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.
At Bikepacking Roots, our mission includes “advocating for the landscapes through which we ride.” Indigenous peoples are an integral part of the future, present, and past landscapes in U.S. America. Thus, as advocates for a healthy, vibrant, and whole Western landscape, we are responsible for communicating and educating ourselves, our members, and the riders of the routes we design in a way that progresses Indigenous liberation from colonial trauma. With that intent, we’re announcing the renaming of the 2,700-mile-long Wild West Route to the Western Wildlands Route.
Our goal in designing and naming this route was to celebrate the landscape that characterizes the Intermountain West - a landscape that consists of large swaths of public lands, large areas with minimal human development, and a diverse social landscape. Unfortunately, in choosing the “Wild West Route” for a name, we largely missed our targeted connotation that comes with a name. The Wild West in the context of United States history is strewn with a history of violence, forced removal, land theft, colonization, and attempted erasure of Indigenous existence. Thus, we now recognize that rather than inspire an appreciation of the Western landscape, the name “Wild West Route” is inspiring backwards progress in decolonizing and undoing Indigenous erasure.
Renee Hutchens, a member of the Diné (Navajo) Tribe, reached out to us and shared her perspective on why the name of this route needed to be changed. “This route was set out to be about experiencing the land through bikepacking,” says Hutchens. “But the fact is, words that are rooted in colonialism can make their way into the everyday language and how we think. Wild West shows were performed across North America and Europe from the late 1800s into the 20th century and dramatized Indian attacks on stagecoaches and cabins. One of the most popular was Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ where Native peoples were put on stage for show to enact mock battles, and the ‘savage Indian’ character was popularized while audiences watched. These shows, and related influences, inspired filmmakers to produce Western movies that romanticized the story about how the West was won. The truth is the West was actually ‘won’ through violence, forced removal, and genocide of Indigenous peoples.”
Hutchen’s lengthier, valuable, and powerful perspective is shared below - we strongly encourage everyone to take the time to read and reflect upon it.
We apologize for any harmful impact and trauma that the former name has caused. Bikepacking Roots is committed to seeking the input and voices of Indigenous peoples in the future as we name our work, write about landscapes, and advocate for lands. The new name, the Western Wildlands Route, is intended to inspire an appreciation of the entire landscape that comprises the Intermountain West, including the Indigenous stories, peoples and perspectives that shape the future, present, and past of the lands upon which we ride. And we all need to recognize that “wild” places need not be characterized by the absence of people - Indigenous groups have lived in harmony with and as stewards of these lands for thousands of years.
Please join us in celebrating the Western wildlands, including the people who first called these lands home, by adopting the new route name today.
An Indigenous perspective on the “Wild West” from Renee Hutchens
When I first read the name, the “Wild West Route” my mind went numb as I paused. This pause was so long it felt like I couldn’t move through it. I could not even finish reading the sentence or context within which it was written. In fact, I didn’t care to because whatever it was about, I wanted nothing to do with it. This is why words matter. Reading these words felt like trying to move through trauma on top of historical trauma. I immediately knew it was important to bring my experience and perspective to the attention of the Bikepacking Roots leadership. I remember saying, “as the name stands right now, I will never ride that route.” In the meantime, while I didn’t care to ride the route, others went on riding the route. I knew because I kept reading stories on social media tagged with the hashtag and stories in media outlets that celebrated bikepacker’s experience on the Wild West Route. What stood out to me in these unfolding stories was a deeply rooted colonial narrative. It became apparent that these stories reinforced narratives that continue the legacy of colonialism and remove Indigenous peoples’ voices in the discourse of bikepacking.
Wild West shows were performed across North America and Europe from the late 1800s into the 20th century and dramatized Indian attacks on stagecoaches and cabins. One of the most popular was Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ where Native peoples were put on stage for show to enact mock battles, and the ‘savage Indian’ character was popularized while audiences watched. These shows, and related influences, inspired filmmakers to produce Western movies that romanticized the story about how the West was won. The truth is the West was actually “won” through violence, forced removal and genocide of Indigenous peoples. These are the stories that played in my mind in that long pause as I read the words “Wild West Route.” I was deeply grieved to see a route with this name cross 100+ miles of my Navajo homeland. Every story I’ve read since this route was released felt like I was reading a romanticized Hollywood story about “cowboys and Indians,” but it was supposed to be about bikepacking.
Something inside of me wanted to yell, “stop reinforcing colonial narratives on sacred land.” You see, names aren’t always intended to cause harm. This route was set out to be about experiencing the land through bikepacking. But the fact is, words that are rooted in colonialism can make their way into the everyday language and how we think. To prevent harm, words and biases must be critically examined and Indigenous peoples intentionally included or engaged in discussions. It was clear the “Wild West Route” triggered something much deeper beyond some catchy words. This name conveys historical trauma, forced cultural assimilation, and a legacy of colonization that aimed to eradicate Indigenous peoples all together. I grew up near Monument Valley. My grandpa and I would go there often to visit my grandma in her hogan. I would listen to stories as she wove many rugs. I realized from a young age how much this place meant to my Diné people and our culture. People often ask me, “where’s that?” I do my best to give them geographic references and they still look at me puzzled. I finally tell them, “you know the place that appeared in all those western movies?” Immediately they nod their head. It grieves me that a beautiful and powerful place, such as Monument Valley has become narrowed down to an iconic symbol for Western cinema. It’s clear how stories, even Hollywood stories can impact the way we relate and think about the land and the peoples Indigenous to the land.
Names of routes are no different because words are what make up the power of narratives that impact our relationships to anything, anyone, or any place. I want to challenge the cycling industry to do better and be more intentional when it comes to names or words used in routes, cycling events, marketing slogans, and products. Words are powerful because they can either perpetuate Indigenous erasure or promote inclusivity of Indigenous peoples and their experiences. Unsure at first where my conversations would end up about the problematic name of the “Wild West Route,” I am glad to say they eventually led to more productive conversations, and the decision to change the name of the route.
The 2020 election is just 2 weeks away, and voting is ongoing in many states already. Over the past 4 years, the United States has been subject to leadership that has rolled back environmental protections and exacerbated social justice issues that negatively impact the health of the nation, the landscape of the U.S., the global climate, and the experiences of bikepackers.
We ask that you vote in this election; all races are important to bring leadership around the U.S. that will lead the country toward a socially and environmentally healthy landscape.
Below, we share some of the issues relevant to all bikepackers that your vote can impact.
Use your vote to elect federal and state officials who will bring Indigenous leadership to land management.
The reduction of numerous National Monuments in 2017 was one of President Trump’s first major attacks on the environment and the American people. President Obama’s 2016 designation of Bears Ears National Monument marked the first time in history that a National Monument was created in response to the voices and advocacy of the Indigenous groups who call the landscape home. The language of Obama’s Presidential proclamation that designated Bears Ears National Monument took a step toward building more inclusive land management practices by including the voice of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition in collaborating on the National Monument designation and management. The language recognizes that Native Americans still use the land today and acknowledges that Native presence isn’t just a historical fact - it’s a present-day reality of the diversity of the United States.
A critical step toward rectifying Indegenous erasure and colonialism is centering Indigenous voices and perspectives in land management. Bears Ears National Monument was a step in that direction, but that was undone by President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke.
Bears Ears is on the ancestral lands of the Hopi Tribe, Diné (Navajo), Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Zuni Pueblo. Artwork above by Renee Hutchens.
Use your vote to elect federal and local officials who will recognize and address the devastating legacy of uranium mining on the people and landscape of the Colorado Plateau.
There is a long history of radioactive contamination from uranium mines across the Colorado Plateau. The toxicity of uranium has caused extensive illness and death across Native communities in the Southwest. Many communities located near abandoned uranium mines have also been directly affected by groundwater contamination, and this is not a historic issue - it is very much a current one! After a legacy of uranium-caused cancer, birth defects, and death across Navajo Nation, it is unacceptable for a uranium mine to be negotiated just outside Grand Canyon National Park, where contaminated groundwater will poison the water source of the Havasupai people.
