How Mountain Bikers Beat Heroin Hill

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Good Times. Photos by Keana Parker. 

Today is a “Dig Day,” in the parlance of the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz group, but there is no digging just yet. Just coffee, and pastries, and a curious assemblage of people that look a little like local skateboard groms, and a lot like aging surfers. This is Santa Cruz, after all.

To one side, the hardcore are discussing the day’s suspension settings and the latest bling for their megabuck ’niners. Before the day is over, there will be seven hours of sweat, dirt, laughter, sore muscles, and maybe even blood. And, this being Santa Cruz, there will be local microbrews at the end, to celebrate a job well done.

Welcome to a typical day of trail work with the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBoSC). It’s one of the hallmarks of the pioneering advocacy group, which is celebrating its 20th year as a fixture in this fat-tire-infatuated community.

Over the years, the group has done what no one ever expected a cycling group to do, helping build trails in the hyper-regulated California State Park system, and linking to the UC Santa Cruz campus. They’ve made successful diplomatic forays to equestrian and hiking groups, marshaled hundreds of people to attend city council meetings and engage in letter-writing campaigns, conducted mountain bike festivals, and even hosted a race, called the Old Cabin Classic, in a local state park.

In 2013, they earned the respect of local law enforcement for helping to eradicate a problematic drug hangout deep in the forest—by building a mountain bike trail straight through the middle of it. Earlier this year, they marshaled their considerable resources to begin construction of a pedestrian-only trail in a local park, purely as a goodwill gesture.

When it comes to mountain bike advocacy, says Geoffrey Smith, one of the group’s first presidents, the MBoSC has succeeded by “being the adults in the room”—even if they may not always look like it.

MAKING A CONNECTION

With its redwood forests that reach nearly unimpeded to the sea, Santa Cruz County was a magnet for mountain bikers from the sport’s earliest days. When the MBoSC was formed in ’97, “there were no legal trails at all” in the county, remembers Smith. For mountain bikers, it was a pleasing kind of anarchy—ride anywhere, obey no one, have fun. But it couldn’t last.

In ’99, the opportunity to get on the right side of history presented itself: plans were developed to create the U-Con (short for University Connector) trail, bridging bucolic Highway 9 and the lush expanses of UCSC.

In an emerging model of cooperation, MBoSC partnered with local landowners Bud and Emma McCrary, the Santa Cruz County Horseman’s Association, and the Association of Concerned Trailriders to construct the short, multi-use trail.

For Smith and MBoSC, the U-Con trail was a major milestone. “It was the first legal singletrack in Santa Cruz,” he says. “And it was a good model for what was to come.”

Having attained a level of political legitimacy, the group’s next opportunity came from an unexpected place. For years, the city of Santa Cruz had grappled with a seemingly intractable problem: a scenic and remote hillside above Highway 9 had been taken over by drug users and traffickers. Nicknamed “Heroin Hill,” the spot was within the former golf club and polo grounds of the Pogonip. In one famous photograph, a heroin needle is shown unceremoniously jabbed into a redwood tree.

“People were coming from all over the state to score cheap heroin,” says Mark Davidson, MBoSC president from 2003 until 2015. “What the city of Santa Cruz really wanted was to take it off the map.”

MBoSC, working with the parks department, came up with a solution that would benefit not only the city, but also local mountain bikers hungry for new singletrack. What drug users hate most is for the full light of day to shine on their clandestine activities, and that’s exactly what MBoSC proposed, in the form of an undulating trail right through the middle of Heroin Hill. The trail, completed in 2013, exposed the infamous area, and its drug trade, to the unrelenting glare of dozens of people, every day. To ride it now, you wouldn’t know it was ever Heroin Hill.

If ever there was redeeming social value to the sport of mountain biking, the Emma McCrary Trail was it. “We didn’t have an answer” for the blight of Heroin Hill, remembers Santa Cruz Police Deputy Chief Dan Flippo. “But through the Emma McCrary Trail, we pushed the illegal activities out.”

The “EMT,” as it became known, was also a turning point for the engine that members say will drive future MBoSC projects: trail work. In creating the trail, MBoSC marshaled more than 300 volunteers, who devoted more than 3,500 hours of work.

