Thursday, December 19

A Dream of Big Turtles

I had abandoned to the dumpster my ill-conceived notion that the Sheltowee Trace could ever become a bikepacking or ITT destination like the Colorado or Arizona Trails or the Tour Divide route. 

After the decision came from the USFS at Cave Run that the Sheltowee would be closed to bikes south of the dam the bastard reality of a 50+ mile paved detour around the southern Cave Run area, the Red River Gorge, and Natural Bridge State Park seemed to make the dream of a long mountain bike trail in Kentucky moot.  A whopping 1/6 of the 300 mile trail was torn out in a huge chunk.  And that doesn't even factor in the existing paved detours south of Natural Bridge, or of the push to have the trail go through downtown Morehead eliminating even more of the dirt surface trail (I think a spur into town would serve the same purpose while preserving the integrity of the TRAIL).

I had been lobbying KYMBA, KY Adventure Tourism, the Sheltowee Trace Association and anyone else who would listen on the benefits of having the Sheltowee come alive as a mountain biking destination.  The idea had almost caught on in a few places.  Some people gave me a sympathetic ear.  No one was outright hostile to the notion.  But after the Cave Run decision I just threw up my hands.

Tourism, and specifically adventure tourism, was a big theme at the SOAR Summit.  We have this National Recreational Trail as a HUGE asset to the region.  The Sheltowee Trace is underutilized.  It's underutilized in general, but it's insanely underutilized as a connector between the communities that dot the Daniel Boone National Forest along its length.

On November 16 the Sheltowee Trace Association  tweeted:
"Can someone mtn bike the entire 307 miles in two days? We shall see. Pro biker called and is planning an attempt in the spring."

In the last few days someone posted on KYMBA - Bluegrass's Facebook page:

"Has anyone ridden the entire Sheltowee, excluding of course the sections that aren't legal. From what I understand the only sections off limits are 12 to 15. I am very curious how much of the trail is actually ridable or rather how much portaging one would have to do. Any info appreciated. Thanks"

There were 19 comments that followed that post to date (admittedly six were mine).  Maybe it isn't time to give up on the vision just yet...

I know of at least four different parties that have attempted the Trace since 2000.  To date I don't think there has been a successful end to end totally self-supported single-effort attempt to ride the legal portions of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreational Trail.  I've not been able to come across any claims to that effect.

I came across the following video yesterday and immediately I thought of how this applies to long trails.  The car factor doesn't apply, but if you think of the amount of bicycle traffic that could be generated considering the increase in interest in bikepacking and the boom of bikepacking specific gear and bikes in the past few years it just stands to reason that if there was a push from the highest levels to open up the Trace along its entire length to bicycles that Kentucky could suddenly have an asset that few Eastern states can boast, and only a handful of Western states possess: a long bikeable mountain bike trail.

My dream is to see a Colorado Trail Race type event on the Sheltowee.  I don't think I'm alone in this anymore.

How Bicycles Can Save Small Town America - from Russ Roca on Vimeo.

We should see more of this:

Laurel Lake area
And less of this:
Red River Gorge


  1. Please keep pushing for this idea. I've got lots of them (ideas) too, and maybe I can be of some help someday for this project.

    I will say though, that I've noticed a common theme among people who get stuff like this done, and that is a huge amount of persistence. People say their ideas get knocked back 6 -7, 10 times before they can move forward and make a big impact. Everyone knows its a good idea after it happens, but only a few people, like yourself, have the vision to make these important things happen.

    I feel like KY lacks people with vision - especially when it comes to biking endeavors.

    So I hope you can muster the energy to keep pushing for this idea, and maybe I can be of some assistance in future somehow.

    Jason Monk

  2. So what are the arguments against having all sections of the trail open to mountain bikes? Is someone advocating against it? The Blue Blaze trails in CT are kind of like that as well. Some sections are open and some are closed. Never really made a lot of sense to me.

    1. Doug: the trail nicks a wilderness area, passes through one of the state parks that doesn't allow much of anything, and goes through a "protected" geologic area and some other sub-areas within he national forest where local land managers deemed bikes not worth dealing with. Some parts of the trail already run short distances along paved roads as well.

  3. I guess what I am really asking, is are people saying no, or are people saying no because they have never been asked?

    1. Recently the USFS made a decision to segregate horse and MTBs in an area to the north where the trail passes through. In that area they decided to close it to MTBs and allow horses while allowing MTBs on other sections of the trail system that don't provide an adequate detour or connectivity for through cyclists.

      In my local area (the Red River Gorge) MTBs have never been allowed on trails, but the reasoning is nebulous. There's really no reason outside the designated wilderness area to prohibit MTBs. It's just been an administrative choice. I doubt there was ever a public process to decide.

      Immediately south of that section is a state park that was run for a long time by a fascist naturalist who was reportedly quoted as saying (paraphrased) if it were up to him he would keep people out to preserve the park. While some Kentucky state parks allow mountain biking Natural Bridge does not despite being the only one that has a National Recreational Trail passing through it.

      South of that the trail goes uninterrupted for a very long way being open to bikes. I think there may be one area between the northern half and the southern terminus that prohibits or limits bikes (can't remember), but then the old terminus (a new one is in the works) is Pickett State Park in TN and it doesn't allow MTBs either.

      On top of all that the actual physical condition of the trail at any given time is hard to determine. Some sections get overgrown with disuse while others suffer from overuse by ATVs and equestrians. It's not a bad trail, it just doesn't get the same kind of love trails like the AT, and the Colorado and Arizona Trails get. I think that's changing. There's a growing and active group called the Sheltowee Trace Association that has been doing a lot to garner interest and support for the trail. But at present mountain biking is still a novelty along the trail.