Behind the Scenes in Creating the Trans-Cascadia Course

Nov 6, 2021
by Alicia Leggett  
Photo: Mike Thomas

Once in a while, what goes around really does come around, and this year, the Trans-Cascadia’s years of trail stewardship were repaid in the opportunity to race remote backcountry trails that had never before been permitted for racing after half of the originally planned course burned.

Now that the dust has settled on the race season and we start to look ahead of winter to the next race season, we can reflect back on this fall’s race lest we forget what a lucky long shot it was, and the trust built with local land managers that made that long shot possible.

The race took place outside of Twisp, Washington, in the Okanagan Range, the northeasternmost subrange of the Cascades.

The groundwork

A race like the Trans-Cascadia doesn’t just happen by accident. Trans-Cascadia Inc is not only a race committee but a trail advocacy organization that has helped restore and maintain roughly 500 miles of backcountry trails in Oregon and Washington, even fully bringing back to life more than 100 miles that had long been forgotten. In 2021 alone, Trans-Cascadia maintained and opened 108 miles of backcountry trails and cleared 46 miles of access roads, including in the region used for the race that would take place in the Methow Valley Ranger District of the Sawtooth backcountry, outside of Twisp, Washington.

According to the Trans-Cascadia website, backcountry trails are endangered by three factors: lack of maintenance, lack of advocacy, and lack of funding. The race itself helps with the funding piece as well as the awareness of how special these raw, remote places are, which can also help create momentum around the advocacy piece. From there, as long as there are people who care and are able to do the work, it can happen.

The Trans-Cascadia, as a whole, isn’t strictly a race, the organization behind the race, or a trail stewardship group. It’s all of that, because all those pieces are so essential to what the Trans-Cascadia does.

The race organizers first set eyes on the 2021 race zone in 2019, and over the course of several work parties, restored the trails for what was to be the third and fourth days of the four-day race in Washington’s eastern Cascades. The plan was to then prep the first two days after the third and fourth days were finished, as the latter half was remote and would take more time to make raceable. The trails, which hadn’t seen work in a long time, were no joke to get up and running, but through dedication from volunteers and staff trail workers alike, they were revived.


The trails burn

Unfortunately, as the trails were finally finished in August, forest fire season in the Cascades caught up. Just five weeks before the 2021 race, the Trans-Cascadia organizers had to watch from afar as their hard-earned miles of trail were destroyed by flames, throwing into question whether the event would happen. Days 3 and 4 of racing were wiped away. When an organization puts everything it has into creating just one big race per year, there’s a whole lot at stake for that one event. It's a big deal if it's ruined.

Still, the Trans-Cascadia backcountry race is all about resilience and pushing onward even when things get hard, so it’s fitting that the race crew did just that.

There was more than one type of fire at the Trans-Cascadia. Photo: Riley Seebeck

Rising from the ashes

In the days after the fires engulfed the zone, the Trans-Cascadia met with “local conspirators” who understood what the event meant, not just for the racers and those out to have a good time, but for the entire system of trails. “Our reputation preceded us,” Alex Gardner, part of the Trans-Cascadia leadership explained.

In six years of trail restoration, Trans-Cascadia has redefined a way of looking at trails that treats regions not as individual, one-off trails to be ridden and raced, but as whole networks. “What ended up happening to these networks is that spots of them get worked on, but no organization has been able to complete an entire network, so we always come into these things trying to see how we can improve the entire network. And they generally are dense networks that allow us to host at least two days of the race there,” Gardner said. When Trans-Cascadia sets out to build a race course, way more trails end up restored than the ones that are raced in the end – plus the service roads to access them.

Change of plans: the racers would be taken on an adventure ride (and hike) that had seen few bike tires before. Photo: Mike Thomas

Before the planned 2021 race, work parties had cleared and brushed a trail system that included some classic alpine trails that had fallen by the wayside over the past decade, trafficked primarily by hikers and heavily geared-up moto riders. When those trails burned, the local land managers gifted Trans-Cascadia the permits for one-off use of hiking trails and historic moto trails that are currently unmapped for the final two days of racing. (The first two days’ courses remained unburned.)

Still, while the permitting piece was an important step, the hardest work on the new trails was yet to come. The Trans-Cascadia had hired two full-time trail workers who worked relentlessly to make the trails raceable with just 10 days to go before showtime, eventually creating a course for two remote, brutal days of racing in addition to the planned first two days. The work crew completed the second and third days' courses on the first and second race days, respectively.

Astonishingly, when it came down to the wire, the race actually worked. There were trails, and they were awesome.

At the race, we were in our own idyllic little world, but the fires still raged in the background. Photo: Mike Thomas

The takeaways

The Trans-Cascadia’s success this year is an example of those lucky times when multiple user groups can come together, recognize their common interests, and find solutions that will benefit not only the mountain bikers but the moto riders and entire communities. On the bureaucratic side, three different forest regions were part of the conversation about what to do and where to go. Those land stewards, luckily, were also mountain bikers, moto riders, and outdoors folk who, alongside their jobs, could recognize the value of the work the Trans-Cascadia put into the area’s trail systems that would benefit all the area’s outdoor recreators. The Forest Service not only allowed the Trans-Cascadia to ride trails that had never otherwise been permitted for mountain biking, but worked with the Trans-Cascadia to make it as fun, gnarly, and successful an event as possible. Trans-Cascadia credits that entirely to the organization having done right by the Forest Service in the past and having built the vast amount of trust required to race sensitive trails.

