Monday, June 15, 2009

RTP Mountain Bike Trails

Work has piled up quickly this summer. It is a bit of a bummer to be stuck inside on the some of the longest days of the year, but I still manage to get outside a bit.

It seems that while I will try to cover a large range of land use issues, this space will highlight the ways that I interact with the outdoors at any given time. Apparently, I am out on my bicycle a lot this summer. Sometimes I go through boating phases, camping phases. When I worked doing field research for the USFWS, I would have written about taking soil samples and recording tree heights. But right now bikes seem to be my thing. Maybe it has something to do with that new mountain bike I got in the spring! I'm pretty sure the new bike has something to do with my sore back.

A few week ago, I read on the TriangleMTB, a good website for Triangle area mountain biking resources, that a couple miles of trail have been opened for public use in Research Triangle Park. These trails were created by the Research Triangle Foundation, as an amenity for employees of the park. RTP already boasts of "14 miles of jogging/pedestrian trails, 12 volleyball counts, and 4 softball diamonds." Mountain bike trails make a lot of sense for RTP. In the process of gathering information for his mountain bike trail study, Dr. Michael Naber found that that triangle area mountain bikers are about 80% male, and average 35 years old with a annual household income of about 90,000 dollars a year (no wonder I get so jealous of all the fancy gear out there!) This lines up well with the demographic breakdown of the techies in RTP - educated, well-paid young males. It's not close to a scientific study, but notice how many autos have bicycle racks attached to roofs and hitches in the RTP area.

This is a pretty sweet deal for area mountain bikers. If I'm not mistaken, it's the first explicitly open-to-the-public mountain bike trail on private property in the Triangle. Update - i have been informed that the Briar Chapel trails were the first. Thanks, Carter. It was created without money or land from the city, county, or state.

I wrote to Alison Fiori, Director, @RTP Programs, to ask her about the development of the trials. Here's what she had to say:

Several RTP company employees approached the Research Triangle Foundation (RTF, developer of RTP) in the summer of 2007 and asked for the construction of mountain biking trails in the southern portion of RTP on land that was owned by the Foundation but could never be developed. The Park has an extensive multi-use trail system but no established off-pavement trails. The Foundation met with the companies in the area (Cisco, NetApp and Credit Suisse) to talk about employee usage and possible locations for the trail.

After a general area was identified, the Foundation set up a meeting with Greenways Inc., the design firm the Foundation uses for the current trail system, and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists (TORC). TORC is a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to safeguarding the future of mountain biking in the Triangle area of North Carolina through the promotion of responsible riding, establishment and maintenance of mountain biking trails, and preservation of North Carolina's natural resources. TORC was on board from the project’s inception and assisted with design.

The Durham-Wake Counties Research and Production Service District approved funding for Phase 1 of the project in the early spring of 2009. The building of approximately 2 miles of looped trails was completed by TORC in late May 2009. TORC volunteers and regular riders will help manage the trails. The trails were sustainably designed without the need for a lot of regular maintenance. Phase 2 of the project will extend the current trails to the east between Little Drive and NC 540 and will probably take place in 2011 after the completion of the western extension of Little Drive.

Update - I have since heard from the VP of TORC that TORC was not involved in the construction of the trails. Trail design began to take so many resources, that construction was handed over to a private company.

So, more to come!

Researching the site got me interested in RTP, so I did a quick Internet search on the history of RTP before heading out to check out the site. The history of RTP goes way back to the fifties, and most of what I found is summarized in this article by two economics professors. After WWII, North Carolina's three major industries were in trouble. Textiles and furniture making were on the decline and tobacco production was falling. The per capita income here was one of the lowest in the nation. To compress a long, complicated land-dealing, option holding, arm-twisting, influence-peddling story, a group of business and government leaders envisioned using the intellectual power of the three local universities - UNC, NCSU, and Duke - to draw research and development industry to the area. Slowly, business, academic, and government leaders were won over on the idea, and the idea really picked up steam in the sixties, when government and academic institutions began to locate on the allocated land. Growth picked up through the seventies and eighties until RTP became the economic powerhouse it is today - the largest research park in the nation, in terms of both acreage and employees.

The trails are in the very southwest corner - in the green area that is labeled as "Natural Area Preserve." My initial thought when reviewing the land use map was, "wow, they sure didn't save much area for a natural preserve." That makes sense, there are special tax laws that apply to this land, granted by the NC Legislature, and the area is exempt from annexation by local cities, towns ect. When they voted to create this block of land, they wanted to leave their hands as untied as possible for the future.

My second thought upon seeing this map - and reading that, in the Durham portion of RTP at least, "no more than fifteen percent of the total area of a tract shall be covered with buildings", was -

"That sounds like the definition of urban sprawl to me."

