Written by Kaitlyn Boyle
Bikes, outdoor equipment, and the collective ambition of mountain bikers have progressed so significantly in the past couple decades that with lightweight backcountry gear, capable bikes, and some determination, more people can take bikes into the farthest reaches of the landscapes. Steep, rocky singletrack, rutted, loose mountain trails, talus and scree slopes, alpine tundra, snow, and ice are all navigable with the right bike. Add in a packraft and sturdy backpack, and bikes can be carried across nearly any terrain that isn’t rideable.
But along with this freedom to roam nearly anywhere with bikes, there also are some notable limitations, as well as the onus to travel responsibly. The most substantial limitations are related to bike access as dictated by regulations and policies set by land owners and managers. The responsibility is for backcountry cyclists to travel with exceptional care to minimize our impact. Attitudes and opinions around bike access vary dramatically, and this short article discusses the current state of bike access from purely a factual perspective. It is critical that we, as a cycling community, have an understanding of these facts in order to both recreate responsibly and be able to have informed discussions about land management and access regardless of our own individual opinions. And it is on us to understand the complexities of bike access before planning trips and to reach out to the appropriate land managers with questions if there is any uncertainty about whether or not bikes are allowed to be ridden or carried (whether on your back, boat, or otherwise) on any part of your route.
Today, federal public lands in the United States comprise nearly 28% of the 2.3-billion-acre landscape of the country (see map below; for a summary on the origins of these public lands, we refer the reader to our brief history of public lands). Where bicycles can be ridden and possessed (i.e., carried or transported) varies with each agency and land designation. Four primary federal land management agencies administer 95% of these lands through a variety of land designations for a multitude of purposes. In descending order based on the total area of land managed, these agencies are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service (USFS), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the National Park Service (NPS). Bicycle access across the lands managed by these agencies varies by specific designation. On USFS and BLM lands, the least protective and restrictive designations allow bicycle travel on both motorized and non-motorized routes. On FWS administered lands, biking on dirt roads and trails is permitted as deemed compatible with a particular refuge’s statutory purpose, so some areas are open to bike access and others are not. The NPS expanded access in 2012 to allow bikes on dirt roads and singletrack as specific Park or Monument superintendents deem appropriate. There are currently more than 40 NPS-administered areas that allow bikes on dirt roads and trails.
There are three key categories of additional land designations that are important to understand with respect to bike access: (1) Wilderness, (2) pre-Wilderness, and (3) non-Wilderness special designations. These designations can be made by Congress, through the executive power of the President in the Antiquities Act, or through management at the agency level. The purpose of additional designations is generally to increase the protection of the landscape from extractive/commercial industries or other uses that threaten the landscape and/or wildlife or detracts from the area's benefit for future generations.
Understanding these three designations is important because (a) these are the most protected lands and therefore offer the most remote and wild experience for cyclists, and (b) to both protect landscapes for the health of ecosystems and future generations and bicycle access, it is our responsibility and opportunity as cyclists to understand, abide by, and intentionally advocate for conservation and bike access. The rest of this article will share how bikes do or do not generally have access to these three land categorizations. Remember, this is not an opinion piece about bike access, but rather these are the objective facts about current bike access across land designations in the U.S., written to help inform cyclists decision making, values, and advocacy.
Wilderness (and Bicycle “Possession”)
The 1964 Wilderness Act established the highest possible form of protection for lands to date in the U.S. While it is not without flaws (including Euro-centric misconceptions and racism), the Act has resulted in 750 Wilderness areas constituting 111 million acres - that equates to roughly 1/6th of all federal public lands. Among other things, the Wilderness Act prohibits both motorized and mechanized transport in Wilderness. Although subject to debate, the interpretation that has continued to be upheld in courts is that bicycles are mechanized, and therefore, the possession of bicycles in Wilderness is prohibited. Heated debates between and among legal scholars, conservation advocates, and mountain bike advocates are ongoing, but these exceed the scope of this piece. The primary takeaway here is that today, in 2021, the overarching law around bicycles in Wilderness is that they cannot be ridden, carried, or transported in or through Wilderness areas. That said, land management agencies may have discretion in interpreting whether or not a disassembled bicycle constitutes possession of a bicycle.
Many National Park units also have their own regulations and policies regarding bicycles being carried on trails that are otherwise closed to bike access, even outside of Wilderness areas. Canyonlands National Park in Utah will not issue backcountry permits for trips involving bikes being portaged on hiking trails. Grand Canyon National Park, on the other hand, allows bikes to be disassembled and packed for the 23-mile traverse of the Canyon on the Arizona Trail. This specific example is a discretionary rule established for only this one specific trail in the Park, and the exception was made possible by the advocacy work of dedicated bikepackers and the Arizona Trail Association.
