Back in the 1970s, the only thing resembling a “Sacramento River Trail” in Redding was an old railroad grade on the hillside between the river and some west Redding neighborhoods. Much as today, a thick layer of medium-sized rock covered the former railroad line’s surface. About the only people who ventured there were runners and hikers looking for a hard workout, and the occasional transient.
So when the Redding City Council nearly 35 years ago insisted that the developer of the Lake Redding Estates subdivision provide an easement along the Sacramento River’s northern bank to accommodate a future bike path, the developer “screamed bloody murder,” recalled local attorney Arch Pugh, who served on the City Council at the time. However, the city stood tough and somewhat unwittingly birthed the riverfront trail system that has become one of the community’s greatest assets.
“I don’t think at that time anyone envisioned as far as it ended up going,” Pugh said recently. “It just sort of progressed piecemeal. As it expanded, people said, 'Why not take it here? And why not take it here?'”
The city built the first piece of that Sacramento River Trail in 1983, and by 1991 had completed the 5.7-mile loop from the Diestelhorst Bridge to the Ribbon Bridge. Today, the paved pathway stretches for more than 20 miles, takes several names, crosses the river in four places, and includes spur trails to Old Shasta and half a dozen Redding neighborhoods. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the stretch of the river trail on its land near the Ribbon Bridge attracts 700,000 pedestrians, cyclists and skaters a year. The numbers are even greater near the 7-year-old Sundial Bridge, which carries the trail over the river at Turtle Bay Exploration Park.
Although the Sacramento River Trail is by far the most popular multi-use trail in the area, and one of the few paved pathways, it is only the beginning of an approximately 150-mile trail system in the Redding area. With few exceptions, the trails are open to people on foot, bicycle or horseback.
Although many public agencies, community organizations and individuals have played a role in development of the trail system, six men very clearly have led the way: Steve Anderson and Bill Kuntz of the Bureau of Land Management’s Redding office, Terry Hanson from the city of Redding, the McConnell Foundation’s Brian Sindt, the Redding Foundation’s Brent Owen, and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area Superintendent Jim Milestone.
What’s even clearer is that the system would lack many miles of trails, and would not hold together as a “system” at all, without the nearly unprecedented support of the local BLM.
Redding BLM Blazes Own Trail
The Bureau of Land Management owns millions of acres of property all over the West. For the most part, the agency received territorial remnants after the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and a few other entities grabbed the most desirable lands. Although it is guided by a “multiple use” mission, the BLM historically has served the interests of mining outfits, oil companies and cattle ranchers. Recreation on BLM lands, if considered at all, has often been limited to dirt-bike motorcycling, four-wheeling and hunting. In more than a few instances, the BLM’s answer to mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians has been to throw up a gate or other obstacle to hinder access.
For many years, the BLM land in western Shasta County was like a Wild West of formal and informal shooting ranges, gold prospecting, camping that was more akin to squatting, hunting, and many dirt bike and jeep routes. Those horseback riders and hearty mountain bikers who got out for some non-motorized and unarmed recreation mostly blazed their own way.
Things changed over time, and while the BLM’s Redding field office still oversees grazing, timber harvesting, mining, and salmon restoration, its top priority is now recreation.
“For our office, recreation is going to be number one. It’s probably a tie between motorized and non-motorized,” said Steve Anderson, who manages the BLM’s Redding operation. “This is the way the land lies. You’ve got 85,000 acres in Shasta County, and most of it is associated with water or close to people. It’s a natural for recreation.”
To exemplify his point, Anderson cited what the BLM calls the “interlakes” area around Keswick Reservoir, where the agency has developed more than 30 miles of non-motorized trails.
“When you start working with the Bureau of Reclamation (which operates Keswick), you say, ‘It’s all here, folks,’” Anderson said. “Why wouldn’t we build a trail?”
In 1993, the BLM adopted a long-term management plan that called for creation of trails around Keswick Reservoir, along Clear Creek, and off Swasey Road, west of Redding. Those plans have since become reality, as it is possible to travel all the way around Keswick Reservoir – roughly 35 miles – nearly all on trail.
The Clear Creek Greenway and the Swasey Recreation Area offer about 15 miles of trails apiece. Swasey, which provides a trail link over Mule Mountain Pass into Whiskeytown NRA, has become one of the area’s most popular mountain biking locations and has hosted mountain bike races for three years. Last year, the BLM used federal economic stimulus money to pave 11 miles of the Sacramento River and rail trails from Keswick Reservoir nearly to the base of Shasta Dam, as well as three miles of Middle Creek Trail to Old Shasta. Although the BLM does not have statistics, everyone agrees that usage of the newly paved trails has increased dramatically.
