Separate and Not Equal

Equal access to multi-use trails builds a strong and vibrant community, so why doesn’t this exist in the birthplace of mountain biking?

By Kurt Gensheimer

There is a strange dynamic between mountain bikers and park rangers in Marin. The fact that this ranger declined to have his photo taken with them indicates a serious image problem. Photo: James Adamson/

Davey Simon grew up an outlaw on the hallowed grounds of mountain biking’s birth, Marin County. He wasn’t an outlaw because he shoplifted or vandalized public property. He never spent time in a juvenile detention. He was a straight-A student. Simon was an outlaw because he rode his bicycle on public trails built on public land for public use. In most parts of the country, mountain biking on public lands is completely legal, but in Marin County, gaining equal trail access has been a decades-long struggle that continues to this day.

Now in his late thirties, Simon has been doing a lot less mountain biking than he used to. When he’s not busy with his career as a professional pilot, Simon is working hard on helping build projects like Tamarancho Flow Trail, developing youth cycling programs and joining other mountain bike advocates at Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) meetings regarding the Road and Trails Management Plan (RTMP).

Davey Simon (center) after a long day of work helping build the Tamarancho flow trail.

This type of exclusion is nothing new for Marin residents and mountain bikers like Simon. According to local trails advocacy group Access4Bikes, out of 177 miles of trail on MCOSD lands, only 10.9 miles – or a paltry 15 percent – is legal for mountain bikes. Especially confusing when looking at a recent MCOSD survey conducted at a trailhead not open to bikes, showing mountain bikers as the second biggest user group behind hikers. Even more confusing is the fact that equestrians account for less than one percent of users, yet they have access to 88 percent of MCOSD trails. And Simon is convinced that if the survey were conducted at a trail open to all users, mountain bikers would be the majority.Passed in December 2014, the RTMP is the biggest land-use revision in MCOSD history; serving as a future roadmap as the county comprehensively updates trail access standards. And for the first time ever, the RTMP includes mountain bikers as a user group. Before the RTMP’s passing only a few months ago, the birthplace of mountain biking automatically outlawed bikes on all public trails unless it was signed specifically as a bike-legal trail.

“The mission statement of Marin County Parks specifically states ‘…providing recreational opportunities for the enjoyment of all generations,’ but the numbers speak for themselves,” said Simon. “In Marin County, dogs have more access to public land than mountain bikers do, which would be a depressing fact if it wasn’t so funny.”

The guts of A4B’s work: in the trenches at a Board of Supervisors meeting advocating for more trails. A4B board member Andrew Galbraith.

The reason why is complicated to say the least, and has been a paralyzing source of frustration for Marin mountain bike advocacy organization, Access4Bikes. Mountain bike advocates have worked tirelessly for years to try and bring this anti-mountain bike sentiment to light, but it seems for every step forward that mountain bikers take, something happens that pushes them two steps back.

“For decades, opponents of mountain bikes cried they were environmentally destructive, but numerous third-party studies have completely disproven the issue of environmental destruction,” said Vernon Huffman, Access4Bikes President. “The truth is; water and runoff does more damage than any user group can. The solution isn’t banning a user group; it’s building sustainable multi-use trails with good drainage.”

Once Huffman and mountain bike advocates in Marin presented these third-party environmental studies to the MCOSD, thinking they successfully put the issue to bed, another curveball came their way from mountain bike opponents.

“Suddenly the story went from environmental destruction to a safety issue,” said Huffman. “Opponents claimed that mountain biking was a dangerous activity that put other trail users at risk.”

Access4Bikes looked further into the safety claim brought up by the Marin Conservation League (MCL) and Marin Horse Council (MHC), and after pulling five-years of filed trail-use incidents from the MCOSD, they could only find a single incident that involved a couple of mountain bikers and equestrians. The only problem was the mountain bikers weren’t mountain bikers; they were pre-teen kids on BMX bikes.

In a story that blew up publicly, two women were riding rented horses on Big Trees Trail near Willow Tree Stables in Novato – a trail illegal to mountain biking – when they encountered two alleged mountain bikers who allegedly whipped past them without stopping. One of the horses was spooked and threw its rider, resulting in spinal injuries to the rider, sending her by helicopter to the hospital.

