18 February 2013

Archival Footage: The cumulative effects of erosion

The following post was originally published at FlagstaffBiking.org on July 3, 2003. Ten years later, little has changed...

I stumbled upon a USFS trail crew doing radical rock-obliteration work on Rocky Ridge trail yesterday. Despite recent efforts to encourage positive, proactive communication and cooperation between the USFS and local mountain bikers by organizations like flagstaffbiking.org, NFTA, and FELT, the evidently purposeful misdirection, and dare-I-say intentional deception, goes on as before. 

By the time you read this, it is likely that Rocky Ridge trail, as you’ve known it, will no longer exist. 

Under the auspices of grant-funded work and a new designation as a section of the Arizona Trail route, Rocky Ridge will soon join the dozens of miles of local trail that have been re-engineered to reflect one-public agency's, and really one over-zealous individual's idealized view of what a nature trail should be.

In light of what was happening on Rocky Ridge yesterday, I rode it both ways, up and down, and tried to savor each moment. As has always been the rule, in the end, Rocky Ridge won. I was happy to leave it that way. After twelve years of struggle I’ve had but a few moments of brilliance on Rocky Ridge, and for all the effort they have, though few and far between, each been worth the challenge. No local system trail is more special to me than this one.

Rocky Ridge has never been easy, built as a traverse across a steep basaltic and rhyolitic talus slope, it’s hard to think of a more well named or more challenging trail anywhere in the Dry Lake Hills system. 

Despite this new work, it is doubtless: the rocks will return. Rocky Ridge is solid rock, straight down for 3000 feet, perhaps a million feet. So, it’s not hard to imagine that, in a few short weeks, when the rains begin again, the cumulative effects of erosion will begin remaking Rocky Ridge into a more-honest version of itself once again. 

But, because of the work that's been done, the trenching will deepen now and the water will move more quickly downhill, pushing more of the trail's sediment out on to the Elden Lookout Road. And still, the traps and trials that we’ve practiced for years will be gone, the large obstructions will always be rolled down the hill, and the newly attainable speeds from Oldham to Schultz will be much, much quicker. From this time one, Rocky Ridge will be a radically different trail, that much is inevitable, despite the blessed, inevitable cumulative effects of erosion.

For whatever it’s worth, I give Rocky Ridge full credit for teaching me to ride my bike in the woods around here, usually as a stern taskmaster. But I loved it all the more for that. On my last legitimate ride across it, I wanted badly to beat it, but I didn’t; Rocky Ridge won again. 

And that was, undoubtedly, the best way to leave it.


Hi John:
Great column!
I just rode Rocky Ridge today to see what the fuss was all about. I must
admit I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun Rocky Ridge was again. I
guess I'm coming at it from a different angle but for me Rocky Ridge had
ceased to be one of my regular rides years ago. When I got home this
morning after riding down Brookbank and finishing on Rocky Ridge I went
back to my old riding journals to revisit my notes and riding times. As
you know I'm not only a techno-weenie but pretty geeky in that I've written
down details about every single ride I've ever been on since
1989. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 rides, most of them in
Flagstaff, and probably 50 or so comments on Rocky Ridge. The pattern goes
something like this. Guy in late 20's is introduced to mountain biking
some 12 years after a short lived bmx career (cut short by cars and girls
and crashing hard when trying to jump 12 trash cans instead of settling for
10). Mountain biking quickly became a passion and rides either began or
finished with Rocky Ridge as I honed my bike handling skills. Back then on
a hardtail with a rigid fork 1 or two dabs was the norm and about once a
month I would clean it. Depending on direction it took about 20 to 25
minutes to ride the 3 miles of trail. Why ride up Elden Road to get to
Brookbank? In the early 90s my notes indicate 3 or 4 dabs and maybe
cleaning it once a year. The last time I cleaned it was in
1994. Eventually I stopped writing down how many times I dabbed because
the trail was becoming so technical that a few moves had become too
daunting with perhaps injury the result. It had become a 45 to 50 minute
ordeal. In the late 1990s and to date the trail had for me basically
become an early season ride and when the other trails opened up I rarely
rode it. And I certainly didn't beat myself up on it prior to climbing
Brookbank and would instead settle for spinning up Elden Road.
Thats my personal experience with R.R. and in my opinion the trail
maintenance has returned it back into the trail that existed more than a
decade ago. Trails degrade over time, especially with the ever increasing
mountain bike users and other user groups and maintenance is required. The
fact that the USFS did not consult the public or seek public input is
unfortunate but are they required to? I'm not sure. At any rate, while I
appreciated the technical problems that posed some of the unique
"character" of the trail (yes, I had my favorite rocks too) the fact that I
can ride it now without hurting myself brings me to the bigger
picture. With Elks Lodge access closed, a trail more user friendly to the
greater population of mountain bikers who are not trials riders was
probably warranted. The trail that connects the two most popular trail
networks, Oldham/Brookbank and Schultz Creek/Fort Valley, by necessity
should not be a trials course. Or should the weak and lame ride Elden Road?
One option perhaps might have been the two trails options (as pioneered by
yourself and others) on the new section of Moto trail (or is it called
upper Fort Valley or something?). I don't think that would have worked on
R.R. because the sides are too steep. And of course, since I rarely make
an appearance on any kind of trail maintenance day I don't have much of a
leg to stand on except my own opinionated viewpoint. Anyway, thats my 2
Ridingly yours,

