If you build it, they will come. That’s just what the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry was hoping when it decided to create a brand new mountain bike trail system in a portion of the nearby Allegheny National Forest in 2015. Fast forward several years, and the trailhead parking lot at Jakes Rocks is full of cars with bike racks every weekend. Mountain bikers flock to Warren, Pennsylvania to experience what will soon be nearly 30 miles of exceptional singletrack constructed by Dirt Artisans.
“The trail system was built intentionally to create a mountain bike community, starting with some beginner trails to get the locals riding and to bring people here,” said Jim Decker, President of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry and local champion of the project. “I was skeptical that any one activity could create such a sense of community here in Warren County, but the trails speak for themselves. Now at Jakes Rocks, we have something for everybody - from beginner level to more intense trails. Riders are amazed at what we have created.”
The Birth of a New Trail System
Forty percent of the relatively rural Warren County (pop. 40,000) is comprised of the Allegheny National Forest (ANF). It lies deep in Pennsylvania’s oil and gas region, yet the importance of recreation and tourism to the local economy continues to increase over time.
The ANF has always attracted visitors to the Allegheny Reservoir, which was created when the Kinzua Dam was built along the Allegheny River. The Forest features lots of old growth and plenty of fishing, hunting, kayaking and camping. Yet what was conspicuously lacking were opportunities for non-motorized trail use.
“The trails came out of a project done by students in our county’s leadership program. Every year, program participants gain a broad understanding of what Warren County is, how our community works and whom to go to for what,” said Decker. “They break into sub-groups and perform a SWOT analysis. They are then charged with doing a project to address one of the threats they have just identified. Some projects are mundane; others turn out to have a life beyond the class year.”
One group of aspiring leaders noticed the lack of non-motorized trails connecting the major assets of the Allegheny National Forest. To get from the Kinzua Dam to the marina to the campground to Jakes Rocks, visitors had to get in and out of their cars and drive everywhere. So they looked into options for creating a series of trails for users to travel through the forest in a more meaningful and efficient way.
“Around that time, a Warren County representative was working with the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). Then IMBA Mid-Atlantic Regional Rep Frank McGuire told us that we had a wonderful place for mountain biking, a growing sport and a good way to bring people to our community,” said Decker. “We learned that we had good natural geology for potentially epic mountain biking. What started as a focus to connect assets morphed into that plus destination mountain biking.”
IMBA’s Trail Solutions performed an assessment of the area, and the county ultimately picked Jakes Rocks because of its accessibility to the city of Warren. It was the nearest part of the Allegheny National Forest to the small city of about 10,000 people.
Plans were made to build 47 total miles of trails including 30 miles of a stacked loop singletrack and 17 miles of trails connecting key destinations within the Forest. Construction of the 30-mile portion of the system will wrap up in 2019.
Building the Trails
After being selected through a public bidding process based on both cost and professional expertise, Dirt Artisans got to work building Phase I’s 9.5 miles of singletrack.
“It wasn’t the kind of place where you can just rake and ride and end up with trails. With the rocky and sometimes wet terrain, it was challenging to make a sustainable trail bed, let alone a trail that someone would want to come back and ride over and over again,” said Chad Irey, Owner of Dirt Artisans.
It took three months and eight crew members to complete the first portion of the trail system.
“Due to the large quantity of rocks and our mandate to give the trails an inviting feel, we had to move a lot of those rocks. Everyone wanted a skinny trail, but that meant we couldn’t use big, heavy equipment. We had to work on forested side slopes with small equipment to move boulders. And contrary to what some people believe, using machines does not have to make a boring trail; we used some small machinery to purposely move and place rocks to create a fun, sustainable trail for riders of all levels. If we hadn’t moved all those rocks, it wouldn’t be fun to ride there.”