Area mountain bike enthusiasts have found their field of dreams.
Well, not a field, exactly, but a piece of heaven anyway — a 17.5-mile bike trail that circles the lake at Yellow Creek State Park. As it crosses fields and small streams, meanders through woods and hills and runs by rocks and boulders, it gives local riders a new opportunity for outdoor recreation and adventure.
About nine years in the making, the trail is a cooperative project among park officials at Yellow Creek and members of the Laurel Highlands On-Off Road Bicycling Association (LHORBA.)
The first one-mile section was constructed in 2004. Year by year, the trail has lengthened and plans call for an additional 2.5 miles, according to LHORBA member A.J. Kindya, 43, who lives near Armagh.
And as the trail has grown, so has interest in mountain biking, Kindya said. “I think bike usage in the park is definitely increased.” Not just among Indiana County residents either. Ken Bisbee, park manager at Yellow Creek, said he heard rave reviews from bikers as far away as Bedford County.
“It is amazing to me how far people come to ride this trail,” Bisbee said.
Ken Scherf, 32, of Indiana is an avid mountain bicyclist and co-chairman of Friends of Yellow Creek, which has helped to publicize and maintain the trail. Before he had to travel far to enjoy his hobby. The Yellow Creek trail has changed all that.
“It’s been great to have something so close,” Scherf said. “Not everyone has that luxury. It’s a beautiful experience to have this.”
Riders can enter the trail from any of Yellow Creek’s parking lots. They can complete the entire course and end where they left their car. Or if the 20-mile trek seems too long, riders can take one of several short loops off the trail and head back to their start.
The trail is single-track and only about six inches wide, Bisbee said. Because it is so narrow, it has minimal impact on the terrain and surrounding environment – a goal Bisbee and members of the Laurel Highland group kept in mind as they developed the project.
Mountain biking has grown in popularity over the past several decades, Bisbee noted. Even before LHORBA began work on the Yellow Creek trail, he was interested in such a project for the area.
“There were a lot of people who had asked questions about it.” The bikers were familiar with the Hoodlebug and Ghost Town trails, Bisbee said, but “there were people looking for more challenging things to do.”
He knew other parks, such as Moraine State Park in Butler County, had developed mountain biking trails and wanted to see if Yellow Creek could follow that lead. But there were concerns.
“Mountain biking was getting a bad rap at that time,” Bisbee said. Some bikers, it seemed, were careless about where they rode and how they treated the land. Natural habitats were being ripped apart, with wildlife displaced. “A lot of places were starting to prohibit mountain biking.”
But LHORBA members took a different perspective as they started work on the project, Bisbee said. “They were interested in a sustainable trail.”
Kindya said when LHORBA members first approached Bisbee, they didn’t really have a specific plan for a mountain bike trail. They were just interested in helping out as needed at the park. LHORBA has a mission to improve outdoor recreation and, since 2000, members have logged approximately 8,000 volunteer hours on different riding venues around the region.
As time went on, the group did some homework, consulted recommendations from the International Mountain Bicycling Association and laid out a design for a mountain bike trail at Yellow Creek.
“The intent (of the trail design) is to be minimally invasive,” Kindya said, adding the group also wanted to limit the need for future maintenance as much as possible. LHORBA, in addition to designing and building the trail, also assumes responsibility for maintenance.
After each design step, park officials had to study and approve LHORBA’s proposal. Sometimes they consulted with other state officials — such as the state Bureau of Forestry — to make sure work was in keeping with environmental regulations and preserved native wildlife around the lake.
“Several times on some sections we had to consult with the Pennsylvania Game Commission,” Bisbee said.
As an initial trial, LHORBA members put in the first mile of trail back in 2004. The work could be tough and dirty. “You literally go out with rakes, shovels, chainsaws, hand tools,” Kindya said. They put in a few small bridges over wet spots and took out some brush and dense weeds but, in keeping with their conservation mission, did not cut any trees along the trail.
But construction of that first segment was a success and LHORBA members kept going. Kindya estimated group members have so far put in approximately 2,000 volunteer hours on the 17.5 miles of track.
LHORBA plans to add 2.5 miles to the trail, Kindya said. Right now, there are a few sections of trail on the roadway and his group wants to replace those on natural terrain. Plans also call for installation of better trail signage so bicyclists can more clearly gauge their location when out riding.
In the meantime, various events are available to promote mountain biking at Yellow Creek.
Friends of Yellow Creek have sponsored mountain bike races along the trail to promote the project. The next race is set for Sept. 28 as a part of the group’s Summerfest. For more information about the Friends’ races, check the website www.rideyc.com.
Mike Shaffer, the naturalist at Yellow Creek State Park, has also regularly held programs on mountain bicycling.
Vickie Shank, of Indiana, is leading monthly mountain bike rides for women. She had actually worked on building the trail before she tried mountain biking. Initially she was intimidated by the aggressiveness in the sport, she said.
“Each time I tried, I liked it a little better,” she said. “Now I love it.”
Shank, who is also a member of LHORBA, hopes to introduce other women with her rides, which are set for the second Thursday of months May through September. For more information, contact Shank at firstname.lastname@example.org
Although Shank is happy with her sport, she believes the real value of the trails extends beyond her own interests. They provide area residents an opportunity for a new challenge and a new way to look at the world around them.
“The people will enjoy these trails even after we are gone.”