“I think that’s the real treat. All this shit is unrideable before you guys get there,” I was told, only made rideable by crews clearing the trails ahead of us as we raced. Those trails had seldom, if at all, seen mountain bikes before (understandably, as they were a bit of a pain to get to), and remained unmapped so they will see few mountain bikers again. Riding them was a fleeting, unique moment in time – a gift that the race organizers attribute, over and over, to the mutually beneficial stewardship relationships they’ve built.

That stage start was a one-time deal. Photo: Mike Thomas

It's funny how things come together in a crisis sometimes, and this year, the people behind the Trans-Cascadia believe that the race turned out even better than they could have originally planned. Having to figure out some trails in a time crunch led them to lean into their relationships with land managers to dig far beneath the surface of what we could have raced. Even better, having restored the trails, brushed them out, and made lots of local moto riders very happy, the Trans-Cascadia has abided by the campsite rule: they left the area better than they found it. One foot of trail at a time, the organization is continuing to build the trust that'll make for even wilder racing in the years to come.




35 Comments

  • 31 6
 Why are these trails remaining “unmapped so they will see few mountain bikers again”? Why can’t they just put them on Trailforks? Why are only the Moto riders going to ride these trails in the future? Is there some sort of secret handshake where only the people paying boatloads of money to race get the beta?
  • 19 1
 I agree, I really don't understand this after reading the article. Spending tons of money and man hours to clear trails for riding, but then not letting on what these trails are so that... they become neglected all over again? Day 3 and day 4 trails only rideable on that day due to special permission, but will make local moto riders happy? So are they legal to ride or not? If those cleared trails are in buttcrack nowhere anyway 6hrs drive from Seattle and require considerable effort to reach then I wouldn't worry about the masses riding them to death, so might as well say where they are.
  • 15 3
 Some of the trails we rode are already on Trailforks. Others were only able to be used by special use permit and are either closed to bikes or unofficial and will never be on maps. The only reason we could use them for the race is because all the trails we'd cleared over the summer were literally burning... We watched the smoke and flames from the ridge tops. The USFS was very cool to allow us to use trails that are not official MTB trails. The other reason is some of them required 4000 ft hike a bikes after a two hour shuttle and nobody is every going to go ride them.
  • 11 1
 It sounded like they were existing trails but normally only open to hiking or moto. I can’t imagine a trail that’s open to hiking AND moto but NOT bikes, so let’s just assume there’s some different uses on separate trails out there,

