Wissahickon restoration could close two rogue bike trails

A Northwest Philadelphia environmental group will undertake a new trail restoration effort this spring.

Members of the Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers are planning to continue their work improving the ecology of the Wissahickon Creek, and are now turning their attention to paths that lead to and from the Kelpius Cave, a historial landmark marking the home of a fraternal brotherhood of Christian mystics led by the German-born Johannes Kelpius. 

According to WRV President Steve Jones, who spoke before the Wissahickon Interested Citizens Association this month, mountain bikers have inadvertently created a bike trail – known as a “social” or “rogue” trail – that leads from the area of Hermit Lane directly to the cave.

Noting that this trail is environmentally unsustainable, the WRV hopes to close the trail, install a physical barrier to discourage usage, and to temporarily install a sign to inform users that natural restoration is being conducted. Users would be directed to other nearby pathways that are designed for mixed-use.

In addition, a second unsustainable social trail that leads up the hill from the Kelpius cave would also be closed, with a temporary sign installed as well to direct usage. An ad-hoc footbridge in the area of the trails would also be removed.

The project is scheduled to begin in the spring.

Discouraging bikers from using certain trails 

Based in East Falls, the nonprofit WRV is an organization dedicated to the restoration of the Wissahickon Valley section of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, and has been in existence since 1986, according to WRV literature.

The trails in the Hermit Lane area were included in the preliminary studies of the park done as part of the Sustainable Trails Initiative, a multi-stage plan by the Friends of the Wissahickon to help make 50 miles of trails in the creek area environmentally and socially sustainable. WRV has conducted natural restoration in one corner of the area for approximately 13 years, and is slowly expanding that work “down slope” toward the Wissahickon Creek.

Jones indicated that his organization is interested in discouraging bikers from using certain trails that are designated for use by walkers and equestrians, as cyclists can have adverse effects on both unsuspecting hikers and horses, and can contribute to erosion and siltation downstream.

In addition, Jones expressed the belief that a prohibition on mountain biking along these trails might encourage an increase in equestrian usage, observing that horses – and their riders – are often spooked by fast-approaching bicyclists.

However, he was quick to note that he isn’t putting forth a “tirade” against bikers, noting that his organization has strong ties to the Philadelphia Mountain Bike Coalition.

“It happens to be an area of the park that is supposedly closed to bikes,” he said. “Part of it is informing the people of good will so that they will make a more-informed decision, and part of it is making it really clear that it’s not open to bikes.”

Seeking approval from Fairmount Park officials 

Concluding his presentation, Jones received positive feedback from WICA members, although some residents voiced concerns about the possibility of trail closures encouraging other rogue trails to form in their place.

In response, Jones said that the support of organized mountain biking groups could assist in notifying their members to avoid certain areas, noting that the organized bicycling community is generally a good steward of trails.

With community support obtained, WRV will also need approval from Fairmount Park officials. Jones expressed optimism about the plan’s chances for success, which could result in an increasingly-sustainable watershed and the peaceful coexistence of hikers and bikers.

“The experience we’re trying to provide,” he said, “is one where someone can walk and hear the birds, see the plants, and forget about the pressures of life.”

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