Dueling warning signs posted in a Jefferson County park at Lookout Mountain — where trail conflicts arise between mountain bikers, trail runners and hikers — recently turned into a Rorschach test on friction between trail-users whose priorities are frequently at odds.
The first sign at Apex Park was placed by Jeffco Open Space, asking mountain bikers to be prepared to stop, adding, “This is not a downhill course. Expect to see hikers, dogs or wildlife.” Rangers put it there because hikers and trail runners have complained about perils posed by mountain bikers descending steep, narrow trails there at speeds they consider dangerous.
The other three signs, placed anonymously by someone assumed to be a mountain biker, were cleverly designed to look like the Jeffco sign. One called out runners or hikers who wear ear buds (“This is not a concert venue”) that prevent them from hearing others around them. Another trolled dog owners who don’t pick up after their pets. A third made a snarky comment about the way Jeffco Open Space regulates the direction of mountain bike traffic on certain days.
Rangers removed the bogus signs, but a photo that was taken before their removal and posted on Facebook neatly reflected the friction, if not outright animosity, between users who move at different speeds on single-track trails and inevitably get in each other’s way.
Jeffco Open Space has 244 miles of trails in 27 parks, nearly all of them in the foothills or in the shadow of them. Jeffco Open Space is the metro area’s backyard, attracting an estimated seven million users annually, but some don’t play well with others.
“One of the things we find, they tend to come only thinking about their park experience, what they want to do, what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it,” said Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager for Jeffco Open Space. “We have seven million visitors, so coming to a park with a mindset of just my visit is not going to work. You are going to encounter other people. When we think about courtesy on the trail, we think about: Are people being empathetic to the other person’s experience? Are they thinking about what impact their actions and behaviors have on other people?”
Most of the people on the trails manage to find ways to tolerate each other — Bonnell said her staff estimates there’s only about 4% of each user group causing problems. But getting along means accepting that if you’re a runner, you’re probably going to have to step aside and let mountain bikers through on single track trails, just as the hikers step aside for runners. It means having realistic expectations.
“I have a gentleman who walks at Flying J (Ranch Park), and he simply does not want to see another cyclist,” Bonnell said. “I’m like, ‘That’s not going to be the case on most days. You are probably going to encounter a mountain biker on the trail. Letting that ruin your day is probably not a realistic expectation.’ These are the conversations we have, and I get it, he wants to have a walk, he doesn’t want to have to move off the trail, he doesn’t like the noise, the speed. But going into the park with grump mode — where you’ve already decided if a mountain biker passes you, you’re going to be frustrated or upset — that’s a recipe for disappointment.”
Mountain biker Chris Schieffer — a Golden woman who took pictures of the Jeffco signs, both official and satirical, and posted them on Facebook — also is a runner and hiker, so she understands the sensitivities of all three groups.
“I thought that was Jeffco adding signs to the first signs about mountain bikers,” Schieffer said. “When I really started reading them, they sounded a little too sarcastic for a government agency to be putting up. Then I saw a number at the bottom was 303-123-4567, and at the bottom it said ‘Jefferson Airplane Fan Club.’ I realized they were fake, but I didn’t think they were without some sort of merit. The value I saw was, ‘Hey, guess what, common courtesy from everyone should be expected.’ It’s not just one group.”
That’s true, and Schieffer came across as a reasonable person who truly wants everybody to get along. There are reasons Jeffco saw a need to plant that sign, though.
“One of the things we hear,” Bonnell said, “is that the mountain bike community feels singled out, like, ‘Why are you just harping on us?’ That is a valid concern, because the sign does very specifically call out the mountain bike community. I liken it to I-70. When you’re traveling down I-70 and you’re heading into those tight turns, what does the sign say? ‘Truckers, slow down, use low gear.’ It’s a very specific message to a very specific safety concern. We put those signs up in that same spirit … hearing from visitors that the downhill riding is dangerous. We’ve had people hit, we’ve had people nearly hit, we’ve had people approach a ranger and shout expletives expecting them to get out of the way.
“We get it, that visitor group feels like they are being singled out,” Bonnell said. “They are, because we keep getting complaints about that behavior.”
Common ways to get fined at Jeffco Open Space
Jeffco Open Space has a long list of regulations governing the use of its parks with power of enforcement that includes fines. Here are a few of them:
Rules regarding yielding on trails: “It shall be unlawful to fail to yield on Open Space trails. Yielding Order: When passing from any direction on Open Space trails, all visitors must give the right-of-way to equestrians; bicyclists and other wheeled visitors (except wheelchair visitors) must also give the right-of-way to pedestrians.” Fine: $50.
Rules regarding passing on trails: “It shall be unlawful to fail to pass safely on Open Space trails. At no less than 15 feet of approach from any direction, slow to a walking speed, communicate and gain the attention of other visitors. Pass safely, in single file and when oncoming traffic is clear. Stop when necessary to allow safe passage.” Fine: $50.
Under the heading of “hazardous activity,” careless behavior is punishable by a fine of $125. The fine for reckless behavior is $250.
Under the heading of “interference,” hindering the official duties of rangers, failing to reply to lawful requests, harassing or fleeing from rangers is punishable by a fine of $200.
Violating closed areas is punishable by a $75 fine.
Dogs must be on leashes — also a $75 fine.
Dog waste must be picked up “immediately” and carried out — not doing so could result in a $75 fine.
According to Jeffco Open Space regulations, mountain bikers are supposed to yield to hikers and runners, but in practice, that doesn’t always make the most sense. When I’m trail running, I step aside on single-track trails and let mountain bikers pass because if I don’t, there may not be a place for them to safely get around me for a mile or more.
“There are rules, and then there is respectful behavior,” Bonnell said. “Can you, as a runner, let go of the pace for a second and let that person go by? Is there a way to scootch a little bit more to the right, and maybe the rider slows down enough that you two can eke past each other with some communication? Is that the respectful and cool thing to do?”
Yes it is. Even the 10th time you do it on a one-hour run.
“The amount of people on the trail is not going to change, therefore we all have to be a little courteous,” said Schieffer, who lives near North Table Mountain Park and bikes there often. “I would expect people to know what the rules of the trail are, which is actually that mountain bikers stop, that they take a step back. There are places where that’s not possible. I try to stop and be courteous for runners because I’m also a runner. I realize it’s just as easy for me to stop on sections of North Table that are pretty flat. Why would I blow by someone? It’s not a race course.”
In my experience, many of the mountain bikers I encounter at North Table seem to be going out of their way to be pleasant and polite.
“The reason being, we’ve had to fight as a group very hard to have any access,” Schieffer said. “Our access is threatened constantly. If Jeffco goes awry and they do a study and so many people complain about mountain bikers, they can totally shut off all the trails to mountain biking.”
As a mountain biker, Schieffer said, she feels the need to be courteous, because her access is always at risk.
“My access as a hiker or a runner is not at risk,” she said. “There are always people in groups who are (jerks). I don’t want someone labeling the entire group because one person was a jerk, so I am always trying to counteract that. I do get that sense in the mountain biking community in general — that we feel the need to be overly courteous to make up for anyone who is not.”