Colin Zucchi fell hard for mountain biking. It gave him the opportunity to be in nature while jumping over rocks and whatever else might crop up on a trail.
It was fast and got his adrenaline pumping.
As a teen not old enough to drive, however, he was miles away from the region’s mountain biking trails. So he and three friends started making their own trail in a wooded area just off of the Warwick to Ephrata Rail Trail.
The paths they slowly created with hedge clippers caught the eye of Kelly Withum, the executive director of the Ephrata Borough economic development organization.
What a great idea, she said.
Their bike trails are now part of Heatherwood Bike Park, which is taking shape this summer with the approval of borough officials. And the volunteers working on the bike park have a lot more resources than hedge clippers.
Volunteers with a local mountain biking group are clearing brush weekly and soon will add obstacles. A crowdsourced fundraiser and a collaboration beer from Ephrata’s three craft breweries are helping to pay for the park.
As it takes form, the park has already evolved beyond what those four friends who cleared those first trails imagined. And organizers are pushing for it to be part of something even bigger for mountain biking in Ephrata and Lancaster County.
“There’s a lot of mountain bikers in Lancaster County but no mountain biking,” says Nick Loftus, president of Susquehanna Area Mountain Bike Association. “I hope this sparks more of a mountain biking network in the community and becomes a central gathering place for riders.”
A place to learn
When finished, the park will have three areas for cyclists of different skill levels.
A pump track teaches how to ride over an uneven surface and will be open to cyclists as young as 2 years old with balance bikes.
A skills area includes obstacles like log crossings, rocks and skinnies (wooden beams, roughly 6 inches or less in width, raised off the ground).
And there will be a one-mile single-track loop trail for beginners and experienced riders.
The pump track and skills area are new to the region. The closest skills trail is in Delaware, says Matt Knepper, of the mountain bike association. The closest pump track is in Philadelphia.
The trail will be one of just a few mountain bike courses open to the public in the county. The mountain bike association builds and maintains trails around Harrisburg, including 15 miles at Camp Mack in northern Lancaster County. Cyclists also ride on a hiking trail in Lancaster County Park and a cyclo-cross course at Rock Lititz, but they aren’t courses made for mountain biking.
“That’s something that we’re trying to change,” says Loftus, president of the mountain bike association.
Loftus, who lives in Hershey and works in Lancaster County, likes that Ephrata’s park is close to residential areas and schools. The group’s newest trails in Harrisburg and Hershey, which also are not isolated, have proven popular.
“By having these smaller trail networks in places that are more accessible, we’re finding that people are using them,” he says.
Improving a park
The under-construction Heatherwood Bike Park is next to the Warwick to Ephrata Rail Trail. The final link in the seven-mile rail trail was finished this winter when a newly renovated bridge opened.
Rail trails are big economic drivers, says Withum, executive director of Mainspring, Ephrata’s community and economic development group. However, the wooded area where the bike park is being built didn’t have the best reputation, she says.
“I didn’t want to have negative space next to this positive economic driver,” she says. “What can we do to improve upon this park?”
Part of Mainspring’s strategy is to grow tourism in Ephrata. The group doesn’t want to become the next Hershey but there is room to grow, Withum says. A bike park would improve the space and bring in cyclists from around the region.
Cyclists like Paul McFarland wouldn’t have to travel far. McFarland lives in the Brickyard neighborhood next to the park and is on the trail a few times each week with his family.
“We’ve very excited, (about the bike park),” he says, as three of his children ride their bikes on the sidewalk in front of their home.
McFarland has tackled mountain biking trails in Alaska during his time in the National Guard. He likes that the bike park will have different areas for different skill levels and already has donated to the park fundraiser.
“It’s another opportunity to be outdoors,” he says.
A young start
After Withum spotted the homemade mountain bike course, she learned it was the work of Zucchi, Eric Willetts, Justin Wingenroth and Aaron Hershberger, who are now rising sophomores at Ephrata High School. She started a committee in the winter and asked the students to join.
The mountain bike association also joined, and Matt Knepper, a cyclist from Manheim Township, designed the course’s climbs, downhills, bridges and jump line.
Mainspring handled approvals from the borough, which owns the 20-acre parcel.
So far, a GoFundMe fundraiser has brought in more than $3,200 of the $8,500 goal for the obstacles, signs, trash cans and benches.
Also, Ephrata’s three breweries collaborated on a beer, Ales for Trails. All proceeds from the beer will go to the bike park. It’s on tap at Black Forest Brewery, St. Boniface Craft Brewing Co. and Pour Man’s Brewing Co.
More mountain biking
A few weeks ago, groups of volunteers started clearing brush and removing trash on weekends. They’ll soon add a bridge over the creek and build obstacles like drop-offs.
Organizers hope to open the park in September.
Zucchi, who spent about six months with his friends making their own trail, says he’s excited.
“There’s nothing like this around here,” he says.
When school starts, Zucchi plans to start a mountain bike club to ride after school and on the weekend. He hopes to grow that into a team that practices at Heatherwood and competes.
While the park hasn’t opened yet, the mountain bike group sees potential for more mountain biking in the area.
“We’re looking to go beyond this bike park and build more trails on Ephrata Mountain,” Loftus says.