Use your vote for roadless areas in National Forests, backcountry experiences, and the Traditional Homelands Conservation Rule.
The Roadless Rule is a conservation tool to protect National Forests from road development that comes with extractive development such as logging and mining. Just last month, President Trump stripped the Tongass National Forest from the protections granted through the Roadless Rule. Not only is the Tongass the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, it provides critical wildlife habitat, resources on ancestral lands to 11 Native tribes, and world-class recreation, but the amount of carbon dioxide the Tongass can sequester makes it critical in combating climate change. None of the tribes recommended a full repeal of the Roadless Rule, and around 95% of public comments opposed complete exemption.
Unlike more restrictive conservation measures, the Roadless Rule allows for mountain biking and winter grooming in conjunction with natural resource protections. Trump’s undoing of the Tongass protection by the Roadless Rule is threatening in setting a precedent for future undoing of the Roadless Rule. In addition to the ecosystem and climate services of undeveloped forests, roadless areas provide bikepackers with more remote, less-developed backcountry experiences - a value bikepackers in our 2019 Bikepacking Community Survey highlighted as an important part of the bikepacking experience.
The Tongass National Forest is on the lands of Tlingit and Haida. Photo above of mountain biking in Idaho's Lionhead Roadless Area (photo by Will Stubblefield).
Use your vote to elect federal and state officials who will take action to address climate change and bring Native peoples into co-management of forests and wildfire.
The western US has seen record-breaking wildfire this year. Wildfires across most western states have had devastating impacts on communities, watersheds, wildlife habitat, air quality, and recreation. Healthy air, water, ecosystems, and human communities are vital to the future of the West. Climate change is undeniably contributing to these increasingly widespread and severe fires - drought, beetle infestations, and record temperatures. Coupled with climate-related factors, more than a century of fire suppression has led to unprecedented fire-prone forests that are often choked with overgrowth.
Co-management of forests and wildfire between state, federal, and Tribal leaders offers the future of the western landscape a glimmer of hope. Indigenous peoples have been practicing ceremonial and traditional burning to mitigate extreme wildfires and cultivate desired plants for harvesting and attracting game. After 200 years of banned traditional burning, allowing tribes to return to their ancestral lands to practice controlled burning is an opportunity for co-management of forests.
The Karuk and Yaruk tribes in Northern California have partnered with the Forest Service to manage lands for traditional purposes concurrently with wildfire management. This is just one example of Indigenous/Federal collaboration in land management for the future health of the landscape.
Photo above of 2020 wildfire aftermath along the Arizona Trail (photo courtesy of Arizona Trail Association).
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), Blackburn Designs and Bikepacking Roots announced a new partnership that establishes a bikepacking curriculum and traveling gear library for NICA student-athletes and coaches. Bikepacking Roots is providing the on-trail expertise and Blackburn is providing the funding and bikepacking kit for 20 riders.
“At Bikepacking Roots, we’re passionate about facilitating human-powered adventures in wild places and reducing barriers to those sorts of empowering experiences. I’ve watched the remarkable transformation new bikepackers go through in just a handful of short bikepacking trips, and I couldn’t be more excited to partner with NICA and Blackburn to create such an opportunity for kids across the United States,” shares Bikepacking Roots executive director, Kurt Refsnider, Ph.D.
The curriculum for this new bikepacking program will be created by Bikepacking Roots' education team, led by Kaitlyn Boyle, M.S. Boyle has more than a decade of experience in adventure education and curriculum design and has taught for Prescott College, NOLS, and Outward Bound.
“We’ve been looking to get more involved with the future of bikepacking for the past few years,” said Blackburn marketing manager Dan Powell. “This partnership with NICA came up after the release of a video project ‘Wild Virtue’ we sponsored, and we felt like this was the opportunity we’d been waiting for. We’re very proud to be working with these two organizations.”
Stay tuned for more later in the summer of 2020 as this partnership develops and begins getting kids out on the ground for their first bikepacking adventures!
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