Several other land designations are possible by an act of Congress or specific agencies to protect “Wilderness qualities” in a landscape. These designations essentially set the land aside to be managed similarly to Wilderness with the intention of eventually having the lands designated as Wilderness. These designations include Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs), Recommended Wilderness Areas (RWAs), and Roadless Areas (RAs). The status of bicycles in these areas depend on the governing agency and even the region within that agency.
RWAs on Forest Service land allow bicycles except on USFS Region 1 (northern ID, MT, ND, and the Black Hills of SD). The BLM has a blanket prohibition of bikes in WSAs on BLM land while Wilderness Study Areas in Wyoming are subject to a clause that allows for the continuation of historic uses in new WSAs so long as those uses do not impact Wilderness qualities. In some cases, this clause allows bicycle use on trails in WSAs to continue, such as in the Palisades Wilderness Study Area near Jackson Hole. RAs can also vary in whether or not bikes are permitted on non-motorized trails. The Lionhead RA near Yellowstone National Park is an example of where bikes have been allowed in a RA. However, when the USFS included the Lionhead in a potential new RWA, bicycle access suddenly became threatened. The outcome, after extensive advocacy by cycling organizations, was the designation of the Lionhead as a new non-motorized Backcountry Area that will both increase protections while maintaining bike access to trails.
Non-Wilderness Special Designations
There are numerous additional designations that are less restrictive than Wilderness (and less durable from the perspective of conservation permanence). Many of these have been created as alternatives to Wilderness to appease various groups or to ease management burdens of federal agencies. These designations include National Recreation Areas (NRAs), Conservation Areas, National Scenic Areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and Special Management Areas, as well as more than a dozen others. Although these designations offer flexibility in management for each individual designation, they offer no consistency for protections or access across landscapes. As a result, whether or not you can ride your bike in a National Conservation Area simply depends on the management plan for that particular area. And in some NRAs, bike access is also restricted, such as in Glen Canyon NRA where bike use is not allowed on or above the shoreline, a consideration for bikerafters. It is also worth noting that generally, National Monuments fall into the “non-Wilderness” category (although Monuments can have designated Wilderness areas within the Monument). As such, bicycle access within National Monuments depends on the management plan for each Monument and is often associated with the historical use and advocacy efforts to maintain bike access upon Monument designation.
Other public lands designations, state lands, and private lands
Finally, public lands without special federal designations may also have restrictions on where bikes can be taken. Non-motorized trails on public lands are often still closed to bike access for a wide variety of reasons, making it all the more important to carefully research trip plans. In winter months, wheeled travel over snow may also be restricted, meaning that fat bikes may not allowed even on snowmobile trails in some areas on public lands; some local snowmobile trail associations also restrict bike access.
And finally, state and privately managed lands do not fit into the federal land management umbrella, and thus, bike access in state parks, state trust lands, and private lands is at the discretion of the managers and land owners. Some state lands are not open to any public access. And private lands are rarely open to public access, although there is a gradual shift in attitude regarding recreation opportunities on private lands in some parts of the country.
Bike access is not black and white from any perspective. Moving forward with an understanding of the complexities of land management, the best decision you can make is to research the regulations of the agencies and designations for the lands you’re traveling on and near (the latter just in case you need to alter your route on the fly). Simply calling the office of the land managers should provide clear answers and an understanding of what is allowed and prohibited within your ride ambitions, as well as if any special permits may be required.
And if you want to become involved in advocacy for bike access and/or landscape conservation, advocacy organizations are a great place to start, whether that's Bikepacking Roots, the International Mountain Bike Association, the Sustainable Trails Coalition, or a regional group. These organizations, each having unique perspectives, strategies, and goals related to access, advoacy, and conservation, can keep you informed of specific opportunities and challenges, share the oftentimes lengthy backstories behind conservation and access issues, and provide specific opportunities for engagement.
To wrap up, you may read this and ask, “Geez, why even bother venturing off roads or well traveled bike-legal trails if it’s so complex?” Riding your bike in backcountry areas connects you to whole ecosystems, to less familiar places, and reveals the magnificence of the more wild and undeveloped landscapes. So we encourage you to get out there, but please do so where permitted so that as cyclists, we can continue to maintain and gain trust, respect, and access to protected lands while also supporting protections for the backcountry where we ride.
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