After storms destroyed trails at Cedar Hill State Park, a Dallas cycling club went to work — and made them better than ever.
By Dan Oko
The storms that soaked the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in June 2004 may have been major, but they were little more than a wet sneeze compared to Hurricane Katrina. There is one group, however, that remains particularly beleaguered by last year’s remarkable deluge, including one wicked day that saw 14 inches of rainfall in a single hour. That would be the Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association (DORBA).
Although, truth be told, DORBA (pronounced DOOR-bah), a nonprofit cycling group that came together back in 1988 to promote mountain biking, trail building and racing in North Texas, has been able to make lemonade out of the cloud-borne lemons. In fact, the Cedar Hill trails, first constructed back in 1993 when the science of trail-building and the biking group were both in their relative infancy, were ripe for revamping. The paths had been carved willy-nilly into the rugged, surprisingly steep hills found in the 1,826-acre piece of parkland secreted in the Metroplex. When the roaring rains of ’04 seized the soil-lined singletrack paths, they opened chasms in the earth deep enough to swallow a man. In turn, DORBA has had a chance to correct early mistakes and help the park as a result.
Cedar Hill State Park is one of the most popular parks in the state. Park Manager Mike Spradling, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department veteran who got his start as a summer intern with the agency 28 years ago, surmises his most serious competition comes from the equally beloved Garner State Park on the banks of the Frio River. It would be easy enough to write off Cedar Hill’s popularity merely to the fact that 6 million people live in the Metroplex, but there’s no getting around the scenic beauty of the forested landscape on the shore of the 7,500-acre Joe Pool Reservoir. “People make fun of me for it, but I always compare us to Central Park,” says Spradling. “If you’ve been to New York City, you know what I mean. Our location provides a place for all these urban dwellers to get away from the hustle and bustle, feed the ducks and escape all this urban development.”
Thanks to a cloudburst that followed me to the trailhead, I found myself with plenty of time to kill at Cedar Hill. With the trail a prohibitively muddy mess and mountain biking on hold, I strung my fly rod and lured a few small sunfish out of the reeds by my lakeside campsite. I read my book under a gazebo, and took a swim in the lake. Later, I listened to park interpreter Linda Dunn discuss with some young park visitors the habits of various resident reptiles, and Dallas and Fort Worth, indeed, seemed a million miles away — an impression that was reinforced when I finally left behind the winding blacktop of the park roads (a popular place for less experienced riders to get a workout) to pedal the trails.
On my first tentative tour of the Cedar Park loop, I was joined by a fellow from Oklahoma whom I had never met before. It was a classic case of trailhead confusion — as we each assumed the other was local, and neither of us were. He’d come with his family primarily to visit the nearby Six Flags Over Texas, but someone tipped him off to the DORBA trail and he brought his bike along. At first, not knowing the trail, we were both a bit timid; but soon enough we developed a feel for the tight turns and rushing dips. Soon we were shooting the gaps between the trees and zipping around corners at what felt like a respectable speed, and then — wham-bam — the fun came to an end as we found ourselves back in the parking lot. It’s a tight, fast track, and after a mere three miles, I wanted more. Fortunately, I’d made plans to meet DORBA Trail Steward Danny Baggett, the man who has been marshalling trail reconstruction, to ride the park’s newly opened 12-mile loop.
Rains and trail work notwithstanding, today’s mountain bikers continue to bolster the park’s popularity. On even the hottest summer days, cyclists can outnumber the multitude of boaters who come to take advantage of the park’s Joe Pool Marina. And even though the serious cyclists generally prefer purchasing an annual pass rather than pay the entrance fee each and every time they want to ride, according to Spradling, they represent a major source of revenue. So, when it became clear the group intended to revive the trails, the manager was more than happy to renew the park’s relationship with DORBA, albeit with the caveat that they work together closely to avoid damaging precious natural resources. “My staff would not have the ability to manage these trails,” says Spradling. “And biking is a major driver of revenue.”