“It was the absolute worst timing and the perfect fuel opponents needed to stoke the safety issue fire,” said Huffman. “The real tragedy is, these riders weren’t even mountain bikers. They were just some kids.”

But this wasn’t the only incident with horses on Big Trees Trail. Only a year previous, an almost identical incident happened involving a loose dog that spooked two horses, sending their riders to the hospital with injuries. But because the incident involved a dog and not bikes, the story was quickly and conveniently forgotten.

“Equestrians have the responsibility of properly training their horses before taking to any public trails,” said Jackson Ratcliffe of Access4Bikes. “A properly trained animal weighing nearly a thousand pounds with a mind of its own shouldn’t be so easily spooked by children or a dog, and if it is, the burden of safety should fall on the horses’ owners, not other trail users.”

Despite showing only a single trail user conflict in five years of filed incidents through the MCOSD – a conflict that was wrongfully pinned on mountain bikes – the nonexistent safety issue has become the biggest hurdle for mountain bike advocates in Marin. And why the MCOSD continues to entertain these unfounded safety claims by the MCL and MHC dumbfounds avid mountain bikers like Simon.

From the Marin IJ editorial staff. Our hope is that this is fiction not fact.

From the Marin IJ editorial staff. Our hope is that this is fiction not fact.

“After laying all the facts out on the table, the only conclusion a sensible person can make is that the MCOSD has a strong and passionate bias against mountain bikers,” said Simon.

The incidents at Willow Tree Stables spurned further investigation. Willow Tree Stables is one of a handful of horse ranches operating for-profit trail riding businesses on MCOSD land. In order to operate on public lands, there are a series of permits that must be secured. Access4Bikes examined the permits on file and made an interesting discovery. Out of five stables publicly advertising trail rides, none of them had commercial use permits. Operating without a permit is a misdemeanor offense with huge associated fines.

When presented to the MCOSD, they responded using the ongoing RTMP process as the reason why they were not following established Marin County Code of Ordinances, stating “We have given notice to the stables and tour operators that at some date in the near future we will engage them and others in a process to set up this system.”

“I have never heard of a single ranger ever stopping a group of horses to check and see if they have their permits,” said Simon. “But if mountain bikers are seen on an illegal trail, suddenly a gaggle of rangers give chase on ATVs. Is this really how we should be spending tax dollars? How about we start by making sure every commercial operation doing business on public land is paying for their use of it.”

After a painfully drawn-out, four year long process, Huffman is “carefully optimistic” of the RTMP outcome, considering it a crucial step for Access4Bikes in the eventual achievement of equal and rightful mountain bike access. Simon, on the other hand, isn’t so sure.

“Trail users opposed to expanded mountain bike access are scared,” said Simon. “For decades they’ve had exclusive access to public lands and they can’t possibly accept the concept of having to share, so they will continue to publicly paint mountain bikes in a negative light.”

Our Dream. Only one trail exists like this in the entire county and it is a model to be shared.

Our Dream. Only one trail exists like this in the entire county and it is a model to be shared.

Although Access4Bikes was able to overturn some specific anti-mountain bike legislation proposed in the RTMP, bike advocates suffered a big hit with the closing of access on all existing social trails. Social trails typically start as game trails, and over time, become adopted by hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. Because there are so many miles of social trails in Marin County, classification and enforcement was nearly impossible. For mountain bikers who knew the law, it was the last sanctuary of singletrack riding they could enjoy without risk of being ticketed.

The RTMP now states that all social trails are off-limits to both mountain bikes and equestrians; a huge loss in Simon’s view of what little singletrack access there previously was. The only saving grace is that the RTMP is not a decision; it’s a template and guideline for the future that’s open to interpretation. But considering the historical track record of access to public lands in Marin County, Simon thinks mountain bikers shouldn’t be celebrating victory anytime soon.

“Based purely on their mission statement of ‘…providing recreational opportunities for the enjoyment of all generations,’ the MCOSD is failing to fulfill their duties as a public agency. How much longer can this continue?”