While long-term plans have guided the BLM’s trail-building, the agency has also jumped on opportunities to acquire key parcels when they became available. Typically, the agency has swapped land it owns elsewhere for parcels that ease trail development and property management.
Today, the BLM is constructing the Mule Ridge Trail, a 20-mile, double loop that will connect with several existing trails. About six miles of trail are ready, and the project is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2012. In the future, the agency would like to complete the Clear Creek Greenway from Whiskeytown to the Sacramento River. Kuntz, who oversees outdoor recreation for the BLM’s Redding office, sees other opportunities on the east side of Keswick Reservoir and off Middle Creek Trail. Getting everything connected is a priority, he said.
“We want to get folks outside. That’s our rationale for a lot of this,” Kuntz said.
Anderson, who has significant influence as district manager, agrees with this approach and is quick to note that the BLM trails are fee-free.
“We are very pleased that we have these trails signed well, and we have maps. You don’t feel like you’re going to get lost out there. And you’re going to come back to a clean restroom,” Anderson said.
Some unhappy campers
Of course, the agency has not pleased everyone. Gun owners complain about the loss of shooting ranges, and off-road enthusiasts lament the loss of some historic riding areas, especially east of Keswick Reservoir. But BLM officials say closed ranges, such as the one at Swasey, were too close to houses. Kuntz asserted that the miles of motorized off-road trail have actually increased, and he noted the BLM has improved popular staging areas. In addition, the BLM is poised to take over management of the entire Chappie-Shasta OHV area, a 200-mile system of trails and dirt roads the BLM now shares with the forest service. The move should please the OHV crowd, which has feuded with the forest service.
Even mountain bikers and hikers have griped about the BLM, as they protested and sued over the BLM’s trade of “Area 51” – 200 acres near Old Shasta, crisscrossed with trails – for 500 acres on the Trinity River. Anderson does not apologize for the trade, saying Area 51 had become too difficult to manage because it was surrounded by houses.
Pam Gluck, executive director of the American Trails Council, which is based in Redding, defends the BLM’s Redding office as “excellent.”
“I would say that our BLM office is at the top of totally understanding the community and why trails are important. They make things happen faster than anywhere else in the country,” Gluck said.
Anderson and Kuntz, however, say they could not make anything happen without the funding, cooperation and labor of the BLM's public and private partners.
The Role of Philanthropy
The McConnell Foundation and the lesser-known Redding Foundation are two of the most critical partners. Based in Redding, McConnell has provided funds for countless community-improvement projects in Shasta and Siskiyou counties over the years.
“From the beginning, one of the foundation's earliest priorities was creating walking and bicycling trails,” said McConnell Foundation President and CEO Lee Salter. “As bikeways, trails, and open space have become recognized as key components to healthy communities, we’ve continued to support this as a priority.”
The foundation’s Lema Ranch and adjacent Churn Creek property provide a walker’s paradise, with approximately 10 miles of paved, gravel and dirt trails. Bicycles are welcome on the unpaved trails of the Churn Creek property.
The McConnell Foundation has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for trail development in recent years. The foundation also has acquired key pieces of property and worked privately to ensure public agencies have the necessary land for trail development.
But most importantly, the foundation had made Sindt available to the BLM on a nearly full-time basis. An avid cyclist, Sindt is an off-road trail engineering and construction expert, and he maintains a gigantic map database. He helped design and build some of the BLM’s trails east of Keswick Reservoir, such as the FB Trail, and portions of the Swasey trail system. Sindt personally laid out the entire Mule Ridge trail system and has overseen every step of construction thus far.
A bicycle commuter himself, Sindt has served on probably every local bicycle task force and advisory council for the last decade, and he has lobbied public officials for bike lanes and other facilities for two-wheelers. But Sindt said that physically laying out and building trails is his most satisfying activity.
“My priority is building more stuff,” he said simply.
The McConnell Foundation-BLM partnership has been crucial, said Max Walter, author of the mountain biking book “North State Singletrack.” “Brian Sindt and Bill Kuntz have been instrumental in demonstrating the tremendous effectiveness of a philanthropy and a government agency working together toward a common goal,” Walter said.
