Harmonie State park trails new visitors

State park trails new visitors
Hopes addition will attract mountain bikers, hikers from across region

By Roger McBain
Saturday, April 25, 2009

Southern Indiana MTB
Harmonie Trail Info

Harmonie State Park is turning to pedal power to crank up attendance and put Indiana's southwesternmost state park on track as a regional destination for mountain bikers and hikers.

Harmonie State Park will open six miles of new, single-track mountain biking and hiking trails with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon Saturday.

The Sycamore picnic shelter area serves as trailhead for both a 41/2-mile beginner's loop and a 11/2-mile intermediate leg of trail.

Directions to the trailhead, trail maps and trail rules and safety information will be available at the entry gate to the park. For more information, call the park office at (812) 682-4821.

It's the culmination of more than two years of scouting, flagging, carving, tamping, tramping and pedaling. The trails, which begin at Sycamore picnic shelter, include a four-and-a-half mile loop for beginning riders and a one-and-a-half mile leg designed for those with intermediate biking skills.

And that's just the beginning. Volunteers plan to double the trail's distance in the future, creating a serpentine track that park managers hope will lure bikers and hikers to pitch tents, park campers and rent cabins to take full advantage of the park's newest feature.

Whether you pedal them or tramp them, they're the best trails in the park, says Jim Gray, property manager for Harmonie State Park.

Snaked between trees, ledged into the walls of the ravines that cleave the park's southern section, these new single-track trails weave a lithe line through the landscape.

Alex Stewart, the professionally trained designer who's led the team of employees and volunteers who've built the trail, describes it like a surfboarder talking about a line of beach breakers.

"I create this imaginary line through the forest," he said. "I create a wave, moving up and down on an average 5 percent grade, but I'm kind of surfing it, so you can have segments that are steeper, but no more than 15 percent grade."

The elevations play a practical role in keeping the trail in place, never letting water pool or flow far or fast enough to wash out the track after even the heaviest of rains. But that's just part of their appeal.

"I'm also putting these waves and dips in to give you that amusement park ride feeling on a bike," Stewart said.

Traditional trails that follow ridges or run straight along or into valleys and ravines are more likely to wash out with rain or to "creep" from wear, Stewart said. Beyond that, they don't fit the natural contours of the landscape.

"Straight lines are a crime against nature," he said. "It's so much more interesting if you've got a flowing wave on the side of a hill."

Stewart, an Indianapolis real estate developer who also loves mountain biking and hiking, is a key figure in a statewide effort to turn Indiana into a Midwestern mecca for mountain biking.

He began building trails in Indianapolis as a volunteer member of the Hoosier Mountain Biking Association. He went on to get professional training from the International Mountain Biking Association, an organization that put out trail-building books and videos that have become the national standard for sustainable biking, hiking and even equestrian trails, Stewart said.

Armed with $250,000 from the state's 2008 Indiana Trail Fund, Stewart and employees of his company, Spectrum Trail Designs, have worked with volunteers to build trail systems at Harmonie, O'Bannon Wood and Versailles state parks.

He's currently working on a half-dozen trails across the state, including a new trail for the French Lick Springs resort.

He comes to the task after designing and leading construction of trails at Brown County State Park, which, with nearly 20 miles of single-track trail, already draws mountain bikers from a half-dozen states, according to Doug Baird, that park's property manager.

Baird initially balked at allowing Stewart and his team build mountain bike trails in the 15,766-acre park just outside Nashville, Ind.

"I just thought it was one more thing we didn't need," Baird said. "I pictured mountain bikers running rampant all over the park, wherever they wanted. I figured it would be a lot of destruction, running over sensitive plants or even animals. "

Six years after those first trails opened, Baird looks forward to getting more single-track trails in his park.

"Once they got the trail built and people started riding, I realized that they were going to be a big attraction," he said. "A lot more people are into mountain biking than I ever realized."

At this point, with nearly 20 miles of single-track trail winding through the park, Baird can count on at least 50 carloads of mountain bikers using the park on a summer weekend, he said.

Most come from Indiana, "but we get lots of people from surrounding states who have heard about it and come to ride the trails. They claim these are some of the best trails in the Midwest. That's what I've heard."

They're also the best hiking trails in the park, Baird said. Hikers and bikers have shared them without any problems, he added.

"I've never heard of a conflict," Baird said. "The bikers that I've met have all been extremely polite and appreciative of having the opportunity to ride here."

Rider appreciation is the driving force behind getting any of the trails built in Indiana's state parks, Stewart said. He and his professional crews count on volunteers to help with the initial builds and to carry on afterward, maintaining the existing trails and extending them.

Local riders such as Ron Pendley and Kyle Kirkman of Evansville and Steve Fuelling, a longtime hiking trail volunteer from Mount Vernon, Ind., have spearheaded work on the trails in Harmonie State Park, said Chastity Spindler, the park's assistant property manager.

Pendley has been eyeing the park for years, wishing for single-track trails similar to those he and other Evansville mountain bikers have driven hours to ride at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. When he found out park officials were looking for local volunteers to help create a trail system in Harmonie State Park, "I said 'Absolutely! Let's get on it!'"

He and Kirkman became local coordinators for the 31 area volunteers who signed up to help cut, clear, rake and ride the trails.

"I've been really impressed with everyone who has come out here to help," Stewart said. "I think these trails are going to be well looked after by this group. They've exceeded the help I've had on some of the other projects I've worked on."

Pendley and the rest of the volunteers plan to keep up the effort, and they're already planning to build new trails.

However long that takes, trail expansion should help increase the park's profile as a destination for mountain bikers, said Gray. He hopes news of the trails will translate into increased park admissions.

"Hopefully, we're going to see 20 more cars a weekend because of this," he said.

As the trails grow, Gray anticipates more overnight visitors who will pitch tents or park campers and trailers for a weekend of riding.

He's already thinking about adding a primitive campground in the area or some cabins.

At this point, he's just looking forward to opening the trails and inviting bikers and hikers into a part of the park that's never generated any traffic.

"It's a wonderful addition to the park," Gray said, "and I look forward to working with these volunteers some more."