Now that the RTMP is complete and work has already begun on reclassifying trails in the MCOSD, the next big challenge for Access4Bikes lies within the Marin Municipal Water District. As the largest landowner in Marin with the most trails, MMWD does not have a single legal trail for bikes.

“It’s the Holy Grail,” said Huffman. “And we’re going to make sure that all MMWD directors elected understand our position.”

Carrot Fest photo courtesy Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz.

Carrot Fest photo courtesy Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz.

Getting Along
By Michele Lamelin

In Santa Cruz County there is a long history of cooperation between the equestrian and mountain biking communities. Both groups recognize that by working together, they can promote enjoyment of the outdoors in a safe and harmonious manner. This isn’t to say it’s all a bed of roses. Occasionally there’s a flurry of frustration vented on the mountain bike forums about “road apples” on the trail. And there is the sporadic incident of a disrespectful mountain biker who leaves a horseman fuming.

But by and large, the spirit of cooperation runs high and is a source of pride between user groups in the Santa Cruz area. Local mountain bikers are sensitive to supporting equestrians on the trail, with seasoned riders educating those new to the sport about right of way and what to do when encountering a horse. “Horse up!” is followed by mountain bikers moving swiftly but calmly to the downside of the trail so the horse can comfortably pass by. “Have a good ride!” and smiles are bandied about, and each user group continues on their way after a considerate exchange.

Chloe Pelot, who rehabilitates horses at Mending Hearts Horse Advocacy in Felton, points out the importance of preparing a horse for any situation, whether a mountain biker is coming down the trail, the wind picks up and branch comes down, or any myriad of things that can spook a horse. Chloe explains, “It’s important to understand your horse from his perspective as a herd and prey animal, and to take responsibility for working with him in a way that helps him feel confident and secure in all situations.”

Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBoSC) Equestrian Liaison Lindsay Overton is an ardent mountain biker who also volunteers as horse patrol for California State Parks and is a member of the Santa Cruz County Horseman’s Association (SCCHA). Lindsay points out that a number of Santa Cruz equestrians are also mountain bikers, with more joining those ranks regularly. She explains how equestrians and mountain bikers recently joined forces to get a new multi-use, family-friendly trail approved and constructed in the heart of Santa Cruz. Lindsay credits the trail’s namesake—local trail building legend and avid equestrian Emma McCrary—for inspiring the harmony on Santa Cruz trails, saying “Trail blazer Emma McCrary devoted her life to developing trails in the Santa Cruz area for ALL to enjoy. Her spirit lives on in the cooperative relationship between our local mountain biking and equestrian communities.” AS_Logo1

Facebook Comments


  1. Steve

    Marin bikers have proven repeatedly that they cannot navigate a stop sign responsibly. Additionally, they give not a shit that they literally put equestrians lives in danger with thier irresponsible trail behavior. There are many factors involved, but be aware that car drivers and equestrians and disgusted by the acts we see every day from these people.

  2. Sam Brown-Shaklee

    Great article! As a transplant to the East Bay from Central New York State I was shocked at how awful the trail access for mountain bikes is around here. I came from a town where the wait period between a “light bulb” moment for a new trail and the first build day was usually about 3 weeks. Here it’s tough just to find the right people who have permission to build (or even maintain) singletrack.

    One thing: Check the math on the 3rd paragraph. 10.9 miles is not 15 percent of 177. Cheers!

  3. michael dux

    citizens arrest for the illegal horse tourists… horses do damage wet or dry with steel shoes digging up the trails… arrogant horse riders refuse to clean the horse shit from the trails and roads so just throw it at them…

  4. Hunter S

    Not surprised to see bigotry like yours spring up in the comments Steve. You can make things up, generalize millions of unique and very different individuals -whose only commonality is that they ride bikes- with baseless “facts,” lies, selected observations, and hateful innuendo, and spew your insults and invective all you want, but everyone can tell that you’re just an angry individual with nothing better to do. Thankfully, there are very few people out there like you, and your type of hate is easy to recognize and easy to overcome.

