Hikers in the Placerita Canyon Natural Area in the Santa Clarita Valley. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
A battle over use of a pair of popular Santa Clarita Valley nature trails has pitted hikers and equestrians against mountain bikers and fueled debate over whether Los Angeles County cyclists are getting sidelined.
Cyclists were barred from the Canyon Trail in the Placerita Canyon Natural Area until 2007. That's when the county mistakenly posted a "multi-use" sign at the trail head. The nearly two-mile route quickly became a biker favorite — until hikers complained and the county corrected the signs last year.
Now biking enthusiasts are trying to take back the lost ground. Their cry is being heard around Southern California as mountain bikers vie for access to trails used for hiking and horseback riding.
"As a user group, bicyclists are one of the fastest growing, but proportionately, we have the least number of trail miles available to us," said Steve Messer, vice president of the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Assn.
Santa Clarita is not the only place bikers have seen their access curtailed or threatened.
The U.S. Forest Service is reevaluating use of about 1 million acres in four Southern California forests, including about 40,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest surrounding the Santa Clarita Valley.
A proposed "wilderness" designation in some of these areas could essentially ban off-road uses, and mountain bikers stand to lose coveted routes. Bikers are already banned from other high-demand trails locally, such as those in Griffith Park.
With biking routes threatened, the stakes have grown in local trail-use disputes such as that in Santa Clarita. There, riders Kenneth Raleigh, Kevin Korenthal and Tony Arnold have helped form the Santa Clarita Valley Trail Users, which supports "safe and equal access" for all users.
The group gathered signatures for a petition urging the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation to let bikes return to the Canyon Trail, and to allow use of the nearby Heritage Trail in Vasquez Rocks Natural Area, where mountain biking is now banned.
"Multi-use, we believe, is … a great way to allow a scarce resource to be shared," Raleigh said. "There are enough public trails that are exclusively available to hikers and equestrians."
There remain three trails still open to bikes on county parkland in the area, said Kaye Michelson, a parks spokeswoman. The city of Santa Clarita also maintains more than 20 miles of trails open to cyclists, according to city data.
In response to the Canyon and Heritage trail petitions, the county sought an independent study of both routes, which found that biking should be among recommended uses on the Canyon Trail, subject to conditions. But the Heritage Trial should remain off limits to bikes, the study found, since it is more vulnerable to damage.
Already, the preliminary findings have sparked opposition.
Ruthann Levison, chairwoman of the Santa Clarita Valley Trails Advisory Committee, said her group will push to keep bikes out.
"It's a narrow trail in some places, with steep drops," Levison, an equestrian and Canyon Country resident of three decades, said of the Canyon Trail. "It's curvy, so you can't see anyone coming."
She said horses were prone to getting spooked by speeding cyclists and could jump off a cliff.
Lynne Plambeck, president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, said she backed state guidelines that put nature appreciation before recreation in assigning rules for trail use.
But veteran mountain biker Tony Arnold insisted there was room for everyone on the Canyon Trail.
"We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that for four-plus years the trail was shared quite effectively," Arnold said. "That's more relevant to me than any study."