Cyclists Want to Rip Out New Papago Park Trail, but Man With All-Terrain Wheelchair Loves It

At a meeting of nine passionate mountain bikers on Wednesday evening under a ramada in Papago Park, emotions flared over the creation of a new five-kilometer fitness trail that has ruined their normal biking experience.

Hearing that city officials insist other park users like the new trail, one quipped: "Who?"

The group consisted of an environmental planner, a real estate broker, and other professionals who have long enjoyed the convenience and challenge of biking on the haphazard trail system of Papago, a popular desert park on the border of east Phoenix and Tempe that's home to the Phoenix Zoo and the much-visited "Hole-in-the-Rock." As New Times reported on Wednesday, cyclists and other park users are livid over what they believe is the destruction of a treasured landscape. One activist created an "Operation: Saving Papago" Facebook group last month that now has more than 400 members.

The path, an "enhanced 5K fitness trail" that's also known as the West Park Loop Trail, is complete except for some finishing work. It circumnavigates part of the park, consisting of a smoothed-out surface of decomposed granite and a series of concrete drainage-control structures. Covering a previously chaotic system of "spider trails," old jeep roads and worn single-track, the new trail is now better for walking, jogging, and other moderate uses — but worse for mountain biking and trail running.

City of Phoenix officials acknowledge that it was probably a mistake to build the trail without any public input or hearing. Constructed with the help of a veterans' volunteer group, the trail is said to have cost taxpayers $323,000. In response to complaints, the city is talking about spending additional money to build a trail parallel to the new one that would be better for mountain biking.

The cyclists said they don't like the parallel-trail idea at all. They think the new trail should be ripped up and removed. If that were done, erosion and normal wear and tear from hikers and mountain bikers would have the trail in the same old condition in a couple of years, they said. But the bikers could not agree on the best plan to "mitigate" the problem.

After about an hour of talking, as the sunlight turned orange and twilight set in, they decided to formulate a list of demands and prepare for another meeting with city officials on the next step — whatever that may be. Then most switched on the lamps of their high-tech steeds and pedaled off for their nighttime ride, whether on the new trail or one of many other unaltered trails just west of Galvin Parkway.

Whereupon, as if on cue, a man rolled into the parking lot near the ramadas in his all-terrain wheelchair and proceeded to offer rave reviews of the new trail.

John Marshall of Phoenix offered a rave review of the new 5K fitness trail in Papago Park after trying it for the first time on Wednesday in his all-terrain wheelchair.EXPAND
John Marshall of Phoenix offered a rave review of the new 5K fitness trail in Papago Park after trying it for the first time on Wednesday in his all-terrain wheelchair.
Ray Stern

John Marshall said he had just exited the trail with his wife, Rosie, who'd walked and jogged alongside him. Both were sweaty and wore huge smiles. They said it was their first time on the trail since noticing it on a previous park visit.

"We did the whole thing," John Marshall said, kvetching with a grin that his shoulders were a little sore. "We really liked it a lot. It was definitely a challenge."

Marshall was in an accident 20 years ago and his been using a wheelchair ever since. He discovered all-terrain wheelchairing about two years ago and bought himself a sweet rig that has since taken him over trails around South Mountain, Lookout Mountain, and through other city parks.

His ride, a Top End Crossfire, looks similar to a typical wheelchair save for its fat, knobby tires and extra-rugged wheels. The front wheels are small but mounted with thick, steel tubes. The rig isn't built for speed, Marshall says, but it can roll over fairly rough terrain. While the wheels of a normal wheelchair would sink into the Papago Park trail's packed granite surface, Marshall said his chair made the ride a pleasure — albeit one that required a lot of physical effort, especially going up hills. Going downhill takes more strength than it might seem, he explained, and puts a strain on his hands and his arms as he holds himself back against gravity.

The new trail is made of decomposed granite, with concrete drainage sections intended to control erosion.EXPAND
The new trail is made of decomposed granite, with concrete drainage sections intended to control erosion.
Ray Stern

Told they'd just missed a meeting of mountain bikers who want the new trail dismantled and the area restored to its original condition, the Marshalls expressed surprise and disappointment.

"I think they're being selfish," Rosie Marshall said. "I think they should have more options for wheelchairs. There's tons of mountain-biking trails. Instead of complaining, be happy they're giving other people the opportunity to go off-roading."

No doubt, there are many other metro Phoenix residents for whom the new trail might be ideal. They may have wheelchairs, canes, or artificial knees and hips, but they're likely to be just as excited as the Marshalls when they discover the new trail for themselves, and how it allows them to explore the park as never before.

As city officials contemplate changes to the new trail based on the complaints of one group of park users, they'll have to keep in mind users who haven't been as vocal about the new project — yet.


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