  5. Trent

    Steve, irresponsible equestrians put themselves and all other trail users in danger by riding 1000 lb animals with minds of their own that are untrained to the conditions they will encounter. That doesn’t even factor in the riders not trained to handle varying trail conditions. The onus of safety should not be on all other users of the trail if one user is using an inherently unsafe mode of transport, i.e. horses. I have brakes and they work every time in pull the levers. you can’t say the same of an untrained horse. I am disgusted by the dangerous behavior I see enacted by irresponsible drivers every day, speeding, rolling stop signs, making unsafe passes. It’s literally criminal.

  6. Katie

    Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda.
    Mt. bike tires & fast riding & skidding, absolutely digs up the dirt on most trails, that, then washes down hillsides with the rains.
    Many Mt. bikers have little to no regard for others safety on the trails. There are cases of injuries to others. Much goes unreported.
    Equestrians go out of their way to accomodate bikes, & do train horses for trail use.
    Growing up & becoming a pilot apparently has not turned a whiny boy into a man. I would venture to say, his working with children is not altruistic, but only serves selfishly for the activity.
    As for the author of this pathetic article, sounds to me like he is speaking a fact about the boys on BMX bikes in the incident with equestrians?? Curious as to how he is so sure it is young boys on BMX bikes when they have never come forward, as far as I know.
    No, ….once a whining mt biker, always a whining mt biker.

  7. Ian


    You might want to read the article instead of spouting off whatever you “feel” is happening with mountain bikers and other cyclists…

    “…after pulling five-years of filed trail-use incidents from the MCOSD, they could only find a single incident that involved a couple of mountain bikers and equestrians.” Tell me again how equestrian lives are in danger.

  8. JD

    1. Horses are giant, unpredictable, uncontrollable prey animals that are a danger to everyone on the trails and have no place on singletrack near any kind of sizable human population. Their time is numbered…

    2. We really need to stop calling Marin “the birthplace of mountain biking”, as it started in Europe well before it started here–and Crested Butte and Cupertino riders were hitting dirt about the same time as the Tamo crew. Maybe a future article?!

  9. Mark

    Reading through the comments on this article is why no reasonable communication can happen on this subject. I am a mountain biker have been for many years I slow and usually pull to the side and stop for horses, hikers and anything else I encounter on the trail. I do so to respect their use of the trail and to keep mountain biking in a better light. If you take the time to read through the comments all that is happening is bad mouthing the other party for the particular activity they take part in. I have rode with lots of different mountain bikers over the years and personally have not seen a mountain biker blaze past a horse without a care in the world. When I see fellow riders make mistakes I advise them on what to do next time. I think everyone should be allowed to partake in the activity the like on public land. Until we have an understanding between all parties involved and a good communication between them nothing will change. Stop being so narrow minded and learn to talk to one another. Its amazing how a “hello” or ” good morning” will quickly open a person up to talk. I have had many conversations with equestrian riders on the trails. Stopped told them good morning and had a small chat. We both left positive and no one got hurt. I understand the animal may not like bikes or your dog may freak out. I will do my best as a mountain biker to make myself appear less threatening. Labeling all mountain bikers as careless is a mis-representation of the facts. Most mountain bikers love the outdoors the same as you just enjoy them on a bike instead.

  10. Hunter S

    Katie, you’re another bigot like Steve throwing out your negative generalizations and ignoring 3 decades of soil science research. The equestrians that reported the incident with the bikes reported that the perpetrators were two boys around 12 years old. Do you doubt their story? If so, then perhaps we should as well since no kids or bikes have ever been found to be involved, thus the equestrians made the story up. Wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened in Marin… Your myopic worldview is, like Steve’s, shared by a tiny smattering of angry, impotent individuals whose vitriol is being overwhelmed by scientific fact and common sense.

  11. Tim K

    As always it is about consideration and this works both ways. Cyclists do seem to be grouped together into some negative group which if you changed “cyclist” to an ethnicity would be pretty racist . It doesn’t matter if you are a walker, dog owner, cyclist, horse rider or car driver – if you are an idiot or selfish you will do idiotic or selfish things that can be inconsiderate. Should the whole punished because of a few? If so then that should be the same for all – which would result in one one using the trails or the roads for that matter. I grew up on a farm and rode horses when I was younger before cycling. I have come across enough walkers who fail to close gates and horse riders who are every bit as dangerous as any cyclists, dog walkers who let their animals worry livestock and yes the odd inconsiderate cyclists. Generally though most people you meet out and about are friendly all enjoying being outside. My guess the Katies and Steve’s of this world are never going to accept equal rights and are the type that greet a cheery “good morning” with some grumble.