They have created a beautiful work setting, a huge economic driver for the area. Along with that comes horrible traffic due to the huge spread of workplaces with no housing built in and around it. The large geographic footprint of the park also makes public transportation to, from, and around the park problematic.

I did not do the research necessary to find out what exactly how the tract of land that the trails sit on was used before it was acquired for RTP. Most of the land that is now RTP is former farm land, and a cursory inspection of the area would bear out the theory that this tract was indeed, farm land. The forest is mature, but not ancient, with a large contingent of loblolly pine, pine typically being the first pioneer tree on abandoned farm fields. Pines will eventually give way to hardwood on sites like this, so it appears that the land has been cleared within the last hundred years or so. I would need to get out with coring equipment and make a more complete survey to say anything more specific. I also came across a few abandoned roads that have been reclaimed by the forest, with the grading and ditches still viable. I tried to take a picture of one of these roads, but the light and the crummy iPhone camera made discerning the features impossible.

I think it's safe to assume that this is formerly farmed land, and that a large portion of the topsoil has been washed away, leaving a somewhat nutritionally-degraded site.

So enough with words and thinking and stuff - time to go ride new trail! Here's a map of the trails showing the surrounding roads. Click on the map for a larger image:

The trailhead is located on Louis Stephen Road, south of Kitt Creek of NC Hwy 55. There is no parking yet at the trailhead, though the rumor on the interweb is that one is in the works. To make it a little more difficult, you can't actually see the trailhead from the road. There are a couple of curb cuts on the southern side of the road that look like they were placed to facilitate future driveways or parking lots. Pull off in the northernmost of these. I have seen cars parked right up on the grass, but I was not that bold, and was able to pull out of the travel lane and stay on the pavement. I choose my spot blindly, but I got lucky - I was right next to the trailhead.

I used my GPS mounted on my handlebars and recorded a gps track of my ride. I got home, exported the track, cleaned it up and imported it into OpenStreetMap - like a Wikipedia for maps. I was then able to export the map for use here. This map shows all the trail I was able to find out there - for a total of about 1.7 miles:

The trail splits almost immediately - to the right is a giant log crossing (1). It is too big to simply ride across; it must be jumped or hopped, or chainringed across. I got off and walked it - there is no ride-around. To the left is an easier obstacle - a two or three foot tall earth berm(2) that I was able to ride across. There is a bail out for this obstacle. Obviously, the left hand trail is the easier route into the interior.

Both of the entrance trails join up again before crossing the large creek to access the main loops. The bridge (3) is a lot of fun to ride - sort of like a man-made whoop-dee-doo.

Much more fun to ride than a normal bridge - requires just a bit of concentration. The week after I took this picture, the Triangle area had a couple of days of heavy rain, up to two inches in many areas. The creek became so swollen that it washed the bridge out. Some good pictures of the carnage can be found here:

I wrote back to Alison Fiori and let her know about the washout. As of Monday, June 22nd, the bridge is back in working order. Evidently, the builders knew what they were doing when they constructed the trail, and the bridge is meant to wash out when the water rises, and is easily re-assembled. It performed exactly as designed.

On with the trip. I kept to the right, to make a counter-clockwise loop. Before I knew it, I had a flat tire! Joy.

I stopped and made quick work of the flat. I'm usually fairly frugal, but in the hot and humid area that we live in, its well worth the investment for me to buy compressed air cartridges to inflate the spare tube. Sitting on the side of the trail, trying to get adequate air pressure from one of those little hand held pumps can ruin a good day.

As short as my stop was, I still managed to pick up a few of these guys before I continued with my ride:

Can you see it? Sorry for the fuzzy pictures. This was one of the larger ticks I picked up that day. I pulled seven crawlers off my leg and four bloodsuckers out of my leg. I normally wouldn't have attracted so many, but I kept stopping to take pictures and get gps readings.

Besides ticks, there was lots of wildlife out. I disturbed frogs at every creek crossing, and gray squirrels were too numerous to count. A large bird of some kind kept honking at me. I had not heard the call before, certainly not a duck or another type of fowl. I'll have to keep an eye out in the future. For my first time on a new trail, I kept my eyes on the trail so I didn't end up in the dirt.

Continuing around, I noticed the meticulous construction of the trails. There were several cambered turns, and the route was laid out thoughtfully, with much attention given to erosion mitigation. Most of the soil looks like this:

The following is to make my college soil science teacher happy. The soil is sandy enough to be gritty, with a large component of loam. The sand should help the trail dry quickly - and it does. It had rained the day before my trip, but the trail was dry and firm, with no standing water that I saw. There is enough clay in the mixture to hold the soil together when compacted, but not enough that you can form ribbons with it when you get it wet:

It's great for mountain bike trails. It compacts well to make a nice, firm riding surface, and it drys quickly. It might be a bit prone to erosion, but the sustainable trail construction should mitigate that to a large degree. Greenways Inc, and TORC, two of the organizations involved in the design of the trails, are known for their environmentally sensitive trail construction techniques.

