When I catch up with Mike Rutter, the new trails program director for Boulder Mountainbike Alliance (BMA), he’s staring over his handlebars down a steep rock slab. Half paying attention as I scout the line myself, I hear him say something like, That looks rollable. I have my doubts and am feeling like a guinea pig. In a way, I am.
It’s early May, and I’ve tagged along with some of the builders of Black Hawk’s Hard Money, the Front Range’s newest mountain bike-only trail, as they do their final ride-through before opening the track to the public. So far, it’s been a fast, flowing intermediate trail designed to be fun for most riders. It has machine-sculpted berms, rollers, and the occasional small jump or drop. If I wanted to, I could keep straight on the mainline for more of the same. Or I could follow Rutter to the right down this black diamond alternate route.
He drops in. I follow and let out a whoop as I hit dirt again, skitter over a rock garden, and rip through a berm where the two lines rejoin. Rutter is waiting for me, and there’s no question we’re riding back up to do it again.
If you’re a mountain biker, hiker, trail runner, or equestrian in the Front Range, you know how rare it is to have a trail designed for your particular athletic pursuit. Hard Money, which opens to the public May 29, is just the second purpose-built, bike-only downhill trail in the entire region, meaning most of the time different trail users with vastly different needs are forced to share space. This can create a lot of tension, but things are slowly changing. Clear Creek County started courting bikers to its Floyd Hill Open Space in 2019 with the Sluice, the first mountain bike-only downhill trail in the region, to help diversify its economy, says Gary Moore, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association (COMBA). Black Hawk is following its lead.
“They want that traffic. They want to get people off of I-70 and into their towns and onto their trails,” Moore says. “That is part of their push here in Black Hawk. They’ve had the casino economy forever, but they want to have something for people who aren’t gambling to do. And this trail system is, what, two minutes north of downtown?”
It’s been a long time coming. For nearly two decades, Black Hawk worked to acquire all the mining claims on Maryland Mountain. Then in 2014, the city hired Mary Hart Design, a landscape architecture firm out of Breckenridge, to prepare a master plan to turn the area into a destination for hikers and bikers of all skill levels, with designated trails for each group. Then, after the city started construction last summer, David Spellman, Black Hawk’s longtime mayor, asked COMBA and BMA to dial in the trails and help make sure they were fun enough for bikers to actually want to make the drive. So far members of the two advocacy groups have logged 2,892 volunteer hours at Maryland Mountain worth an estimated $72,000 in donated labor. They’ll also have a big hand in designing and building future trails.
In addition to Hard Money, the plan currently calls for three more mountain bike-only trails leaving from a central hub, including a beginner-friendly flow trail named Easy Money, an intermediate/advanced trail named One Eyed Jacks, and Doubled Down, a backcountry-style expert trail that will make use of Maryland Mountain’s rocky spine.
In the Front Range, having one trail designed specifically for bikers is rare—the only other one is the Sluice in Clear Creek’s Floyd Hill Open Space. Four trails is unheard of. That means that one system alone will quadruple the number of purpose-built mountain bike trails in the Front Range. A big part of the reason it’s only happening now is that trail building is a notoriously red-tape-heavy endeavor. Not only do builders usually have to design with multiple user groups in mind, depending on who the land manager is, they also have to contend with multiple levels of government regulations. And what’s fun to ride isn’t always fun to hike.
“That’s what a lot of riders don’t understand,” says Moore. “We don’t get to make the [design] choices. We can advocate, we can influence, we can fund, we can supply labor, and grease the skids, but at the end of the day, the land manager gets to decide what their objective is, who they are trying to build this for.”
But since Black Hawk owns Maryland Mountain and isn’t using any outside funding, it’s the only one calling the shots. Both Rutter and Moore hope it will serve as a test case for creating separate trail experiences for hikers and mountain bikers instead of the one-size-fits-all approach that’s currently standard. (Out of Jefferson County’s 251 miles of trail, for example, only two trails are mountain bike-only, and both started out as multi-use trails open to all.)
Either way, Moore doesn’t think Black Hawk will rest on its laurels. “I asked the city manager if they were concerned about trail density when I was first up here, and he just said, ‘The more trails the better.’ … So we’ll likely be adding experiences for a long time.”