Given that portions of the park are given over to tall-grass prairie, a globally endangered ecosystem that provides habitat for a range of neo-tropical bird species, Paul Baldon, park specialist for natural resources, remains mindful that any development, including bike trails, could potentially harm this unique resource. In turn, Baldon along with an Austin-based outfit known as the BikeTexas Trail Doctors, which is affiliated with the International Mountain Bike Association, have helped Baggett and his partner Mike Grambush come up with a suitable plan. “We have worked together quite a bit on that,” says Baldon, who relies on a combination of old maps and old-fashioned legwork to determine the best routes. “It’s an important ecological repository, and we have one of the few remnants under the state’s control.”
The park geology, likewise, is deserving of special attention,” explains Baldon. Features such as the hills and arroyos that make for such excellent biking are a result of the combined impact of a shallow ancient ocean that used to occupy much of Texas northern plains and the fact that tributaries of the Trinity River used to likewise flow through the area. The inland sea collected and deposited the materials that would develop into Austin chalk, a type of soft limestone that is essentially the bedrock of the area despite its consistency. The river currents helped wash away a softer stone, Eagle ford shale, creating an undulating landscape. A final layer of black clay soil eventually formed from the shale, and today when it rains, it’s that material that flows off the limestone.
Longtime DORBA member and guidebook author Chuck Cypert helped construct the original trail, an all-volunteer effort that, for most of the past decade, has been considered one of the region’s premier tracks for fat-tire fun. This spring, he was pleased to find that a new DORBA crew was hard at work constructing a replacement trail, and was equally impressed at the new techniques on display, even if it meant gentler grades. “When we first went out there, we didn’t know about fall lines or anything,” Cypert admits. “We just found the biggest hills, and sort of went straight up and down, like it was a ski resort or something. Now, it’s changed so much. It’s a lot more tight and twisty, and even though some old timers curse it, I like it better.”
That’s the sort of response Danny Baggett hopes most riders will have as they explore the rebuilt trails. As the primary advocates of biking at Cedar Hill, he and the tireless Grambush form a somewhat unlikely duo; to wit, they both work the graveyard shift, and usually get on the trail and done with their labor of love before most riders have finished their first cup of coffee. The beefy Baggett towers over the slight Grambush, giving the pair a Batman-and-Robin vibe. After four years as trail steward, Baggett says he’s about ready to let his lieutenant take over, but not before they finish the current restoration work. “I’ve never taken a course, but I’ve read everything about trail building there is,” says Baggett. “I’ve traveled to Arkansas and Oklahoma and seen how they’ve done it there, and I’ve tried to incorporate that, too.”
Noting that they’ve been putting in three to four mornings a week for the past year, Grambush pipes up: “We’ll have just about forgotten how to ride when this is all said and done.”
From where I’m sitting, all this trail work doesn’t seem to have hurt Baggett’s riding. In fact, as we blaze up the track I first explored with the Okie stranger two days earlier, Baggett is calling out the names of some of the long-stem grasses — big and little bluestem fly by, as does non-native eastern gamma grass, and along the edges of some of the wide-open meadows, prickly pear cactus. For the most part, though, the new DORBA trail sticks to the woodlands, only skirting the grasslands a few times. Otherwise, the constant up and down doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing.
We snake through a forest dominated by cedar, punctuated by elm and the occasional oak. We ramp up hillocks and dive down canyons, where we swing across dry creek bottoms coated in tacky, tell-tale black clay dirt. Then we’re climbing switchbacks again. I’m happy for the shade, but feeling claustrophobic on the tight corners. Taking them quickly requires tested handling skills, lest a rider ricochet into the gullies that represent what’s left of what was once the pride of the DFW mountain-bike community. Some of the ruts are deeper than five feet and nearly as wide. Baggett explains that his switchbacks should help mitigate future erosion problems.
After a dozen miles of hard pedaling, we finished the initial section of DORBA’s new showcase at Cedar Hill. Danny Baggett hopes to stretch out another loop, which would offer 20 miles for mountain bikers, and make the trail an instant classic across the region. Just as Baggett went to Arkansas and Oklahoma to see how they do things there, our neighbors would certainly come here to check out his accomplishments. Paul Baldon says if the trail steers clear of sensitive areas, it could well be extended. Other plans are also in the works to develop a 70-mile multiple-use trail around Joe Pool Reservoir, which might link up with the mountain-bike trail as well. Baggett told me after we finished our ride, “I have a personal goal, once this is done, to ride as many hours in the year as I put in on trail maintenance since the flood.”
I’m pretty sure he’ll get it done.