I am an accomplished mountain biker. I’ve been using Rocky Ridge Trail for almost eight years. Never in that period have I successfully negotiated the trail without having to walk my bike in one place or another. Yesterday, I rode its entire length without so much as taking a foot off a pedal. That must mean the trail has been improved, correct? NO.
What you have done to Rocky Ridge is unacceptable. The experience of all trail users – not just mountain bikers – has been irretrievably altered. Its name was indicative of the experience that lay ahead. Now it’s a sad reminder of what once was. I live in Sedona and actively participate in trail maintenance and planning with the Red
Rock Ranger District. There has been friction here, between the land managers and the land users. I imagine the situation is similar in your district. I’ve been working hard to change that. The unfortunate decisions made regarding Rocky Ridge are a detriment to the progress that’s been made in other parts of the Coconino National Forest, and a slap in the face to the land users who care enough to participate in the planning and care of the resource.
Speaking specifically as a mountain biker, I will attempt to explain why the changes made to Rocky Ridge represent a loss. Unlike other trail user groups, mountain bikers are not necessarily concerned with the destination of the trail, but with the journey itself. Mastering the skills necessary to negotiate the challenges the trail presents IS the trail experience. There is an unwritten code among cyclists: “Don’t modify the trail.” In other words, if the trail is beyond your ability, accept it. Walk your bike where you must and ride where you can. DO NOT remove rocks, cut roots or reroute the trail in an effort to bring it down to your skill level. In addition to the obvious aesthetic and erosion problems this type of behavior can create, it also reduces the trail experience for those who have the ability to ride the obstacles. To modify a trial is an act of arrogance. It says, “If I can’t ride this, nobody can.” Obviously, not all cyclists follow this rule. Most who do not are beginners who haven’t had time to absorb good trail ethics from seasoned riders. In time, they get the message.
Unfortunately, you haven’t gotten the message. The Rocky Ridge experience is gone – forever. In addition, you have created erosion problems where they didn’t exist before. I noticed several places where the trail is now entrenched for significant distances. The rocks you removed were doing an admirable job of slowing and directing water from the trail. I don’t understand the motivation behind the destruction of this unique trail.

Just wanted to toss my $.02 into the mix...
Finally got a chance to ride RR this weekend, for the first time after the "improvement". Well, I have a hard time saying the trail is worse, but it surely isn't better, and the character of the trail is completely gone. I guess the worst part is that they removed rock. Not loose rock, but rock firmly planted in the earth. Did the have a jackhammer or what? That did the most damage to the character of the trail.
One log has already fallen onto the trail, at a point where they took too much lateral support away, an old rotten ponderosa snag fell over. Perhaps there will be a ramp to enjoy soon, before someone saws a path through it. Perhaps after a winter of freeze/thaw cycles the trail will begin to regain it's familiar terrain.
My biggest concern is what's next...will they remove rock in the same manner on Upper Brookbank, or Sunset? Are there any more trails that will be "alternate" routes for the AZ trail? If so the Forest Service needs to have some constructive input from the cycling community on why every trail does NOT need to conform to a least common denominator. Trails help preserve our character, now we need to protect the trails' character.