The Redding Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Redding businessman Brent Owen’s operation; he is a builder and real estate investor. The foundation has provided funding, and Owen and his assistant, Kimberly Hawkins, have donated many hours surveying land, designing trails, clearing brush and coordinating volunteer efforts. They helped design and build the Hornbeck and water ditch trails east of Keswick Reservoir, trails in the Swasey Recreation Area, and other pathways. Owen said his favorite trail is the Salt Creek Trail, because it links two neighborhoods west of Redding and gets heavy use from local residents.
For years, Owen quietly undertook his own environmental projects, such as restoring wetland and riparian habitat. As rising real estate values increased the cost of those projects, he turned his attention to trails.
“There’s almost universal agreement that trails are good, so, politically, you can do a lot,” he said. A daily walker on the Westside Trail behind the Mary Lake subdivision, Owen insists that his projects serve practical purposes.
“A trail for the sake of trails has no value. They’ve just got to have connectivity,” he said before adding, “Any trail that I’m funding is going to be a trail that a 3-year-old can use, a 70-year-old can use, and a buff 20-year-old can use.”
Like Sindt, Owen prefers to remain in the background and is quick to deflect attention. “Without Steve Anderson, Bill Kuntz, Francis Berg (a longtime resource manager) and a few other people at BLM, none of this would have happened,” said Owen.
A River, and Trail, Runs Through It
It was city officials, led by then-Planning Director Ben Harris, who got the local trail system started during the 1970s. For nearly three decades since, Terry Hansen has tirelessly led the city’s trail development efforts. Now retired, Hansen continues to work part-time for the city, rounding up grant funding, and overseeing trail and recreation projects.
Hansen knows the history of local trail development like no one else. He noted, for example, that the city’s 1970 general plan contained goals and objectives for open space preservation along the river. That plan provided the legal basis for the city to require developers to dedicate property and for the city to acquire other lands along the river.
“The river trail is the backbone, but there all these other things that are important,” Hansen explained. Connector trails, such as those to Hilltop Drive, Bechelli Lane and Buenaventura Boulevard, are like the spokes of a wheel, he said. “The river trail has always been intended to be both for recreation and for transportation.”
Hansen has brought in millions of dollars of grant money for trails and parks, and he has encouraged elected officials to show a backbone when developers and landowners refused to cooperate with trail efforts. He noted that the city in recent years has declined to force some developers to build pathways called for in long-term plans. Instead, the city has received an easement for a future trail, an easement that new homeowners often erroneously assume belongs to them.
But Hansen is not easily frustrated. These days, he talks about helping create a Sacramento River parkway that would extend from Shasta Dam to Red Bluff. The parkway would tie together existing public facilities and lands, such as the Sacramento River Trail, city of Redding parkland along the river in the southern part of town, Anderson River Park, and the BLM’s Sacramento River Bend Area north of Red Bluff. Although private property would prohibit a land-based trail for the entire stretch of the river, the large chunks of public land would connect together by a “water trail” and by detours onto nearby roads.
Like Sindt and Owen, Hansen prefers to remain well behind the scenes. Former Redding City Manager Mike Warren likes to tell the story of the city renaming the Turtle Bay arboretum loop as the Hansen-Sindt Trail. When Warren walked the duo out to a new sign renaming the trail and honoring their efforts, Hansen and Sindt both looked on impatiently.
“I don’t think they even said thanks,” Warren recalled with a laugh. “They just wandered off to look at something else that could be a trail.”
Bikes in the Park
While the BLM has been on a trail-building spree in western Shasta County, the National Park Service has added few miles of additional trail at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. In the last decade, the park has built only two significant new trails – the very hilly, approximately five-mile Papoose Trail from Sheep Camp to Boulder Creek Falls, and the shorter James Carr Trail to Whiskeytown Falls, which is not open to bicycles.
Rather, the crucial role that Whiskeytown plays in the mountain biking world is to allow the two-wheelers at all.
If you take your bicycle to Lassen Volcanic, Yosemite, Crater Lake or any other national park, you have to stick to paved roads, maybe a few miles of dirt road and, in places like Yosemite Valley, paved bike paths. That’s because mountain biking on trails is generally forbidden in national parks. The activity is prohibited or tightly restricted in other national recreation areas, such as Golden Gate, where many of Marin County’s most popular trails are off-limits to bikes – even though the sport was invented on some of those trails during the 1970s.
The park service, however, has welcomed mountain bikes to nearly every trail at Whiskeytown. (The only exceptions are the Carr and Davis Gulch trails.) Bikes are allowed at the discretion of the Whiskeytown superintendent. The current superintendent, Jim Milestone, said he gladly permits bikes and would like to provide them with permanent protection.
