Mountain bikers, hikers, horse riders on collision course

Out for a hike on a glorious fall day in the Auburn State Recreation Area, Michael Garabedian suddenly found himself thrust into a looming crisis that, to this day, gets his pulse pounding.

"It was the greatest potential harm I've ever experienced," he says.

Mountain lion? Eroded cliffside trail? Rattlesnake? Try: oncoming mountain biker.

"I didn't hear him, because he came around the bend at the top of a pretty good little hill," says Garabedian, who was on the multiuse Foresthill Divide Loop Trail. "He was whizzing by so fast that he would've had a serious crash if he'd gone off the trail. I leapt out of the way with just split seconds to spare. If I hadn't ... he would've hit me. ... It was over in a flash. At some point after he got by me, I think I heard him say, as he rode off, 'Sorry.' "

An experienced hiker, Garabedian picked himself up and tried to quell any angry impulses. It wasn't the first time he'd had a dangerous encounter with a mountain biker on that trail, which ironically was built by volunteers from a mountain bike group.

"Used to be, you hardly ever ran into a mountain biker," Garabedian says. "Now I keep getting the wits scared out of me."

Such incidents are not the norm -- not yet, at least -- on Northern California's expansive, well-trod trail system. But the decadelong surge in mountain biking's popularity has added another noticeable user group on paths that have long been the domain of hikers and horseback riders.

Those users do not begrudge mountain bikers their right to enjoy the sport. Most simply want the speedy cyclists to abide by well-established trail etiquette -- bikers yield to hikers, hikers yield to horses -- and show courtesy.

But some hard-line, "traditional" trail users are seeking to restrict to designated bike-only trails the users they see as two-wheeled menaces.

Mountain bikers, in turn, bristle at those who seek to limit their sport. They acknowledge that some riders have problems sharing trails but say it's unfair to label an entire recreation group "rogues" when only a few fail to follow the rules. They point to the positive things bike groups have done, such as maintaining trails.

What's more, mountain biking groups have harnessed their growing numbers -- 40 million nationally, 4 million in California, says the Outdoor Industry Foundation -- to lobby for building bike-friendly trails and widening some existing paths for better sight lines that would improve safety. Those proposals, in turn, raise concern among environmental groups that say the Gold Country already has enough trails.

All this has left the factions with a simmering animosity that can erupt in episodes of trail rage such as Garabedian's encounter.

A multiuser as mediator

Caught in the middle is Laura Zabkar, appointed two years ago by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to chair the California Recreational Trails Committee. Zabkar seems especially well-suited to mediate: She grew up riding horses in Gold Country, took up mountain biking with a vengeance years ago and now runs the trails in Auburn, training for ultramarathons.

Her message: Can't we all just get along?

"It's showing a mutual respect for all people," Zabkar says. "When I started riding (horses) back in the mid- to late '70s, this wasn't much of an issue. Today, there are quite a few mountain bikers out there. It's a lot of fun. I've done it. The biggest issue is education. Mountain bikers are the fastest of the (trail users), so they need to be more cautious."

Most multiuse trails in California have triangular signs telling mountain bikers and hikers to stop and yield the path to passing equestrians.

But Jim Micheals, a senior parks and recreation specialist at the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, says signs are often vandalized or stolen. "We hear a number of complaints of people illegally using trails ... or not (yielding)," he says. "It can ruin a good recreation experience."

All the signage in the world won't stop some mountain bikers from zooming down trails, weaving among the hikers and horses, critics say.

"There is a segment of that (mountain biking) population that insists on being able to go at full speed on conditions of their choosing," says Jay Shuttleworth, a hiker and conservationist who formerly worked for the Bureau of Land Management.

It can be done

According to a 2006 visitor survey by the Auburn State Recreation Area, the number of mountain bikers surpassed horseback riders (trail hikers easily outnumbered both). But when measuring how many days per year a group uses the trail, equestrians rated higher. (Mountain bikers tend to flock to the trails only on weekends.)

"It's great that everybody wants to be out there; it shows we have some great trails in Northern California," Zabkar says. "What everybody needs is mutual respect."

Wheels, meet hooves

Is that possible? It is in Santa Cruz, apparently. Each May, members of the Santa Cruz County Horsemen's Association and the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz meet on a state park trail to work on the trails, nosh on barbecue and try to desensitize horses to mountain bikers. They call it "Carrot Fest" because mountain bikers ride the trails and, when encountering a horse, feed it a carrot.

"Equestrians and mountain bikers can look at what we have done in Santa Cruz County as an example of how to get along and share the trails," bike club president Mark Davidson wrote on the organization's Web site. "We have a lot of common ground, and we are trail users who have a passion to enjoy the open space with our favorite steeds."