I've been hiking, running and riding Rocky Ridge Trail from the day it was constructed. Yes, it has always been a challenge, but the erosion problems really began when riders started avoiding the "traps and trials" that you are so dearly going to miss. Also, alot of the current erosion problems were made worse when riders ride the trail while it is still muddy and they go around the muddie trenches up onto the sides and kill the vegetation. The current work that has been done on Rocky Ridge to make it a part of the Arizona Trail will prolong the life of the trail. I was on the trail today and was amazed at the great work the trail crew is doing. The trail is now a single track again. I'm so tired of watching tracks form off the trail because people are either too lazy to get off their bikes and walk around sections that they cannot ride or just because they want to "not dab" to be macho or to get air.

Now that off road access to the Dry Lakes area is limited to Buffalo Park, work on Rocky Ridge is sorely need. Speed is not the issue in the work that is being done, safety and multi-use is. Just because a handful of "trial" riders want to keep Rocky Ridge as their private backyard trials course does make the Forest service the bad guys. They are doing a great job in preserving a unique and scenic trail for future use for all of us. I applaud the work being done.

On the morning Friday July 11, my friend and I rode Rocky Ridge up from the Schultz Creek parking lot. I'd heard that "the groomers" were coming and I was hoping to get in one or two more memorable rides. Unfortunately, we met the trail crew at about the halfway point. The trail was unrecognizable from that point on. My friend and I stopped at a nice vista just past the initiation of the "improvement". We bowed our heads and reflected during a moment of silence.
It was a sad day for those of us that worked diligently toward the day that we could '"clean" the ridge. It was a benchmark against we measured ourselves year after year.
It might be the right thing to do for a majority of the users, but it was a mighty bad day for us.

Thanks John for the "ode" to Rocky Ridge. I have walked it, but never ridden it because I knew I would fall down and hurt myself. My "bendy" days are over and I have learned to respect my current "will break if dropped" status.
Last Monday morning at the Arizona Daily Sun when D O was there talking about what was going to happen to Rocky Ridge I was not informed enough to offer up an argument.
Status of trails as to difficulty needs to be addressed somewhere in the picture
and perhaps we need to be demanding of the Forest Service that those in favor of
the difficult need to be heard BEFORE changed are made. Unfortunately, most of the non-riding general hiking public who take one look at the trail we worked on yesterday and ask "Whatever were they thinking off when they made this trail?"
Many bike riders in my category will ask the same thing. Perhaps some corrective education is needed to help the rest of us to better understand the need for the more difficult trails. Would downhill trails at the Snowbowl for summer use be a part of the solution?

I run or hike on Rocky Ridge an average of 5 days per week. The Forest Service maintenance of the trail has made it much better, in my opinion. Among the improvements are closures of ad hoc parking and camping areas, better trail definition and elimination of braided-trail sections, drainage improvements and repairs to badly eroded areas. The Forest Service should be commended for this work, and the biking community should try to see this trail in the context of its designation as a link in the Arizona Trail system.

It is too tech. for me, but it makes alot more sense to leave a rocky trail then to make a smooth one rocky(like we did last work day. Pretty dumb if you ask me. I would ride it more if I didn't have to walk so much of it. And because you asked, I think the F.S. should help not lead and never, ever make decisions about trail use.

As we learned a few weeks ago designing difficulty into a trail is difficult! Only Mother Nature seems able to do it right! I think the Forest Service should check with a user committee (formed by them) whenever they are proposing a change in a legally established trail. Changing a trail without input from the user community is not fair and creates mistrust. It was a slap in the face of our volunteer group who have been working on local trails (which is mostly trail riders who prefer difficulty) to change Rocky Ridge without discussing the proposed activity beforehand.
Bad Forest Service! Bad! Bad!


I only rode the Rocky ridge Trail once. In the condition it was in, I did not consider it a biking trail. I am glad the trail was improved.
That said, I think the Forest service should advise the trail-using community what they are doing before they do the work.



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May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey