RobertAnnis
    JUL 28 2022    
Are e-Bikes the Solution to National-Park Overcrowding?

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National park crowding has been an issue for years, but what if the solution is hanging in your garage right now? Can e-bikes make for not only a less congested park system, but also a happier and healthier visitor experience as well?

Late last fall, I spent two months visiting all the national parks in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. It was an incredible road trip, but even during the supposed shoulder season, the crowds were often stifling. 

So many people see these parks, among the most beautiful sites in the world, mainly through the windshield of their car, windows rolled up and the air conditioner cranked on high. They sit bumper-to-bumper on the roads, then spend several minutes circling the packed parking lots looking for an opening, just to walk to a scenic viewpoint for a quick snapshot on their iPhone. Then they go back to their cars to repeat this scene over and over again. 

In his masterpiece Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey saw the bicycle as perhaps the best way to traverse “nature’s cathedrals.” I agree. In a car, you’re trapped in a climate-controlled steel-and-glass bubble, separated from the surrounding environment. But on a bike, you’re hyper aware of the world around you. As you pedal, you feel the heat and wind on your skin. Your muscles inform you just how much the landscape rises and falls. Being able to stop more frequently, to feel a rock face in Capitol Reef National Park or taking in a mangrove forest in the Everglades, you gain a more of a tactile sense of the land. Immersing yourself in the environment this way just makes for a more enlightening, more visceral travel experience. 

Bikes aren’t just the best way to experience a destination; they can also help with the massive congestion plaguing our national parks. Zion and Grand Canyon already prohibit private vehicles in certain areas of their parks, and others are considering implementing their own vehicle restrictions. Still others, like Rocky Mountain and Acadia National Parks, force visitors to obtain timed permits to drive certain roads or access parking areas.

But bikes don’t fall under most of those restrictions. In fact, many park officials encourage their use. More and more parks and off-site outfitters are offering e-bike rentals and creating itineraries around them. While riding the aptly named Gateway to Glacier trail earlier this year, I saw more than a half dozen e-bike rental shops along the 12-mile trail. Inside the park, most of the bikes I saw were pedal assist. I spoke to several riders on Going to the Sun Road who admitted they wouldn’t have attempted such a strenuous exercise if it wasn’t for the added confidence that came with having a motor. My new friends Gary and Diane Johnson of Sandpoint, Idaho, rode their Specialized e-bikes 10 miles from Hungry Horse into the park, then explored dozens of miles along the roads and paths.

“These e-bikes allow us to cover a lot of ground inside the park,” Johnson said. “We rode all the way up to Polebridge, and there wasn’t anyone on that road.”

After suffering from back issues, Lester Binegar of Boulder, Colorado, began using an e-bike and routinely takes it to parks throughout his home state and Utah. 

“I’ve ridden mountain bikes since 1988,” Binegar said, adding that spine and overheating issues forced him onto an e-bike. “Very little legal singletrack exists (in national parks), but the beauty to behold just by riding doubletrack and pavement is incredible. Especially at the speed of a bicycle. … You need an off-road capable vehicle to go to places like the Doll House in Moab, but seeing the incredible scenery at the speed of bicycle and camping in those very unique places (is so much better than being stuck in) a big motor vehicle.

"It’s like riding a regular bike with only half the effort."

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited in the country, closes the road through popular Cades Cove to vehicle traffic every Wednesday during the summer months, with the majority of visitors those days riding e-bikes.

“Public support for vehicle-free days in Cades Cove has been strong,” said park spokesperson Dana Soehn. “In the 2021 season, 84 percent of the feedback the park received about vehicle-free day was positive, and 42 percent (requested) additional vehicle-free opportunities. … E-bikes now allow a much greater number of people to enjoy the (area).” 

Most people would consider me a serious cyclist; I raced at an amateur level, pedaled up some of the Tour de France’s most challenging mountains, and done dozens of 100-mile rides across the country. But as both my age and waistline have gotten larger, I’ve spent more time in the saddles of my e-bikes.

I had three bikes on the back of my camper van during my trip last fall — a Trek Domane road bike, a Trek Fuel EX mountain bike, and a Priority Current e-bike. The e-bike got the most use by far. For my most recent trip to Glacier, I just brought the Current.

E-bikes’ utilitarian nature makes them perfect for recreating in parks — I could strap gear to the rear rack for hiking or fishing and after arriving at the trailhead, I was still fresh enough that I could walk the trails without worrying if I’ll have enough energy in my legs to make it back to my van. I never had to worry about nabbing a sought-after parking spot; I merely locked my bike to either a bike rack or the sturdiest fencepost I could find.

Better yet, with the NPS adding EV charging stations throughout the park system, why not add bike-charging stations as well? Go for a hike, and your bike is fully charged for the trip back to your campsite or hotel when you return. While there’s no perfectly standard charging platform for e-bikes as there is for electric vehicles yet, the NPS can follow the Oregon Department of Transportation’s lead and install 110V outlets at EV charging stations. Bringing your own charging cable may be a bit of a pain for riders, but it beats running out of power on a long uphill back to your campsite. (Guess how I know this …)

While Soehn was quick to praise e-bikes in Cades Cove and other sections of GSMNP, she wasn’t quite ready to proclaim them the be-all, end-all solution to park overcrowding.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for managing congestion across sites as they each pose unique challenges,” Soehn said, adding that many roads inside the park were too steep, narrow, or filled with cars to make for an enjoyable bike ride.

But it could be argued those are exactly the roads e-bikes are most needed. How much less congested would those narrow roads be if half of the vehicles are replaced with e-bikes? Think about how much safer we’d be if we replaced those massive Cruise America RV lumbering up steep switchbacks with families on e-bikes? It could happen, but only if the NPS and the public get on board.

What if most of the most popular sites in the NPS system could only be accessed via shuttle bus or bicycle, at least during high season? In Zion, where private vehicle use is prohibited on Scenic Drive for much of the year, I rode my Current along with dozens of other riders. I was able to get to where I wanted faster and easier on my e-bike there than I had getting around in my camper van elsewhere in the park. There were no issues with the shuttle buses, as drivers were used to and expecting to see bike riders. Visitors who don’t want to give up the convenience of their vehicles would migrate to less-crowded areas of the parks, spreading out the congestion. With 2022 potentially breaking yet another NPS attendance record, officials must look ahead at ways to better preserve both our parks and the visitor experience. One of the best ways might also be the simplest.

 

 

 

 

 

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