If bikes could sport bumper stickers, a good slogan for this upcoming cycling season would urge us all to “Bike Locally.” Last year it was steep gas prices; this year it is a plunging economy that might have many of us taking a closer look at the backyard trails and other recreational treasures we may have otherwise driven past on our way out of town for a more exotic weekend getaway.

For mountain bikers, Beacon Hill makes biking locally a simple pleasure. The humble little hill above the Spokane River is probably the most surprising of several local riding areas hidden right under our nose. You may already know the general area by one of several other names like Minnehaha, Camp Sekani, Shields Park, or just plain Beacon, but few Spokanites with a fat-tired bike stashed in the garage are aware of the relatively vast network of trails winding throughout the ridgeline expanse of public park and private land a short warm-up ride along the Centennial Trail from downtown. Thanks in a large part to the efforts of a handful of clandestine trail builders and dedicated mountain bike advocates, Beacon has been transformed over the last decade from a hill-top party spot into a respectable riding area with trails for just about every kind of rider, from smooth cross-country singletrack to steep and challenging downhill routes and technical freeride drops and jumps.

There is something strangely satisfying about kicking the drive-to-ride habit and exploring the backwoods of your own town on a bike, and it’s more than just saving a few bucks or shrinking your carbon footprint. There is mystery and adventure in the unknown no matter where you ride or hike, and it happens to be a little sweeter when you find it right outside your door. As the trails up on Beacon dry out this spring, take some pride in getting to know, and growing to love, this local riding gem.

COMING OF AGE SPOKANE STYLE

Beacon’s close proximity to downtown and the Spokane Valley along the paved Centennial Trail and an amazing variety of trails has led Spokane City Park’s own Mike Aho, a guy who has spent a lot of time working and playing throughout the greater Beacon area, to call the Beacon/Sekani complex “one of the finest riding areas in the country.”

But Beacon’s thousand acres of public and private land that includes an estimated thirty-to-forty miles of both official and user-created trails haven’t always been treated like they are today.

In the late 1800s’, the first round of development of the Minnehaha area began. A health resort was built and after closing its doors, the building served as a brewery, dance hall, a bowling alley, and even a brothel over the years.

“Eventually, the grounds and buildings were sold to the city as park land for $35,000,” said Aho. “One of the stone structures still stands in the middle of the park, its windows boarded up. The resort was just one of several boom and bust cycles that Minnehaha would experience.”

Fortunately, after first being envisioned as a park by the Olmsted brothers in 1908, much of the land has remained in the public’s hands long enough for the current mountain biking boom underway to really take off.

Like many of the urban wilds around Spokane, Beacon also has a dark past of lawlessness and vandalism. Long before the area became popular with mountain bikers in the early 90’s, marauding bands of derelicts frequented Beacon with four-wheel drive trucks, cans of spray paint, and beer bottles, leaving a legacy of ruts, graffiti, broken glass and wrecked vehicles for future generations to contemplate, and, eventually, clean up.
The slow shift from motorized destruction to fat-tire recreation began in the late 80s and early 90s. “The biking history up there is as old as mountain bikes,” said local dirt trail cycling advocate Dan Weber. “The original trails were all carved out by motorcycles and jeeps. I talked to one guy who drove his Ford Fairlane around the hill all the time.” With a reputation like that, it took a few years before the word got out to local mountain bike pioneers, with their stiff, heavy machines, that the retreating motors had left behind a biking paradise. Within a few years, mountain bikers had claimed the place as their own.

A MOUNTAIN BIKING RENAISSANCE

Today, after years of vigilant cleanup and thoughtful development, one can hike or bike the many trails without fear of encountering bottle wielding, Metallica blasting hessians in off-road vehicles barreling down the hill in their beat up pickup trucks.

Members from groups like the Fat Tire Trail Riders Club (FTTRC) and Spokane Mountaineers, businesses like Wheelsport East, and the City Parks Department are largely behind the cleanup efforts (they pulled out thirty wrecked cars from the park and private lands last fall) and new trail construction that’s transformed Beacon into one of the finest, most diverse urban mountain biking areas in the region.

While many of the first trails were rutted jeep track and singletrack that had been carved into the hillside at will over the years by the previously mentioned 4×4 and dirt bike driving partiers, recent trail building has largely been a well-planned and engineered effort by mountain bikers who wanted to create very specific, well-planned kinds of mountain biking experiences.

One of FTTRC’s founders and chief catalysts Penny Schwyn explains that the project got started by a couple of friends from the club with the same good idea. “We were really curious as to the status of the Beacon Hill area and had the dream of a ‘real’ trail system. We knew that getting organized would be the only way to progress.” Organize they did, and the Beacon Hill Project was born.

Taking on a project that covered the entire Beacon Hill area, including a mix-match of land ownerships, neighborhoods, trail types and uses was an ambitious proposal. The Beacon Hill Project covers a lot of ground and includes a skills park, part of the downhill course, the cross-country (XC) trail, and the dual slalom course all within the Sekani boundary. The project, which was put into action in 2007, also includes a proposal to connect the Sekani XC route to the main XC trail system around Beacon Hill as well as an up trail (for downhill and other riders looking for a quicker way to get to the top) through the main part of Sekani. FTTRC and others also have plans for better signage, closure of some unapproved routes across private property and informational and interpretive kiosks. A project of this magnitude would never have been possible without so many groups working in a positive way with the public and private land owners. “This process has allowed more to happen in this area in two years than the last twenty years,” said Aho.

