Trail-loving mountain bikers could drop $5-10 million a year if Payson will just build a network of looping, single-track, non-motorized trails, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Payson once had a reputation as one of the best places to ride mountain bikes in the west, but most of those trails have turned into rutted tracks suitable mostly for ATVs and quads, according to a presentation by the International Mountain Bike Association before community leaders.
Moreover, other mountain towns have already lured bikers with well-designed networks of looping, single-track trails, which follow contours to create a slope suitable for mountain bikes, horses and hikers — which also resist damaging erosion, said Mick Wolf, owner of Hike, Bike and Run. Wolf helped pull together last week’s meeting intended to convince town and community leaders to build an initial, 20-mile loop biking and hiking trail.
“We do not have well-maintained, well-marked single-track trails now,” said Evans, “but we have the potential to develop one of the most extensive and beautiful series of loop trails in the western United States.”
“We don’t have any properly designed trails,” said Wolf. “It’s like building a house without any codes — and ending up with a leaky roof. The problem with the Payson trails is they all go straight up the hill — which is a big no-no in trail design.”
Other towns have spent years developing a network of bike trails that appeal to the state’s growing ranks of mountain bikers. About one in five Americans owns a mountain bike, and many towns have been trying to cash in on the booming adventure travel segment — including people who buy $5,000 bikes and live to ride on the weekends.
“They’re the Harley Davidson riders of the bike crowd,” said Evans of the people who would drive long distances for a good bike trail. “They’re high-enders who want to come into a community, see the scenery, enjoy fine dining and return next weekend,” said Evans.
Some 55 million Americans own mountain bikes, and bikers have become one of the fastest-growing sectors in the $700 billion market for outdoor recreation.
One study concluded that Jeep and bike trails in Moab, Utah bring in about $10 million annually. A national championship endurance bike race, which had been slated to take place in Payson, was moved to Moab for lack of dedicated trails here, and drew nearly 10,000 participants, said Wolf.
Surveys of Payson visitors have repeatedly demonstrated that most come seeking outdoor recreation — the bulk of them from the Valley. The town’s Recreation and Tourism Department has been working on ways to attract those visitors, now that construction has all but collapsed, and tourism remains the anchor of the town’s economy.
The town has been working for several years to create the Payson Area Trails System, to link biking and hiking trails in town to hundreds of miles of Forest Service Trails that fan out to every corner of Rim Country. The master plan calls for building a high-quality trail through the cleared fire breaks ringing the town that connects to existing Forest Service trails. Then trails leading through town would intersect that ring, like the spokes of a wagon wheel.
However, the system so far has relied mostly on quick links to existing, minimally maintained trails. Most of those trails and virtually all of the trails in the Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest allow motorized vehicles. Trails used by quads are wider and steeper than those preferred by biker riders — and hikers for that matter. Because the ATVs can easily climb steep slopes — the trails and roads often tend to head straight up the hill. Those trails can easily become heavily eroded. Such uphill trails drive away mountain bikers and often become deeply eroded.
So far creating the PATS trails has mostly involved connecting some existing trails and putting up signs.
“From a tourism point of view, they’ve missed the big picture,” said Wolf.
Wolf said people who like to ride quads and ATVs also bring in tourist dollars and need a good trails system to enjoy.
“Motorized and nonmotorized interests should be separated,” said Wolf. “Some areas they can share the trail, but they also each need their own areas.”
Other towns in the region have spent the past decade building a network of singletrack trails. Ideally, such trails should pass through scenic areas, mix hard-core adventure stretches and areas for casual bikers and provide loops to bring riders back to their cars without backtracking. Trails for bikes should follow contours and be angled to avoid turning into rutted runoff tracks — so bike riders can make it up the hills without dismounting and carrying their bikes for long stretches. Those same qualities make trails attractive to hikers and horseback riders, said Wolf.
Communities in the White Mountains have about 180 miles of dedicated singletrack trails which form seven or eight major loops, with connections between the loops. That network took nearly 20 years to develop and probably provides the best mountain biking opportunities in Arizona right now and could be a model for Payson, said Wolf.
Sedona also has 100 to 200 miles of single-track trails, which probably lure more free-spending bike riders than any other trail system in the state. Flagstaff also has an extensive system.
Even a single, high-quality 15- to 30-mile single-track trail could become a significant tourist draw — and the down payment on a much more extensive system, said Wolf.
For instance, Globe worked with the Forest Service to develop the Six Shooter Trail, a steep, downhill thrill ride that descends about 5,000 feet in 12 miles. The Forest Service even built turnouts along the trail with ramps and jumps and other “stunt” structures. Such trails delight people with 40-pound bikes based on motorcycle technology who focus on such one-way, downhill trails, said Wolf.
Black Canyon City, off I-17, has also developed a high-quality, 65-mile-long single-track trail, that now draws riders from all over the state.
“If Black Canyon City can do it, Payson can do it,” said Wolf.
Wolf said the initial 20-mile single-track trail could be built cheaply, using lots of volunteer labor.
The chief barriers to moving quickly to create such a tourist-luring trail are Forest Service policies and potential objections by ATV riders, who fear that mountain bikers would form a lobby to ban mechanized travel on other trails as well.
The key to dealing with the objections of the off-roaders is to ensure they also have an extensive and appealing trails system — in addition to continued use of thousands of miles of Forest Service roads, said Wolf.
But developing a separate set of single-track trails also requires a change in Forest Service policy.
Currently, the Tonto National Forest is working on a Travel Management plan, in response to a national directive. The current forest rules allow mechanized vehicles to roam anywhere in the forest — not only on all the existing roads and trails but on cross-country jaunts as well.
The Forest Service ordered all the local forests to develop a plan to limit off-road travel, in response to an explosion of ATV use and the mounting ecological toll of uncontrolled use. The Tonto Forest is still working on its plan, which would ban cross country travel and ban mechanized travel on some proportion of the thousands of miles of dirt roads in the million-acre forest. Early estimates suggest that the Forest Service could close half of the existing dirt roads and tracks to mechanized travel — mostly roads through sensitive wildlife areas and roads badly damaged by erosion. Many of those roads are technically already closed — but the regulations don’t prevent off-roaders from just riding along through the forest off the posted, closed road.
Evans said that Tonto Ranger District’s Travel Management plan process could provide Payson with a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to create a single-track network based on use of the roads the Forest Service plans to close to vehicles anyway.
“With the closure of a significant portion of the forest to mechanized traffic, it presents us with an opportunity to go back to them and say — how about allowing us to put in single-track improvements that will allow for the use of this forest in a prudent and sustainable way that will generate revenue to this community and benefit the forest at large.”
Evans said he agreed with Wolf the trails system has been fragmented and damaged, and he hopes to launch an effort soon to begin building world-class trails for bikes, horses and hikers — to supplement the also vital network of trails for quad riders.
“In the next 10 days, we’ll create a working group that can come back with some plans. We have allowed these trails to deteriorate and not really provided the experience mountain bikers want. But I’ve hiked those trails and seen some of the most beautiful vistas anywhere on earth. If we can identify those that lead to those places that provide opportunities for a loop, it will be a huge boon to this community.”