About halfway through the big loop, the trail crosses what has to be the largest rock on the surface in the area (4). As I approached it, it appeared to be a large area of exposed clay, I'm not used to seeing such large rocks in the area. Only at the last moment did I realize it was stone, with a small drop from the trail to the rock. Nothing too big to handle, but if you hit it wrong, are not expecting it, or if it is wet, it would be easy to slide out and hit the ground hard.

Shortly following the big rock is a small intermittent creek crossing (5), consisting of a nice little drop onto some wet rocks, with a quick ascent on the other side.

That picture doesn't quite do it justice - the iPhone camera's fish-eye lens really destroys depth perception. It was a big enough drop, wet enough rock, and large enough climb on the other side that I punked out and walked across - the first of two times that I felt compelled to do so on this trail. If I had been with riding companions, pride might have prodded me to make an attempt, but I'm not ashamed to walk when I feel like it.

A short while later, there is a flat, wide bridge crossing a marshy area, right next to a smallish pool of water (6).

The bridge is easy enough to navigate, but the approach to it is somewhat narrow, and missing it means landing in some mucky water. I went through here twice and didn't have a problem. This is also where I heard the most frog splashes, but I was never quick enough to actually see any of the jumpers.

I found one more intermittent creek crossing (7), this one was easier than the previous - it had a handful of loose rocks at the bottom, much easier to navigate than the last wet rock.

Shortly after that crossing, I came back to the entrance trail, I had made a full loop. Having read forum posts on, I knew there was a tricky skinny (2*6 board elevated in some manner, meant to be ridden.) somewhere in the interior that I missed. I checked my GPS, doubled back, and looked for the part of the trail I had missed.

It wasn't hard to find - two turns and short ride later, I found the skinny (8), positioned over a rather large log:
I'll admit it doesn't look to intimidating in the picture. However, my skinny-riding skills are not the greatest, and failing to properly execute this crossing would most likely result in and endo over the handlebars and a mouthful of dirt. In fact, most of the posts on the forum from people who attempted the crossing indicated just such an outcome. So, for the second time that day, I wimped out and rode around the log via the bail-out that ran to the north of the log.

In all, it was a fun afternoon. I logged only1.74 miles of trail on my gps unit - but that was only one pass with a recreational-grade gps under a heavy canopy, so that may not be the most accurate reading. My bike computer didn't really help with measurements, I spent a lot of time going back and forth, riding sections again and going back for pictures.

I rode the entire set of trails through a few times since it takes very little time to burn through 2 miles of trail. Making it even easier is the fact that there are no large climbs in there. A few sections allow you to build up some speed, but many sections squeeze you through some narrowly spaced trees, and lots of sharp turns require some concentration and a slower pace.

The trail is still a bit soft. After they have been around for a while they will pack down, and they will be faster and smoother. One thing I really appreciated was the dearth of roots, but I suppose they might start to show up, depending on how resistant to erosion the trails turn out to be. I also encountered a few "pungee sticks", stumps from little trees that were cut down to make room for the trail - leaving behind a short, sharp, spike sticking up a few inches in the middle of the trail to puncture your tire, or your rib cage if you're unlucky enough to crash on one.

Overall, I think this is the great start of a good trail network. There's not enough distance out there right now to keep me coming back very frequently, but I'll probably make it out there once a month or so. If I worked in RTP, it would be a great spot for frequent lunchtime rides - no need to even get in the car if you have brought your bike to work.

I've included here a map image from - a great open source mapping tool that allows anyone to make updates to a publicly available map. If you click the above link and zoom in to the area north of I-540 where it hits Hwy 55, you should be able to see where I added the trails. (I've also added much of the Lake Crabtree County Park trails, and the Little River Park trails.)

I've noted the positions of several of the trail features on the maps - these positions are estimates, not to be used for targeting.

1. Big Log Crossing - (Advanced Entrance)
2. Small Berm - (Easy Entrance)
3. Easy-Wash Bridge (back in action!)
4. Big Rock
5. Small, Wet Rock / Intermittent Stream Crossing
6. Big Bridge, Narrow Approach
7. Intermittent Stream Crossing
8. Skinny


  1. do you have any GPS coordinates?

  2. Sure do. Get me your email address - you can reach me at dwight(dot)otwell(at)gmail(dot)com - and I'll send you the gpx files.