While mountain bikers have been largely behind the Beacon Hill Project, Schwyn pointed out that the project will benefit the entire community by linking parks and neighborhoods to open space with a network of trails that provide many different types of recreation opportunities. “The trails are used by hikers, mountain bikers, orienteers, trail runners, and dog walkers, just to name a few.”

For mountain bikers, however, the final plan means improving and connecting trail systems for several styles of riding, including XC, DH, and free-ride biking. Since a full map of all the trails won’t be ready for sale by FTTRC and local bike shops until later this year, here’s a quick roundup of the trails and access points for the type of riding you’re looking for out of Beacon.

CROSS-COUNTRY TRAILS

Cross-country, OR XC riding, is what most of us do when we set off down some rolling dirt path in search of wheeled adventure. The best XC riding includes a varied mix of climbs and winding drops on narrow, “singletrack” trails that keep one’s eyes glued intently on the trail blowing by. Beacon is blessed with miles of singletrack trails, some of which were built before FTTRC got involved, without permission by both motorcycles and mountain bikers. Together with wider stretches of rougher trails that could conceivably host a hot rodding Fairlane, there is a network of riding opportunities that will take you up and down and literally around the hill and ridgeline with a few sneaky drops that may need to be scouted or walked by those unaccustomed to brief moments of flight.

According to Weber, the first unsanctioned trail building that linked up the original XC trails to the Camp Sekani area, where much of the downhill and freeride bike park action is today, got started in the late 90’s mostly by unnamed individuals who have since moved on. “In ‘98 the first dedicated downhill trails were built in Camp Sekani, inspiring the construction of a cross-country route option to the old moto-trails. For the next several years, there was a flurry of trail building, mostly of downhill trails, that tapered off in ‘02 or ‘03.”

The potential for new trails was too great to resist, but the days of outlaw trail building had caught the attention of local land owners and the city’s Parks Department. So a new era of legal partnerships and trail building took off. According to Weber, “sanctioned trail construction started with FTTRC working with the Spokane Parks Department to ‘adopt’ Camp Sekani in 2006. The club concentrated on maintenance and re-routes to International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) standards and initiated the Beacon Hill Project, which has taken on a life of its own.”

SEKANI FREERIDE AND DOWNHILL (DH) TRAILS

Traditionally cross-country and downhill (DH) riders have dominated the scene at Beacon, but in recent years there has been a growing focus on development of a full-on freeride bike park in the ever-evolving Camp Sekani area.

Steeper, more challenging DH routes make for some fast, suspension testing runs that have spawned several popular races. Mostly on the east end of Beacon in the Sekani area where FTTRC and partners like Wheelsport East have concentrated their trail building, you can find fast DH routes alongside jumps, ladders, teeters, and other impressive freeride features that can involve hucking yourself off rocks for those with the suspension and guts for catching air.

“In 97-98 an old bike shop called Spokane Mountain Bike started building the first two trails built by mountain bikers: Kick Ass and Good Times,” said Chris Andreasen, a seasoned Sekani rider and employee at Wheelsport East. “Both trails are on the Camp Sekani side of the park and were the first two technical trails. After that, it really started to evolve into something major with people going out on their own building new trails.”

Despite the intimidating look of many of Sekani’s features, there are plenty of opportunities for building confidence and skills on less-than-badass introductory obstacles. “The park actually has a small skills park that FTTRC developed for beginners,” said Andreasen. “There are also lots of wood features and drops, wood stunts and dirt jumps to practice on.”

Other than riding the trails yourself, there’s no better way to get acquainted with all that the Sekani bike park has to offer than to watch riders in action. Check out these home-grown Sekani videos on YouTube or plan to attend one of several races planned for this year:

SEKANI DH AND FREERIDING ON YOUTUBE

RACES AND EVENTS

Dowhill and Freeride Lessons w/ Spokane City Parks April 18:
Limited space so sign up soon.
http://online.activecommunities.com/spokaneparks/Activities/ActivitiesDetails.asp?ProcessWait=N&aid=809

Beacon Blowout, Sekani April 26:
USA Cycling sanctioned Downhill Mountain Bike Race. More info at www.bicyclebutler.com.

Sekani Adventure Day July 11:
“Sekani Adventure Day on July 11 will have a variety of outdoor recreation activities for people to participate in, including rock climbing, mountain biking, geocaching, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, archery and more,” says Mike Aho. “All activities will be lead by experts in the field and will be family friendly.” Contact the City Parks Dept. for details. spokaneparks@spokanecity.org

BEST TRAILHEADS AND PARKING

Esmerelda Golf Course (XC Trails):
Park in the upper lot and begin riding up the fire road at the southwest corner of the lot. Take the singletrack heading off to the left after about fifty yards and ride 1.69 miles to the top (staying on the singletrack where it crosses old jeep roads). From the summit of Beacon, explore the jeep road trails and singletrack trails along the ridgeline to the east and ignore the ‘No Trespassing’ signs that apply to motorized vehicles, not bikes.

Boulder Beach/Camp Sekani (Freeride
& DH Trails):
Park at the Boulder Beach pull-out on Upriver Drive about 1.25 miles west of Argonne Road. Take care in crossing the busy road, and head west looking for the bike walkable fire road to the top for the best downhill descents, or, for cross-country riding, head east and watch for trails to your left as you approach the park boundary.