  12. Janet

    Singletrack trails are shared exceptionally well just about everywhere. Why is this an impossibility in minds of so many people in Marin? (I know, it’s called “entitlement”). To teach the grumpy people a lesson, MCOSD should reverse the rules every even numbered year, making singletrack legal only to bicyclists. Hikers, runners and equestrians have plenty of fire roads to enjoy during those “off” years.

  13. Katie

    Hunter s,
    Immune to your rhetoric.
    Can only hope that more & more people become less gullible to it as well.
    Trail damage/erosion from bikes….real
    Danger to other trail users……real
    Other trail users abandoning trails because of bikes……real
    Danger to wildlife, loss of habitat for wildlife…,…real. **Night riding particularly bad.
    etc…..there’s more, I just grow tired of this.
    As it stands right now, mt bikers have many trails, all over, and you cry for more.
    Something tells me, your mommys always gave in to your tantrums. Grow the @$&# up.

  14. Katie

    ^ mommys always gave in to your tantrums.
    That’s actually quite good. If I was a writer, that would be my title to the article I would be happy to write.
    “Mt Bikers crying for equal amount of & access to trails……the 25 yr. Tantrum”

  15. Mark C

    I was rather encouraged by this article. And then I started reading the comments. No wonder this issue is still outstanding. Few people commenting here are taking any sort of humble stance on the issue, and are simply spouting their poorly informed opinions. If people can’t get over their unfounded ignorant fury about other users of the trails, this will go on for ever. Stop the hatred. Has anyone here _actually_ experienced any problem with mountain bikers? What about with horses? Or other hikers? Do you really think that one or two incidents are representative of EVERYONE?

  16. John

    “out of 177 miles of trail on MCOSD lands, only 10.9 miles – or a paltry 15 percent”

    Who the hell taught you how to do math? That’s 6%, not 15%.

  17. Janet

    Katie – eat a bag of dicks and call your therapist in the morning.

  18. Hunter S

    Katie, “personal insults are the last refuge of the intellectual coward.” ~Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

    Like bigoted individuals everywhere, you can ignore science and research, you can ignore the scores upon scores of places where everyone gets along just fine, you can ignore decades of safety records and statistics, and you can spew your bitter stereotypes on public forums, but it still doesn’t make you right in any sense of the word. You my dear, are an extreme -albeit noisy- aberration and your views are shared by a very few individuals. Maybe you should try riding a bike, it might make you a happier person. 🙂

  19. Katie

    Hunter, oh, ouchie

    Intellectual discussion on this subject with your types is not possible. You, my friend, are the dismissive, bigoted ones. Examine what you just wrote yourself. Your pathetic.

  20. Katie

    Last post. Will not look at this again. I find this to be a colossal waste of time.
    Would like to urge anyone who reads article & comments, to Please, think for yourselves, read, research, go out & look at trails, experience. Don’t just be swayed by the mt bikers claims that they are so discriminated against, don’t have any trails to ride, at least not as much as the horses. Most, very nearly all of their claims are just not true.
    Those of us who do have the experience, the years on the trails, know what they are about. We are not fooled.
    **I do think some mt biking on some trails is appropriate. It has been my experience that 95% are pretty much jerks. The polite bikers, the ones that respect others & follow the rules, would more than likely agree with that.
    Consider your rights.

  21. Alex M

    Arguments from horse riders about environmental damage are ludicrous. Go up one of the San Geronimo fire roads after a rain…the hoof print damage is unbelievable. It looks like the surface of the moon up there, and that’s just judging the direct erosion and trail impact. If you start accounting for the enormous expense and waste of owning the animal: the manure runoff from the stables, the invasive weeds spread from their feces, the monstrous trucks and SUV’s used to trailer them around, the per-user impact from an equestrian is probably 100X worse than a bike. It’s the ultimate 1%’er argument: they have their access, and can afford to externalize all the damage on the rest of society, so F*** the little guy and his affordable recreation.

    You know what? F*** your horse.


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