“Surely all God’s people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes – all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun in them.”
– John Muir, 1913
And play man shall.
But at two of Santa Clarita’s most frequented parks, Placerita and Vasquez Rocks, who and where and how should one play is up for a debate.
On Thursday, July 12, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recrecreation is inviting all interested persons to attend a community meeting to discuss the proposed usage changes to Placerita’s Canyon Trail and to the Heritage Trail at Vasquez Rocks.
“The department is encouraging all user groups to provide their comments and feedback on the Draft Trail Assessment reports at the July 12 meeting,” said Kaye Michelson, special assistant at Parks and Recreation.
The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the county’s draft report of the two trails. At stake is a double-edged sword of recreational needs: to determine whether one user group should be banned forever from these trails, or whether to designate the trails multi-use and therefore allow all but motorized recreational activities on them.
Hikers and equestrians have always had full use of these trails, as their recreational “modes” have been deemed safe on all county and state park trails, while mountain bikers had limited access in some instances.
Although the trails at Vasquez Rocks have always been hikers/horses only, a signage hiccup on Placerita’s Canyon Trail in 2007 allowed cyclists onto the trail, thus turning it into a popular mountain biking venue. When the mistake was discovered last year, the bikers got banned from the trail altogether.
This prompted them to launch a campaign to have Canyon Trail – and many other local back-country trails – be turned multi-use.
“Our group came about on account of the closure of the Canyon Trail to mountain bikes,” said Ken Raleigh, director of the local mountain biking advocacy group, SCV Trail Users. “It is the issue that touched a nerve in the local mountain biking community and brought together the 500 or so that have signed our petition (in 2011). At the first meeting we had with county officials at the Nature Center, we learned that a similar issue occurred at Vasquez Rocks. So we decided to pursue both issues with the County.
“We never asked for only (or specifically) the Heritage Trail to be assessed. Rather, we asked for the entire Vasquez Rocks park to be opened to mountain bikes. The difference is probably simply related to the number of people impacted by the closure of The Canyon Trail to mountain bikes.”
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The draft trail assessment reports for Vasquez Rocks and Placerita Canyon state that both parks are designated as Natural Areas, and as such preclude bicycle use within their boundaries. But because Placerita is a state park – operated by L.A. County – different rules apply: Cyclists are allowed in state parks.
The draft report for Vasquez Rocks concluded that the half-mile Heritage Trail, which connects two parking lots of the park, was not a feasible option for multi-use based on two findings: Vasquez Rocks is L.A. County’s most archaeologically rich park, and should the trail need modifications to turn it into multi-use, it would adversely impact the park’s cultural resources; and second, mountain bikes are not permitted on the Pacific Crest Trail that runs through Vasquez Rocks.
Placerita’s Canyon Trail, however, has been assessed differently. The county’s consultants concluded that although the park has several cultural and natural resources well worth protecting, there was not enough evidence to suggest that turning the roughly mile-and-a-half trail into multi-use would adversely impact the trail and its users – even though this is the park’s most popular trail, with docent-led nature walks and school groups frequently blocking the way near the Nature Center. Safety concerns have already been raised over multiple user groups having to share such a busy trail; without major modifications, the trail might not be suitable for multi-use.
Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, executive director and president of Santa Clarita’s Community Hiking Club, has voiced her concerns on numerous occasions.
“I am still trying to digest the changes proposed for the Canyon Trail,” she said. “The trail is not safe the way it is. I know this from personal experience. It seems like a huge amount of money will need to be spent to make the trail safe, and this is money that the county just does not have.
“If the trail is to be multi-use in the future, changes of many kinds need to be made. If that damages the environment then I am against it.”
The trail traverses a riparian corridor.
The mountain biking community argues that bikes have a lot less impact on the environment than horses, and therefore it is unfair to discriminate against them. They advocate for safe and equal access for all non-motorized user groups on SCV trails.
“We do have a strong preference for multi-use trails,” said Raleigh. “If we were to split up the limited supply of trails for each user group, that would mean significantly less trails for each user group to enjoy. We believe the three non-motorized user groups can and should figure out how to share the trails and get along. We have and will continue to promote good trail etiquette among our members.”
Some of the recommendations in the trail reports include pinch points – strategically placed objects that narrow a trail, thus slowing cyclists down; a “walk zone” closest to the nature center; trail re-routing at certain points; new creek crossings; and even widening the trail at sections.
One thing all user groups seem to agree upon is that the recommended changes would diminish the Canyon Trail’s primary appeal, namely its natural state and its challenging terrain.
“We would prefer that the trail be multi-use with no significant changes,” Raleigh said. “In fact, I suspect that most do not want to see any major changes. CORBA (Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association) has told us that pinch points have been effective on other trails.”
“Single-track is way more fun than fire roads, which are a-plenty in SCV by the way,” said Jon Spalding, local hiker and mountain biker. “Fire roads do have their own attraction, since you can hit 30 or so mph on a fire road, but single-track is much more challenging and interesting.
“I know that since there is already a dirt road that meets the top of Placerita known locally as ‘The Beast,’ I don’t see a reason to carve any single-track trails into a wider double track. There already is one. I’ve ridden it, hiked it, and don’t see why anyone would want to put another 10-foot wide gash into an otherwise beautiful and pristine mountain side.”
Erskine-Hellrigel couldn’t agree more.
“If it can be done in a way to keep the trail safe, with the single track, nature-oriented feel that it has now,” she said, “with permanent pinch points to slow the mountain bikers down, then it could work as a multi-use trail. Not yielding and speeding are the two problems I see.
“But if the the county goes in there and makes a huge road-style trail, disturbs the river, blasts away the mountainside with dynamite – as has been suggested by one of the rangers there – then no one will want to hike or ride it. So, there has to be a happy medium and a decision be made to encompass all of this, which puts the county in an awkward position at best. There is no clear-cut, easy answer.”
All three non-motorized user groups – hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers – have been organizing their supporters to attend the Thursday meeting in order to get their concerns, thoughts and suggestions heard, and possibly find a mutually acceptable solution ahead of the county’s final decision.
“The department will consider the feedback received at the community meeting in conjunction with the draft assessment reports for the Placerita Canyon Canyon Trail and the Vasquez Rocks Heritage Trail,” said Michelson of Parks and Rec. The department “intends to announce the use designation for these trails as soon as a thorough evaluation has been completed.”
The meeting will be held at Hart Hall in William S. Hart Park on Thursday at 6 p.m.