, DC, while stuck down south where the govt has you by the balls and the land is overrun with a certain bipedal pest, its mutualist and comensal partners, Forrest says the great basin area (maybe not what it’s called, but where the Great Divide splits around a big closed basin) in WY where there are lots of horses, wild ones, leaving game trails (my favorite form of single track) is widely available and hassle free, I think.

      1. Central Wyoming, riding with the antelope. Wouldn’t have thought of that, but it makes perfect sense.

        From a legal perspective (and for the moment), BLM land is where wilderness biking will be best practiced in the lower 48.

  8. I think some good options for these bikes could be found on frozen lake routes in Canada north of the BWCA. Outside of the US I’ve been pondering what a Tibetan Plateau crossing would be like.

    1. To SamH, “pondering what a Tibetan Plateau crossing would be like”: currently Illegal.

      But google Chang Tang for a bunch of Euro reports (and a few Chinese like tintin) of mtn bike crossings — but fatbike would likely be fabulous if only the Chinese would let we westerners back into Tibet.

  9. hellbiking, excellent read. thanks.

    jealous of you folks out west. even more jealous of those that get to trip where few men have tripped before. inspiring lot, you all.
    depressing a bit too.

    cleveland, yeah. i grew up there.
    moved away as soon as i could. just visited, and i do miss the post industrial decay and architecture of manufacturing long lost.
    but not the traffic, the roads, the burbs, and in some cases, the flat.

    several states east i live in a ‘working’ landscape.
    pretty sure regardless of where one was dropped or lost you could be in a small town within 10-12 miles. probably less as the crow flies.
    likely too that you’d be able to have some good local food, a decent cup of coffee, and find a local brewery.

    but, huge tracts of land to get lost in?
    not here.

  10. […] see an easy answer to.  The second is the ongoing social bias against mountain bikes, something I’ve addressed at length and won’t revisit here, save to highlight the way this schism is changing the sides […]

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