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RECREATION / BICYCLING : Cooperation Opens Trails to Mountain Bikes


Everybody's buying mountain bikes. More than 70% of the bikes sold these days are of the fat-tired variety, and while most of these never stray from the asphalt, lots of folks are heading for the hills.

Across the country, that has spelled conflict with other, more established trail users, namely hikers and horseback riders. And often, the bicyclists lose out.

Here in Orange County, word has come down that mountain bikers will be shut out of Upper Newport Bay Regional Park, at least for now. In some other areas, bikes are allowed on unpaved roads but are banned on narrow hiking and equestrian trails, called "single-tracks."

Critics complain that mountain bikers damage delicate trails and ride too fast, risking collisions with other trail users and sometimes spooking horses. But cyclists say that trail damage is actually less than that caused by equestrians and that mountain biking on the single-tracks is safe when done responsibly.

One place where the parties have been able to bury their differences is Chino Hills State Park, 10,000 acres of rolling, grass-covered hills, oak groves and sycamore-lined canyons smack in the middle of one of the fastest-growing areas of the Southland.

Chino Hills, which includes parts of Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, will someday be one of the most-visited spots in the state park system, park officials predict. But for now it remains a largely undiscovered and undeveloped bit of rural backcountry.

Among those who have discovered the park--and continue to discover it in increasing numbers--are mountain bikers. But in January, 1989, the state Department of Parks and Recreation released its mountain bike use policy, and single-tracks in Chino Hills were immediately closed to bikers. Trails could only be reopened under written order from department officials.

District Supt. Donald Murphy, in charge of Chino Hills, set up a series of public hearings to develop a plan for joint-use trails. And, lo and behold, trail users worked together. The result: Five trails have been designated for multiple use and, pending final state approval, could be open within the month.

"Nobody wanted to lose multiple-use trails, and there was a real cooperative feeling," said John Kelso-Shelton, chief ranger for the park. "We're sort of a rarity at Chino Hills."

Richard Cunningham, who builds custom mountain bikes in Placentia, spearheaded the effort for the cyclists. "We all realized we were going to be seriously out of luck if we didn't work together," Cunningham said.

After the five trails were proposed, Cunningham organized more than 30 volunteers to repair the paths, and in some sections completely rebuild them. Now, when combined with dirt roads in the park, mountain bikers will be able to choose from loop trips that vary from easy jaunts of five miles to rugged journeys of 20 miles and more.

"I don't believe that bicycles have a place on every trail in every state park," Cunningham said. "With the five trails they picked, there should be no reason to use anything else."

Coming up at Chino Hills: Horse enthusiasts might get some trails of their own. "The equestrians are up next," Cunningham said, "and we promised to work with them."

Meanwhile, at Orange County's other state park, the single tracks were never closed (regional superintendents have broad leeway under the state mountain bike policy). Crystal Cove State Park north of Laguna Beach is one of the most popular mountain bike spots in the county, with as many as 80% of the users getting about on two wheels.

Trail tips: Despite the efforts of Ward and Cunningham to educate riders, conflicts continue to arise because of mountain bikers who ride recklessly, endangering other trail users and damaging trails.

Some simple tips will help reduce conflicts and help keep the parks open to cyclists:

* Always ride on designated roads and trails. Never cut your own trail. The parks here are too heavily used to accommodate trailblazers.

* Always control your speed, especially around corners. Slow down when approaching hikers, and announce your presence--bicycles are silent. Stop to let horses pass.

* Always ride on the right side of the trail.

* For your own safety, wear a helmet.

The fire that blackened much of Chino Hills State Park last week burned mostly grass, damaging only a few pockets of trees. Fire is part of the natural cycle here, and the park will be green again in just a few months.

The park is open in the meantime, but it is especially important to remain on the trails while riding through the burn areas. Without ground cover, the soil is especially vulnerable to erosion.

Lightning strikes: The recent lightning storm on Mt. Whitney that took the life of a Huntington Beach man was not an unusual occurrence. Sierra thunderstorms are quite common in summer, and there are precautions hikers can take if one approaches.

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