“I will always be proud of the Emma McCrary trail,” says Davidson. “It changed everything for mountain biking in Santa Cruz.”

Former MBoSC President Mark Davidson

DIGGING DEEPER
I’m riding the EMT with MBoSC’s Matt De Young, but his mind is elsewhere. De Young, a geography major in college, knows these trails as well as the shifters on his ’niner. It’s been a historically wet winter in California, and while he seems to be enjoying the day, he’s immediately and irrevocably distracted—thinking about work crews, French drains, shoring up berms, and trail rerouting.

As the MBoSC’s sole paid employee, the indefatigable 30-year-old can be variously found riding the trails, attending meetings, leading Dig Days or training trail workers and crew leaders. The guy is everywhere, and works with passion. Perhaps that’s why the EMT is no mere trail—it’s art.

“People think the ‘government’ does this,” says De Young. “They don’t always realize that volunteers are out there working every weekend.”

In the group’s worldview, caring for trails is an integral part of procuring trails. Once you’re invested—through sweat, blood, and perhaps a few days of feverous itching from the ubiquitous Northern California poison oak—you begin to feel differently about the places you ride every day. You may even go so far as to write a letter to a local politician, attend a city council meeting, or convert a renegade, illegal-trail-building friend into a responsible trail user.

In other words, Dig Days are where trails and trail advocates are built, one shovelful at a time.

FINDING THEIR FLOW

After establishing the Emma McCrary trail, a new challenge emerged: to accommodate riders seeking a more intense riding experience. The Soquel Demonstration Forest, a yawning 3,000-acre plot of land on the spine of the Santa Cruz Mountains, was the perfect candidate. The area, adjacent to Silicon Valley, was already a popular destination for avid mountain bikers from the likes of Google, Apple, and Facebook, eager to bust out of their dull cubicles. These riders, taking advantage of the new breed of long-travel suspension bikes, tended to like their riding like their coffee—in strong doses.

“We didn’t have enough legal trails to satisfy that user group,” says Davidson. “And we knew the Soquel Demonstration Forest could supply a more aggressive riding experience.”

The MBoSc found an ally in Angela Bernheisel, Calfire Forest Supervisor. The proposed route, to be known as the “Flow Trail,” would be “unlike anything else in the Calfire system,” Bernheisel says. Nonetheless, she remembers encountering a lot of skepticism about the project.

“It was a huge undertaking for our small staff. It took a lot of money and work, and MBoSC brought that to the table. The Flow Trail never would have been possible without them,” she says.

Davidson, De Young, and trail builder extraordinaire Drew Perkins, threw themselves into the project. Environmental statements were produced, and trail designs underwent numerous iterations. Ibis Cycles raffled off a new mountain bike to help raise funds. Then, in a stroke of good fortune, a wealthy Facebook employee riding in the forest with his family saw signs soliciting donations for the project. He matched the current fundraising amount—about $45,000—out of his own pocket. Suddenly, the club had $90,000 in hand for the Flow Trail construction. Over the course of two years, thanks to De Young, Perkins, and more than 10,000 hours of volunteer time, the four-mile project became reality.

When it opened in 2015, the trail immediately exceeded anyone’s expectations. By unanimous consent, the elusive “feel” had been achieved. It also exceeded anyone’s expectations for popularity. “After the trail first opened, you would see 150 cars parked at the Demo Forest,” says Perkins. “It was a good feeling, that people were enjoying our work.” A counter was installed on the trail that recorded up to 600 trips per weekend.

BATTLES OVER BIKING

Santa Cruz City Council meetings are a place where you are as likely to discuss LGBTQ issues as water quality and low-income housing. But on Feb. 7, the meeting is mostly about one thing: a new, downhill-only mountain bike trail being proposed for the Pogonip.

MBoSC has mobilized the brethren, and the room is so full it needs to be partially evacuated by fire marshals. But while speaker after speaker advocates for the trail, some groups are less sanguine. A few hikers and dog walkers raise legal technicalities in an attempt to have the idea scuttled. Others argue from a more visceral point of view: they simply don’t want to see mountain bikers on trails, ever.

