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Do hikers and bicyclists need to be separated?

The most common trail etiquette sign shows bikes yielding to hikers, and everyone yielding to horses. (Courtesy)

Dear Action Line: It’s no secret that Durango is the gateway to an incredible plethora of trails. DurangoTrails.org proudly shares that there are over 300 trails within 30 minutes of downtown. I am an avid hiker and enjoy being among the trees, sounds and smells of nature with a John Muir-ish appreciation for my surroundings. However, I find myself more and more frustrated at the frequency of having to step off the path to yield to bicyclists. With a wide spectrum of recreating, from seeking adrenaline-pumping adventure to a space for quiet meditation, there arises a muddy bit of tension. I pause to wonder if bikes are equally annoyed that their downhill flow is disrupted by a hiker blocking the trail to stop and smell the flowers. Have any of the agencies with jurisdiction over the trail systems received an earful over this? It’s become enough of an issue in other communities that creative solutions have been implemented, such as seen at Jefferson County’s Apex Park. Maybe we aren’t there yet, but as outdoor recreating becomes more popular, I wonder if this is a discussion worth starting? – Flower Smeller

Dear F.S.: If it matters, Action Line, an avid mountain biker and hiker (credentials available upon request), is in agreement: This issue should be on trail users’ radar.

On a bike, it’s more fun blazing freely through the woods if you’re pretty certain that a hiker (or a dog) isn’t possibly around the next corner. As a walker, it’s much more relaxing and mind-freeing without the nagging feeling that at any moment you might have to step (or jump) out of the way of a bicycle.

You mentioned Apex Park, where Dad of Action Line frequented into his 80s. The 700-acre open space area in the Lookout Mountain foothills above Denver got busy enough that it implemented this solution: Several trails are for bikes only on even days of the month, and for hikers and equestrians only on odd days.

Viewpoints such as this from REI, the famous outdoor gear co-op that is apparently coming to Durango, posted on its trail etiquette page, could leave the wrong impression: “Bikers are generally expected to yield to hikers. ... However, because those mountain bikes are often moving considerably faster ... it’s usually easier for hikers to yield the right of way.”

If there’s an expectation that hikers will move out of the way, mountain bikers won’t bother to yield or even pump the brakes. In many cases, in Action Line’s experience, this seems to be happening.

For hikers, it’s mostly an issue of comfort level. If you’re so concerned about cyclists that you can’t relax and enjoy where you are, then smelling flowers becomes problematic. If your hearing isn’t keen, or you’re chatting, you won’t hear the cyclist approach.

Equestrians have their own set of issues that Action Line won’t go into, but will make a general observation that controlling a half-ton beast is challenging. If someone on a horse requests you do something, just do it.

Durango Trails has made an effort to educate users about sharing trails and urges them to “mind your trail manners, making sure to be kind, respectful, and share the trail with other users.”

To the issue at hand: Is it time for the city to dedicate certain trails to certain user groups? Everyone will agree that local trails are getting more use than ever. A quick survey of those with pull showed a spectrum of concern.

The Durango Mesa Park recently, in its first phase of development, built three downhill-only bike trails. Durango Mesa Park Foundation board member Gaige Sippy said this is “a nod to both the fact the community was asking for it, and in the case of the primarily downhill nature they are one-way, bikes only. Safer, and explicit in their purpose and user group.”

As stated, Action Line is a mountain biker, and although lacking the talent to fully use these trails (is frightened of big air), fully supports it.

Sippy continued: “Durango Mesa Park has certainly looked at how we can make safe trails that provide each user group their best possible experience. We will build some level of bike-only trails, equestrian-only trails, and many multiuse, multidirectional trails. There has been a discussion of hiking/walking-only trails but nothing firm yet.”

Sara Humphrey, interim director of Durango Parks and Recreation, said she has heard from concerned walkers.

“I did receive some similar feedback at the last Engage Durango Forum, requesting pedestrian-only trails,” she said before the latest forum in late January. “Currently, the city has one pedestrian-only trail and it is the Oxbow Preserve trail.”

Humphrey pointed out that the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have some pedestrian-only trails adjacent to city lands, including Skid Ridge, which can be accessed via Overend Mountain Park. Smelter Mountain and Perins Peak are others, although both are subject to seasonal closures and users must have a permit.

“I think the topic of use-specific trails will increase as some of the new trails that were recently added to the trail system have both designated use and designated direction,” Humphrey said.

A spokesperson for Durango Trails added that hikers can enjoy bicycle-free trails in wilderness areas. We’re blessed with hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness in Southwest Colorado, although that land is not always easily and quickly accessible.

The Durango Trails rep emphasized the importance of trail etiquette; in 2014, the local nonprofit, trails-advocacy group launched a “Durango Shares the Trails” campaign. Find that here: durangotrails.org/trail-etiquette.

Is this an urgent situation? Maybe, maybe not.

But it’s something we probably need to keep talking about.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. Helpful hint: You can now purchase a Colorado Parks and Wildlife hiking permit – Keep Colorado Wild Pass – when acquiring or renewing a vehicle registration. It’s $29, and you actually have to opt out to not purchase this.