The Arizona National Scenic Trail spans 800 miles between Mexico and Utah and weaves through deserts, mountains, canyons, wilderness areas and national parks. One of 11 National Scenic Trails in the country, it is in the company of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. But unlike those two trails, the Arizona Scenic Trail allows mountain biking on every mile that doesn’t weave through either wilderness or two small segments in national parks.
“The Arizona Trail really only became born in concept in the 1980s when mountain biking was emerging,” says Matthew Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, a nonprofit group focused on protecting and maintaining the trail. “Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding were all considered as equal uses. And that’s one of those things that makes our trail unique, is that really inclusive nature of all nonmotorized uses.”
One thing isn’t permitted on the vast majority of the Arizona Trail right now: electric bikes. But that may change, and soon.
In 2019, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued a Secretarial Order aimed at increasing recreational opportunities for e-bikes on lands it manages. It directed its four land agencies to consider expanding areas where electric bikes are allowed. The order wasn’t, however, a green light to ride your e-bike on public lands. It triggered a large-scale rulemaking process that ultimately gives local land managers resources and oversight to determine where you can and cannot ride an e-bike (defined as two or three wheels with a small electric motor of less than 750 watts, or 1 horsepower).
So where can you ride an e-bike on public lands? The short answer: It depends. Rules vary based on where you’re riding, and they’re quickly changing. Always check with your local land manager for the latest information before heading out.
Right now, on federal lands, you can ride your e-bike on any trail or road where motorized vehicles are permitted. If you’re looking to pedal an e-bike today in a national park, on BLM land or in a national forest, your best bet is to stick to trails and roads where you’ll also find cars, camper vans, motorcycles and other motorized vehicles. Designated wilderness areas are off-limits to bikes, electric or not. Rules for trails managed by state or local governments will vary from place to place.
But—and this is the cliffhanger—what about all that glorious singletrack on federal lands?
Chances are, the multiuse nonmotorized trail you want to ride is currently open to mountain bikers, but not yet open to e-bikes. Hang tight, though. Policy is moving quickly—or as fast as policy moves through government—to open up more trails on federal lands to e-bikes, and specifically Class 1 electric mountain bikes.
(A quick primer on e-bike categories: Class 1 includes most electric bikes. These bikes have a pedal-assist function that can reach a speed of 20 miles per hour; that boost only works when you pedal. Class 2 e-bikes do not require pedaling but instead have a throttle and can go up to 20 miles per hour. Class 3 bikes are pedal-assist bikes that can reach speeds up to 28 miles per hour while pedaling.)
The issue has been a divided one. Supporters argue that e-bikes make it easier for more people to access the outdoors. As visitation to national parks and public lands skyrockets, so does traffic. E-bikes are a convenient way to get more people out of their cars and to reduce emissions and congestion, e-bike advocates say. They provide options for visitors who wish to ride a bicycle but may be limited because of physical fitness, age, disability or convenience, according to the Park Service.
Yet critics argue that e-bikes go too fast for narrow dirt trails, presenting safety challenges. Some advocacy groups, like Back Country Horsemen of America, say government policies like the DOI secretarial order have an inherent bias that favors e-bikes at the expense of other trail users. And others are concerned about the environmental impacts of e-bikes and the precedent they may set, perhaps making it easier for electric motors of all kinds to access nonmotorized terrain in the future.
Here’s a look at where some of the biggest land management agencies stand on electric bikes, and what might be changing soon.
Where can I ride now?
The National Park Service (NPS) final rule issued in December 2020 generally states that e-bikes may go where traditional bicycles are allowed. However, superintendents at each park must give explicit direction to “limit or restrict” access for e-bikes, where they deem appropriate. There’s no blanket allowance, says Morgan Lommele, director of state and local policy for People for Bikes, an industry group that advocates for e-bikes.
So, e-bike rules for different parks may appear over time on a park-by-park basis. Before you visit, check a park’s website to find out which trails are accessible to e-bikes. (Use this park locater to plan your visit).
Redwood National Park in California, for example, allows e-bikes on most “hike/bike” trails, except four that cross into state park boundaries. In Utah’s Zion National Park, only Class 1 e-bikes are allowed where traditional bicycles are. Meanwhile, you can ride your e-bike (or bike) only in certain areas of Grand Canyon National Park. And in Yosemite National Park, e-bikes are also allowed where bicycles are allowed. However, mountain biking—and thus electric mountain biking (eMTB) on dirt trails—is not permitted in Yosemite.