“We want to get it into our official federal registry notice that trails are open to hikers, mountain bikes and horses,” Milestone said. Whiskeytown would become one of the first national park sites boasting official approval of mountain biking.
One of the reasons mountain biking lives at Whiskeytown is the friendliness of riders. In many parts of the country, hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers cannot seem to share the same routes.
“I worked in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the mountain bikers were very rude. They ended up getting banned,” recalled Milestone, who said some horseback riders were no better. “It was totally selfish.”
The density of trail users at Whiskeytown is much lighter than in more urban areas, and the local mountain biking community is sensitive to trail closures elsewhere because of bad behavior. Leaders of Redding Mountain Biking club constantly emphasize the need to maintain good relations with the horse and hiking communities, and to ride with care around other trail users.
In recent years, the park has re-routed and rebuilt some Whiskeytown trails to reduce erosion and create longer-lasting pathways. The lack of new trails has frustrated some mountain bikers, who would like to see a lakeshore trail circle the reservoir and better trail options starting from the visitor center. Some would like to see more beginner-friendly routes, as many of Whiskeytown’s rocky, rutted and steep trails require at least intermediate-level mountain-biking skills to negotiate. But those ideas don’t fit into current plans, which, emphasized Milestone, are fiscally constrained.
“Our revenue was down 9 percent last year. That was the result of fewer visitors,” said Milestone, who acknowledged recent reductions in the trails budget. “All of the costs continue to go up, and that cuts into our ability to have discretionary spending.”
Moreover, visitors dictate lake-based recreation as Whiskeytown’s top priority. Brandy Creek Beach attracts about 350,000 people a year. Meanwhile, the trail to Whiskeytown Falls, possibly the most popular in the park, gets about 6,000 annual visitors.
Hope for Whiskeytown's two-wheelers
Still, there is good news for mountain bikers at Whiskeytown. The park service plans next year to construct a 1.5-mile section of the Mule Ridge trail project, providing a critical link in the regional system. The agency also intends to build more bridges over creeks to accommodate mountain bikers and hikers who decline to wade across calf-high or, in some instances, thigh-high creeks.
In addition, Milestone is nurturing plans for a 15-mile trail he calls The High Route that would run along the park’s south boundary from Kanaka Peak to South Fork Mountain to Coggins Park. Lying mostly at 4,000 to 5,000 feet in elevation, the trail would provide a new backcountry experience for hikers, equestrians – and mountain bikers, said Milestone.
“Jim Milestone of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area has helped foster a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for mountain bikers at the park,” said Walter, whose book includes many Whiskeytown routes. “The park is truly a recreation area for all.”
For example, when organizers of the Lemurian Shasta Classic mountain bike race needed a new home in 2005 after a few years in French Gulch, the park service readily accommodated the event. The 26-mile bike race is now a staple on the park’s annual calendar.
“We’re trying to say yes to a lot of stuff,” Milestone said. “I think Redding is going through a renaissance of trail building with the work Bill Kuntz at the BLM has done, the work Terry Hansen has done at the city of Redding, and work we have done here at Whiskeytown.”
Right Out Your Door
Warren, the former Redding city manager, gushes at every opportunity about the trail system that stems from Turtle Bay Exploration Park, of which he is currently president and CEO. Gluck, of American Trails, which promotes both motorized and non-motorized trails, understands the enthusiasm. When her organization’s board chose Redding for its annual meeting in 2000, Gluck was aghast. Shouldn’t the group, she thought, pick a location with great trails? Someplace like Boulder, Colorado, or Bend, Oregon?
But after a few visits, Gluck was so won over that she moved the group’s operation from Prescott, Arizona, to Redding. By Gluck’s count, the whole of Shasta County has about 540 miles of trails, about 150 miles of which are designated for off-highway vehicles.
“I would say Redding rates right up there towards the top for number of miles that are easily accessible. We have a great urban trail system here, and it’s just so loved,” Gluck said. “It’s kind of unusual, because you can take off from the center of the town and have a backcountry experience.”
Practically speaking, a trail system’s usefulness is only as good as the maps. Maps are posted at some trailheads in the Redding area, and some BLM trailheads have paper maps available for visitors.
The best online resource for area trails outside of Whiskeytown is the Healthy Shasta website, maintained by the Shasta County Public Health Department. The Whiskeytown website offers a map depicting most of the park’s trails.
Another resource is Walter’s book, "North State Singletrack," which is available at every bike shop in Redding. He is currently working on a new edition.
-Photographs by Michael Burke.
Paul Shigley is a freelance journalist based in Western Shasta County, CA. He may be reached at email@example.com.
A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.