Smartphone app gets some blame for illegal trails, damage at Cowles Mountain

SAN DIEGO - Rangers at one of San Diego's most treasured parks are sounding the alarm. A popular app may be behind the destruction of protected plants and animals and the creation of unauthorized trails.

Ranger Matt Sanford took 10News reporter Natasha Zouves deep into Mission Trails Regional Park to see the devastation. The damage was evident; zig-zagging across the mountains are steep trails with erosion around them and little vegetation. Sanford says there are 46 miles of trails in the massive park, and 12 miles of unauthorized ones.

"Someone is bringing in tools-- shovels, pulaskis-- clearing this path and pulling out plants that are in the way. Many of these plants are protected," said Sanford. "And we find our wildlife will avoid these areas as well."

This persistent issue of mountain bikers coming into the park and creating their own riding trails is outlined in a letter from Fish and Wildlife to the city. It essentially states that outlaw trails continue to be carved out by mountain bikers and the city has made little to no effort to stop them.

"The unauthorized construction and use of trails should be immediately addressed and effectively controlled," the letter reads. "Access roads or trails adjacent to the buffer should be fenced to preclude human intrusion."

Chris Zirkle of Parks and Recreation tells 10News the department was hit hard by budget cuts. There are currently about five rangers serving a massive area, and it is simply not possible to patrol every trail at all times.

Ranger Sanford took Zouves out to watch just one of these unauthorized trails. In just five minutes, Sanford busted six mountain bikers and hikers on the trail. They got away with a verbal warning. All claimed there was no signage and they didn't know it was an unauthorized trail.

But two of the mountain bikers also had this to add: that essentially, the outlaw trails are just more fun to ride on.

"They're built by mountain bikers!" said one. Another biker added, "There's no challenge to [the authorized trails.]"

It's this competitive spirit that's the problem, according to Zirkle. He says technology only makes matters worse.

"There is a website called Strava, where recreationalists wear GPS units," said Zirkle. "It records their routes and times. The website designates the fastest person through that route as the king of the mountain."

Zouves put this popular free app to the test. Using the phones GPS, the Strava app tracked her every move up Cowles Mountain and recorded how long it took. With heavy gear and on legal trails, it took about 40 minutes to go halfway. Upon completing the trip, the app prompts you to "share" your shortcuts and time directly with friends, via Facebook.

Rangers say, with bragging rights in mind, mountain bikers will compete to be "king of the mountain." The issue is that this can encourage destructive behavior—the fastest way down a mountain is usually not using legal trails.

"It can get emotional with the different user groups out here but I just try to be as patient as I can." said Sanford. He admits it's frustrating to see the same offenders on the same unauthorized trails. "You have to not take it personally."

Sanford says there are active restoration efforts underway for the 12 miles of eroded and barren outlaw trails. But what takes months to restore takes only moments to destroy.

In a statement to 10News the San Diego Mountain Biking Association says: "Until the city recognizes the needs of mountain bikers in San Diego, there will always be a problem with unauthorized trail use."

Print this article Back to Top