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Why We Love One-Directional Trails

Riding up one way, down the other. What’s not to love about that?

There’s a new trail in the town I grew up in, a small biking-centric hamlet called Nevada City, in northern California. The new flow trail, called the Talon Show, was completed last year and is part of the town’s growing Parliament trail system. It drops about a mile and a half and 600 vertical feet through a dense forest alongside Highway 20 with flowy banking turns.

The best part about the trail? It’s a one-way loop. You’ll descend steep singletrack through the trees, knowing that nobody is climbing back up, and you’ll climb up a one-way track with gentle grading, secure in the fact that nobody will come bombing into you at high speeds. And herein lies reason number one why we love one-directional trails: the freedom to move without fear of a rider colliding into you from the opposite direction.

Across the country, we’re seeing more and more new and rebuilt trails utilize one-directional traffic, and in many cases, those trails are also designed for specific users, like mountain-bike-only descents. “We’ve had a lot of success getting directional trails that are also designated use trails,” says Gary Moore, executive director of Colorado Mountain Bike Association (COMBA) which builds and maintains trails in Colorado’s Front Range.

COMBA just opened a new directional, designated use trail in Colorado’s Jefferson County Open Space in the popular Lair o’ the Bear trail system. Called Rutabaga Ride (named after a former rutabaga farmer in the area), the 3.8-mile spur trail is exclusively for mountain bikers descending. “It allowed us to move downhill mountain bike traffic off the mixed-use bidirectional trail, which everyone is happy about,” Moore says. “Now bikers have their own way down, and that’s better for all types of users.”

One-directional trails can lessen the impact on the landscape, since you don’t have people trying to get by each other from opposite directions. “If you don’t have traffic trying to pass each other, you don’t have that temptation to widen the trail,” Moore says. “It’s really about minimizing the number of times that trail visitors come at each other from the opposite direction and have to figure out how to navigate that.” (How nice is that? No sorting out who has the right of way and who needs to step aside.)

These types of trails are also easier to build, since trail builders know exactly what direction the rider will be going. “Whenever you’re designing a trail, you’re trying to create an experience,” Moore says. “If you’re building a multi-directional trail, there are going to be compromises.” For example, most mountain bikers prefer climbing up trails that have a more gentle grade and descending down trails that are a touch steeper.

Moore says that when a new trail gets built, it’s much easier to make it a one-way direction versus changing the rules on an existing trail. “People don’t like rule changes. Once something works a certain way, that’s their way,” he says. “You can’t move a rock without someone saying, ‘But that’s my favorite rock.’ So, saying you can only do this trail in one direction can be met with immediate pushback. But it’s different when we’ve got the opportunity to build new trails.”

Is there anything not to like about one-directional trails? Sure. “It takes away flexibility. You don’t get to choose if you go north to south or south to north, or clockwise or counterclockwise,” Moore says. “In some people’s eyes, you’re taking away their choice.” There’s also the nature of more signage and directions to follow—it requires users to actually pay attention to which way they’re supposed to go. As for us? Part of the fun of riding is figuring out loops on the fly, but sometimes directional trails just make more sense and provide a safer, full charge experience.

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