It’s a debate that’s played out in hundreds of similar venues across the country. But here, there’s a difference: MBoSC has embedded itself in every step of the process: from letter-writing campaigns, to trail building efforts, to fundraising and scientific studies.

Ultimately, the group’s purpose is not to battle with other user groups, members say, but to win them over with logic and calm. It’s what past president Smith calls the “steady drip-drip” of progress for mountain bikers.

Debbie Boscoe, board member of the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association, considers herself a onetime detractor who was won over by the MBoSC. The equestrian group regularly uses the Santa Cruz trail system, to the tune of hundreds of miles per year. It also conducts the Fireworks Endurance Ride, a 30-50-mile event that traverses Henry Cowell, Pogonip, UCSC, and Wilder Ranch parks.

In other words, they use the same trails that are beloved by every mountain biker within 100 miles. Early on, trouble between the two groups was practically inevitable.

“Things were not good,” says Boscoe. “Mountain bikers would rip trail markers off trees during the big ride. Relations were at such a low, I thought we couldn’t do it anymore.”

In a remarkable gesture of détente, the two groups created the “Carrot Fest” where mountain bikers were enlisted to carefully encircle a group of horses, and gently proffer carrots. The diplomatic foray was a revelation to both sides. “Now,” says Debbie, “horses will go over to mountain bikers, expecting a reward.” It was the beginning of a kind of armistice between the groups, which continues to this day.

MBoSC has reached out to other groups, too. It recently marshaled its resources to help build a pedestrian-only trail leading to a new outdoor Shakespeare theater in the Pogonip. Though a bike will never traverse the trail, mountain bikers will almost certainly benefit from it.

“I appreciate MBoSC contributing volunteer hours to the trail,” says Meta Rhodeos, Santa Cruz field supervisor for Parks and Recreation. “They showed they’re about trails—and not just biking trails.”

Local hiking groups such as Friends of the Pogonip, also known as Pogonip Watch, routinely battle the MBoSC. The organization’s website is emblazoned with red type calling out what they perceive as mountain bike incursions into hiking land and illegal trail construction. Indeed, there is no doubt that scofflaw mountain bikers construct illegal trails in state parks throughout the county—an activity that MBoSC is trying to combat.

Former Santa Cruz mayor and environmental lawyer Celia Scott is one resident who routinely speaks out against expanding trail access to mountain bikers. At the City Council meeting, a good share of the 50 public comments were in opposition to the new trail at Pogonip—an opposition led by Scott.

“We don’t support mountain biking in Pogonip,” she says. “When I was mayor, the U-Con mountain bike trail was created. And more recently, there was the Emma McCrary Trail. Now there is a proposal from the city and the mountain biking community to build at least three more mountain bike trails in Pogonip. In our view, that is too much.”

Scott says she is not anti-cycling, but that she wants to protect what she sees as the “crown jewel” of the Santa Cruz greenbelt.

“There is a lot of damage caused by mountain biking, and a large number of illegal trails. Other users—hikers and people walking with children—get displaced by mountain bikers on singletrack trails,” she says. “I love bicycles, but that is not the issue. The issue is how to take care of open space lands that we are very blessed to have.”

However its political fortunes may shift, the mountain biking community in Santa Cruz—like almost everywhere in the country—is also battling a problem from within: there are more riders than there are resources to accommodate them. And as many successes as they have had expanding access for cyclists, there are future challenges. The 10,000-acre Nisene Marks remains problematic for mountain bikers, thanks to a highly restrictive family deed and a host of user groups vying for access. Other land access opportunities are on the horizon, too, including the newly designated Coast Dairy National Monument, and the San Vicente Redwoods. No one knows where the discussions on these properties will go, but thanks to their track record on these issues, the MBoSC will have a “seat at the table,” as Smith likes to say.

The way forward won’t be easy. At times, it may even be ugly, in the way that all political battles inevitably are. But, thanks to the MBoSC, it’s likely to reach peaceful conclusions. They won’t get everything they want. But they won’t come up empty-handed, either.

“Our biggest challenge is bringing mountain biking into the mainstream, in the eyes of land managers and other users,” says De Young. “Mountain biking developed as an outlaw sport, and that shaped the culture. Now we’re seeing things change.”

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