What to expect
National parks don’t have many backcountry trails where bikes are allowed, so electric mountain bikers shouldn’t expect too many trails to open e-bikes. Though Todd Keller, director of government affairs for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), notes that more parks are developing trails for bikes that might be open to e-bikes, too.
Where can I ride now?
As far as dirt goes, you currently can ride your e-bike on any open OHV (off-highway vehicle) area or motorized trail. (Use this BLM search tool to find out where.) Whether you can ride your e-bike on singletrack trails will be decided on an area-by-area basis. For top places to ride your e-bike, visit BLM’s e-bike site.
What to expect
BLM received nearly 24,000 comments before finalizing its e-bike rule, which went into effect on Dec. 2, 2020. According to BLM, the rule does not, by itself, automatically open any nonmotorized trails to e-bike use. The agency says “e-bikes are allowed on trails limited to bicycles and nonmotorized travel only if a BLM Manager has issued a written decision authorizing e-bike use in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.” Some local offices may choose to do so, others may not. Timing will depend on the scale and complexity of each planning effort, which could vary from a few months to more than a year.
A local BLM land manager first has to authorize specific trails for e-bikes, but only after an environmental review that includes public comment. But the new BLM rule makes it easier for land managers to do that, by creating a new tool for e-bikes, called an explicit allowance, Lommele says.
This is where things get a tad sticky. Stay with me.
BLM trails are either designated motorized or nonmotorized. With this tool, BLM gave land managers the ability to exclude e-bikes with small motors from the definition of off-road vehicle and allow them on certain nonmotorized trails where they previously weren’t allowed. Now, after a review process, local land managers can essentially say: This trail is still nonmotorized, but e-bikes are exempt from ORV rule and will be allowed.
Land managers still must follow an environmental review process that’ll include scientific studies and public comment periods, says IMBA’s Keller. At the end, if they can show that an eMTB will not have any measurable impact on a nonmotorized trail, then they can issue the exemption, or explicit allowance. That will mean a green light for electric bikes on that particular trail. (Land managers could also decide to only allow certain classes of e-bikes as well.)
U.S. Forest Service
Where can I ride now?
For now, you can only ride your e-bike on trails and roads in national forests and grasslands that are open to motor vehicles.
What to expect
The U.S. Forest Service sits with the Department of Agriculture, so the Interior Secretary’s order did not apply to national forests. However, the agency has been moving ahead with its own process to consider expanding e-bike use. It received more than 8,500 comments last October on its proposed rule and has not yet finalized it.
In considering whether to allow e-bikes on nonmotorized trails, the Forest Service took a similar approach to the other agencies in that they distinguished between the three different classes of e-bikes. But then the Forest Service pivoted, taking an opposite approach from the BLM.
In order to allow e-bikes, the Forest Service is proposing to first change a trail’s designation to motorized in order to allow e-bikes. Once that happens, Forest Service land managers could then permit e-bikes on that newly motorized trail. Furthermore, if a trail becomes motorized, the Forest Service may also limit trail use to specific motors, such as Class 1 only.
Nelson, with the Arizona Trail Association, often escapes Arizona’s heat by mountain biking into the high-elevation parts of the trail near Flagstaff. Out there, he sees a lot of other mountain bikers and also hikers, trail runners and the occasional equestrian. He’s also seeing more and more electric bikes. They’re already out there.
Anticipating the imminent arrival of e-bikes on public lands, the Arizona Trail Association recently completed a survey to learn more about the ways people perceive e-bikes. Two groups on opposite sides of this debate, People for Bikes and Back Country Horsemen of America, provided funding for the survey.
A majority of respondents said they did not support e-bike access on the Arizona Trail. But also, the survey revealed that allowing e-bikes wouldn’t change most people’s behaviors. Hikers would keep hiking. Bikers would keep biking. The exception was for equestrians, an already small user group on the Arizona Trail. A quarter of equestrians said they would stop riding the trail if e-bikes were allowed.
So, what’s the solution? Nelson believes the answer lies in mediation through a public process at the local level.
“At the end of the day, there will be conflict between users on the trail,” Nelson says. But he notes that social conflict can often be alleviated through engagement and education. If people feel heard and validated, and have good information, big divides can get smaller. “That really came shining through. I think that’s something that land management agencies really need to consider.”