The mountain bike trail winds through towering pines, verdant meadows, aspen groves and rocky outcroppings. It crosses the creek a couple times before doubling back on itself and ending up where it started. It’s uphill first, followed by a winding 3-mile downhill payoff, and it’s one-way directional so no need to worry about head-on collisions. 

As popular as it is and as much as it’s used, you’d think the Slate Creek Mountain Bike Trail near Kamas in northeast Utah’s Summit County has been here forever.

But nope. A year ago it didn’t exist.

Introducing what is believed to be the first on-purpose mountain bike trail constructed on U.S. Forest Service land in Utah.

Walt Chudleigh and Les England ride the Slate Creek Mountain Bike Trail. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

A winding path to completion

It may seem like a natural — a mountain bike-specific trail on Forest Service land, which of course is by definition mountainous. But for a number of reasons it was a while coming, the primary one being that the Forest Service manages forests, it doesn’t develop them.

If anyone was going to build and maintain a bike trail on their land, it wasn’t going to be them.

Such was the status quo until a little over two years ago, when Nicholas Brown, a forest ranger working out of the Heber-Kamas Ranger District — part of the 2.2-million acre Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest — had a brainstorm:

Let’s get somebody else to build it.

After securing permission from Daniel Jauregui, the district’s head ranger, Brown reached out to the South Summit Trails Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in nearby Oakley, Summit County.

Brown asked Tom Noaker and Les England, the foundation’s president and vice president, if their membership might be interested in laying out a mountain bike trail on Forest Service terrain near the bottom of the Mirror Lake Highway?

It was like asking if they’d like a winning Powerball ticket.

Tom Noaker, South Summit Trails Foundation president. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

Opportunities like this were precisely why South Summit Trails was started in the first place.

The group’s beginnings are quintessential grassroots. Five years ago, Noaker, England and Howard Sorensen, all of whom live next to each other on a street named Cow Alley in Oakley, were talking over the back fence about the need for more trails in the area.

The goal was trails for all purposes, but particularly for mountain bikes. The men were tired of having to go to Park City — where the extensive trail system on the ski runs keeps getting more crowded — when right out their back door were some of God’s most beautiful mountains.

They wondered how many people felt like they did, so they scheduled a meeting at the Oakley Town Hall. They feared it might be just the three of them, but 42 people showed up. They organized themselves into a proper 501(c)(3) nonprofit, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

The Yellow Pine Trailhead in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest is the starting and ending point of the new Slate Creek Mountain Bike Trail. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

Membership had grown to over 100 when Brown called in 2019.

No sooner had he made his offer than volunteers from the foundation were at the site getting busy, not wasting any time in case the Forest Service changed its mind.

They brought in a trail-making machine to make the first cut, chopped roots, trimmed trees, filled holes, moved rocks. All through 2020 the volunteers worked, breathing fresh air while dodging the pandemic. All together, they totaled more than 1,500 man-hours. Everyone worked for the same wage: free. Only the equipment had to be paid for. The entire 5.7-mile trail cost $80,000, all of it raised by donations to the foundation.

The Forest Service assigned ranger Brent Freeman, himself an avid mountain biker, to act as liaison between the two groups. Freeman made sure the trail, while custom-built to mountain bike specs with the requisite curves, berms and loops, would also be multiuse, as per Forest Service requirements, open not only to cyclists but to hikers and everyone else.

Next thing anyone knew, by late last fall the trail was done.

Walt Chudleigh and Les England ride the Slate Creek Mountain Bike Trail. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

“When these guys say it happened quick, it happened quick. We usually move like wet gunpowder,” quipped Jauregui, the head ranger.

“We saw an opportunity here to get ahead of the curve,” he continued, noting that visitors to the Heber-Kamas District doubled during the pandemic. “The population is coming, so the thinking is, ‘let’s be ready for it.’”

Shared responsibilities

Going forward, the foundation will maintain the trail and the Forest Service will act as landlord.

The public-private collaboration “is a forever relationship, everybody understands that,” said Jauregui. “If we both play our roles, this is not the last piece. This is just the start of something bigger and better.”

To that end, plans are already in place to create an intersecting circuit of mountain bike trails stretching out from the Slate Creek Trail for as much as 40 miles.

And that’s just in this one spot at the forest’s mouth. Who’s to say how many trails might be possible in the more than 8 million acres of national forest in Utah?

Walt Chudleigh and Les England ride the Slate Creek Mountain Bike Trail. | Lee Benson, Deseret News