If that’s the case the I don’t see a reason not to map them and post them on Trailforks for their respective uses. There’s a lot of non-MTB trail content on Trailforks already.
  • 11 5
 @tbmaddux: the mountain bike trails are listed on trail forks. The others are either not legal to ride on or not legal at all (and will therefore not be on Trailforks, ever). Some of the best trails in the area will never be on Trailforks. You want to ride them, come say hi to done locals and they'll be happy to show you around. Want to know every inch of trail they ride? Pay to race or come out for one or more work parties. Both are great experiences.
  • 8 15
flag masonskis (Nov 7, 2021 at 6:58) (Below Threshold)
 Ok thanks for the clarification. If it’s legal for moto then it’s legal for bikes. Don’t assume the public won’t want to shuttle then hike a bike for 4000 feet, which I’m calling BS on, did anyone actually document this 4000’?
Good for you to get special permission from your friends at the Forest Service to kill vegetation on illegal trails that only rich people get to ride once (sarcasm).
Also, thanks for adding some stuff to Trailforks, can you please provide the links in your Race Reports?
  • 13 9
 One more thing, I think they should spend more time on trails that will actually get used by the public in the future.
  • 14 1
 @gilby82: We get it. But still it seems pretty fishy to have this article talking about all the great trailwork that was done but only for one race. The fact is, motos have been doing a great job of maintaining Angels Starircase for years. And motos have also been neglecting Uno Peak for years, even though it has great potential. Like a lot of people here I’m mainly interested in a conditions update, because we all know fires happen every year there- not just before TC. Lastly, people have been riding those trails for years, yes even the 2hr shuttle/4k hike-a-bikes… Uno Peak was in Tom Kikendalls books. People do ride from Manson to Twisp. To keep it positive, I think really all people are asking for is a conditions report on trails included in the course that are legally open to bikes.
  • 8 4
 @masonskis: stick to skis Mason....
  • 5 3
 Quit your moaning not every trail has to be accessible. They're moto tracks.
  • 5 4
 Agreed. Talk all about oh we’re opening up new trails for everyone, rescuing things getting overgrown, good stewardship advocacy yadda yadda yadda… but we’ll take any info about them to Davy Jones locker and no one will ride them again! So what’s the point?
  • 4 0
 @gilby82: I get what you’re saying about unauthorized trails. We have a lot of them in our area and they’re flagged and hidden on Trailforks at the request of land managers. I will point out that your post seems to contradict this from the original article: “… permits for one-off use of hiking trails and historic moto trails that are currently unmapped …” but maybe it’s just a poorly-constructed sentence. Anyway, appreciate all that T-C and the volunteers do throughout the Cascades for the trails while still managing to have a good time doing dumb things on bikes.
  • 3 1
 @masonskis: wow entitled much?
  • 1 3
 @leelau:
How the hell am I the entitled one?
  • 12 4
 If the race is too expensive for you (as it is for me) come out a work party and experience TC in that way! Although what you don’t pay for in dollars, you will pay in blood and sweat! I had a great time this summer slaying brush with a hedge trimmer. You will meet awesome, likeminded people, work in hard to get to places and eat a lot of good food! You’ll also get to ride your bike!
  • 7 1
 So it takes a literal act of congress to get a new MTB trail on federal land, yet the local office can allow a bike race on a (apparently secret) hiking trail for one day only? This makes no sense. Nor does implying a trail is open to moto and not bike. Aside from lack of maintenance and funding, another threat to trails is when drop off of official maps. These are exactly the type of trails that should be being publicized. Poor 'journalism' in writing this article and misguided advocacy by TC.
  • 7 1
 I would really like some specifics about what trails burned, what new ones were built, and exactly what the course was. Uno Peak?
  • 3 0
 North 25 mile creek trail and pot peak trail where the ones that where within the 25 mile creek fire. Not sure if they completely burned though? The fire may not have burned all the way to the devils backbone but it seems like most of the work these guys did was torched
  • 9 1
 Course was the Foggy dew orv area outside of Twisp. The off the grid trails were off of bryan butte and north navarre peak
  • 1 0
 @Tomford: ok so those (Bryan Peak and Summer Blossom) are both hiking-only trails. No reason they can’t be on Trailforks and not open to bikes, just like Chelan Summit and all those Glacier Peak Wildeeness trails more to the west.
  • 1 0
 @tbmaddux: So hiking only trails can be opened to bikes without extensive analysis and delay. That is super interesting.
  • 2 0
 @ACree:
This is insane, they let TC race on “hiking only” trails?
  • 4 0
 “According to the Trans-Cascadia website, backcountry trails are endangered by three factors: lack of maintenance, lack of advocacy, and lack of funding.”

To me the biggest factor for a lot of these is a lack of tires. I know one trail TC brushed out quite a while back (Grasshopper) got pretty overgrown until it became more popular among locals and out of towners.
  • 2 0
 This was a nice article. I like hearing about more trails being built and trails being improved.

Last year they reported that the "great American outdoors act" became law (July 22, 2020) and that it was supposed to (theoretically) cause lots of good stuff for outdoor projects ($1.3 billion per year). I'm curious if this has effected the mtb trail building this year in any way. It seems related to trail advocacy.

If it has it'd be cool to see an article on the improvements that have happened.
  • 4 0
 My how far Washington has come in a decade or so. The chainsaw massacres have become chainsaw manicures.
  • 3 2
 For all the goodwill, and media hype this race generates, at the end of the day there is an enormous amount of work that goes into these trails and only a handful of people actually get to ride them. Every year we read about this oh so amazing race and all the just wonderful work that goes into the trails. I guess if you build it then sure, you could keep it for you and yours, but the MTB community a long, positive tradition based upon shared resources on public land. This race stands out as an anomaly in that sense. I personally feel it would be for everyone's benefit if these trails were published. If more people were riding these trails, would that not help with the maintenance and advocacy? How is it possible these trails have been open to hiking and moto but not MTB?
  • 2 2
 I'm glad to see only one comment. Saturday is for shredding!!!!!
  • 5 6
 Cue the it is too expensive comments.
  • 1 0
 I mean...
  • 7 7
 kind of hard not to when 90% of the racers are pros with invites/comps
  • 4 0
 @briceps: About a quarter of the field are pros....check out results list, and many aren't comped. But yep, it's expensive.
  • 9 1
 @briceps: Lol, the only actual pros there this year were Jill, Tobin, and Geoff - the rest of us in the pro class have day jobs but don't sandbag the amateur class.
  • 4 1
 Sort of akin to a NOLS course, IMO. Paying for an experience, not a race.
  • 5 1
 @briceps: actually it's about 75% average Joe's in my experience. Granted, many of them have professional degrees (MDs, DMD/DDS, JD, and two DVMs-one racing, one volunteer). It is a whole different experience when you're riding in the back country at "race pace" knowing there are several medical pros on course as race medics but the odds are also in your favor that the person behind you or behind them is an MD and will be to you before the official medic can. There were also professional arborists, non-bike sales reps and other average mountain bikers from just about every field. The pros and industry folks get all (most of) the pictures, but they are not the majority.
  • 2 2
 @briceps: lol, fail

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