A pebble rolls down the dirt path, followed by another, and another. The thick sound of tire treads gets closer, then a quick squeal on a brake pad. Seconds later, a mountain biker screams by, hunched down over his handlebars, navigating the steep terrain as if he’s floating, grinning from ear to ear. This familiar scene can be found all over Jackson, where the tight knit mountain biking community takes full advantage of more than 125 miles of trails as soon as the snow gives way to first dirt. But you won’t find a rowdy group of disrespectful riders here – in fact, you’re likely to see a biker hop off in the midst of a ride to let a hiker go by, and if you eavesdrop at the bar after a ride, you’ll hear chatter of trail etiquette and how to pass it on to the next generation of riders.
This unique stewardship of the trail system sits deep within the community. Along with avid hikers and horseback riders, these are the same people who show up for dig days – whether it’s a Saturday or a Monday – ready to give their free time to heavy manual labor to improve a single berm turn or dig all day to extend a trail by five feet. It’s the true essence of the phrase, “labor of love.”
Chris Owen, a self-proclaimed “trail dork” who also happens to be the trails program manager at the local nonprofit Friends of Pathways, sees this labor of love firsthand. His professional life is currently dedicated to the new Skyline Trail, a dream for some that’s a decade in the making. Skyline is the long-awaited 6.31-mile long Snow King ridge trail that will contour 6 peaks, providing users with stunning views of the frontcountry terrain. Since the approval of the trail, Owen has led two community-based dig days at each end of the trail to break ground. More than 150 people have showed up for the digs, spending eight or more back-breaking hours launching pickaxes over their heads. Exactly how back-breaking? “Last weekend was one of the easier sections of the trail,” Owen says of the latest community dig. “We were traversing around the second peak where there’s a nice, flat bench. We did .72 miles with 50 volunteers.”
That’s right. Less than one mile was dug in a full day with more than 50 volunteers, and Owen is stoked on the progress. He points out that with a full time trail crew of eight, ideal digging would allow them to do about one mile in a week. “You could slow that down to digging 200 feet a day if it’s really steep side hill,” he says. In other words, trail digging is no walk in the park.
So why do people do it? Katherine Dowson, the executive director for Friends of Pathways, says it’s about appreciation. “You can donate to a trail, walk a trail – but to put some sweat equity in it helps to understand what it takes to build a trail and keep it maintained. People have the satisfaction of remembering working on a particular corner. It takes a village, and it doesn’t happen overnight.” Dowson says the dig days bring together different generations on a common task they can feel proud of, with participants ranging from age 2 all the way up to people in their 70’s – everybody wants to tame the dirt.
For the Skyline Trail, there’s another reason people are so passionate about breaking ground. More than a decade ago, local recreation and conservation advocate Luke Lynch dreamed of having a ridgeline trail. When his brother, Matt, died in a cycling accident in 2008, Luke pursued the development of the Skyline Trail even more actively as a way to honor his brother. In large part due to the hard work Luke put in, the trail was finally approved in May of 2015. Only days later, Luke died in an avalanche.
People heal in different ways, and the case of the Lynch brothers, many have looked to the Skyline Trail as a way to grieve and heal. On the first dig day, many of Luke and Matt’s friends and family members participated. “He had a huge impact on the community,” Owen remembers of Luke. “It shows how many people he touched.” There will be a plaque on the trail in memory of both Lynch brothers.
Community is perhaps the most important word to describe the effort and teamwork it takes to get a trail built and approved in a town like Jackson. Long before the first biker rides a trail from end to end, and well before the first dig day takes place, a new trail has to be welcomed by all members of the community. “In Jackson, there’s always hurdles because everybody cares so much about our public lands here,” explains Dowson of the four-year approval process for the Skyline Trail. “It brings people to the table who have different opinions. It can take longer, but ultimately the end goal is good.”
Community is also at the core of what the trail will stand for. Along with mountain biking, the trail is being designed for hiking and horseback riding as well. During the planning process, Friends of Pathways took the priority of each user group into account. “Horseback riders want a nice, wide corridor so they have plenty of line of sight,” says Owen. “For hikers, we’ve found they tend to cut lower angle bike trails with switchbacks, so we thought we’d include steeper sections for them. And for bikes, making the turns navigable is important.”
While there won’t be any more community dig days simply because of the time required to get to the digging zone at this point, Friends of Pathways have hired the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) to finish the work. “Building with a machine is quicker and more cost-effective,” Owen points out. “But a big part of this trail is that we wanted it to be a community event.” The MCC is made up of eight young adults and two leaders who will live up on the ridge for six weeks. Building the trail this way allows for Friends of Pathways to include youth crews and keep the trail primarily hand-built.
Anticipation of the finished trail will pepper people’s dreams and fuel conversation around town until its grand opening in September. Dowson can’t wait for people to be able to have a backcountry experience without having to travel so far. “There’s views and perspectives up there that most people probably haven’t seen,” she says. “It’s a different way of looking down and across to the Tetons.” And when it’s complete? “I’d love to have a big party,” she laughs, barely holding in her excitement. Again, ensuring the community remains the focus.
To learn more about the Skyline Trail project, or the diversity of work completed and underway by Friends of Pathways, visit their website.