New Papago Park 5K Fitness Trail Angers Park Users, Spurs Upcoming Changes

A new five-kilometer fitness trail in Papago Park is drawing outrage from mountain bikers and others who worry the treasured slice of desert in the city has been needlessly ravaged.

After spending $323,000 on the trail without first holding a public hearing, the city is now considering changes following complaints and meetings with concerned citizens, New Times has learned. City officials say the trail project, which began earlier this year, is nearly complete.

"Most of the trails on the Phoenix side have been bladed from the singletrack mountain bikers love so much to an eight-foot-wide ... superhighway." — Mountain biker and blogger Justin Schmid

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Papago resides on about 1,200 acres in east Phoenix and another 300 in adjacent Tempe. The park encompasses the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden, large swaths of hilly desert areas, and two golf courses. It has long been eyed by developers who would love to build a hotel or some other moneymaking venture, but preservationists and longtime park users have so far kept such plans at bay.

The concept of an improved trail system was laid out in the city's 2010 master plan for Papago Park. But the new trail doesn't make for a "seamless transition into the surrounding trail system," as the master plan requires.

Unhappy park users have gathered in a Facebook group launched last month, "Operation: Saving Papago," which now has more than 400 members.

"I just rode some of that 5K monstrosity in Papago on the way home," Facebook user Atlason wrote in a recent comment. "They destroyed a lot of good sections. Looks like those concrete to gravel transitions are a lawsuit waiting to happen! I also saw that water runoff is already beginning to cut into the trail."

Earlier this week, blogger and mountain biker Justin Schmid published a damning article about the new trail on his website,

"Most of the trails on the Phoenix side have been bladed from the singletrack mountain bikers love so much to an eight-foot-wide ... superhighway. The surface is unpaved and covered in loose pebbles. The berms in the corners are also gone, so forget about sustaining any sort of speed into a corner," Schmid writes in the article, headlined "Phoenix Destroys Some of the Nation's Best Urban Mountain Biking." 

A brief tour of the area just west of Galvin Parkway verifies the critics' claims. The change in the landscape is dramatic.

The new trail system, which circumnavigates Papago Golf Course and some of the park's lesser buttes, diminishes the natural look of the area. It has a wide surface of stabilized, decomposed granite that's interrupted here and there by concrete-and-rock drainage areas. It is undoubtedly more accessible and convenient to walkers and joggers than the rocky, more-rugged network of old jeep trails and blazed "spider" trails it replaces. But the "enhanced" trail, as the city describes it, is in no way an improvement for trail runners, mountain bikers, or those who seek a desert-like experience.

"I'm a little disappointed. I wish they would have left it alone," observed Melissa, a longtime Papago user who visited the park on Tuesday to walk the new trail for the first time. "There's no challenge to it now. They took my trail."

Another park user preparing for a run said he has mixed feelings about the trail.

"It's cool. I've been out on it," he says, then adds, "I thought it was just fine without it."

Most of the rougher paths and single-track mountain biking trails in the park remain unchanged, and the city has no plans to refashion any more trails for now.

Gregg Bach, spokesman for the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, tells New Times that the agency didn't hold any public hearings or meetings before commencing the trail project because the changes didn't restrict access to the area. Nor was the expenditure required to go before the city council, Bach says.

Asked why the department chose a bladed granite surface that doesn't fit with the desert that surrounds it, Bach says the contrast is intentional, to "help designate" the trail, and also to make it more "sustainable." The concrete sections slow erosion, he adds.

Though the "multiuse" trail is unlikely to accommodate a typical urban wheelchair, chairs equipped with large tires might be able to handle it.

In addition to the new trail, pull-up bars, balance beams, and other fitness apparatus were placed along the trail, some it repurposed from pieces that have been out there for years. Bach says it's a good trail for 5K events and training. The veterans volunteer group Mission Continues helped to build the trail and was one of its first users, holding a ribbon-cutting event and 5K run on the route in April, before the granite surface was in place, Bach says.

"It's also a designated Fit Phoenix trail," Bach says, adding that the program "helps Phoenix be one of the fittest communities in the region."

It's also true that some people have complained about it, he says.

"We've kind of learned here," Bach says, acknowledging that city officials have had "ongoing discussions" with small groups of local mountain bikers. "Some of the enhancements have changed their experience."

The city will likely proceed with some fixes in response to the concerns, Bach says.

"We will create another trail alongside this trail that would be more like what they prefer," he says.

It's unclear whether that would satisfy users who've gathered on the Saving Papago Facebook page. Some want the new trail ripped out. Others are concerned a parallel trail won't work and would involve even further development.

"We're against it," says Amy Engel, a local triathlete who started the page and has helped arrange the meetings with city officials. "We want the trail removed."

Engel and others have pointed out that the trail appears to be poorly constructed, and that it is already cracking and eroding in places.

She plans to publish a petition on the Facebook page that consolidates group members' ideas.

Ryan Cannon, a platoon leader with Mission Continues, says his organization initiated the project as part of its goal to help park users better utilize public recreation areas. The group also thought the city might want to bring in money by holding running events on the trail, he says.

The park has some older, fully paved trails, dirt canal paths, and sidewalks bordering the streets around its perimeter. But in Cannon's view, it needed something more.

He and others from the group noticed the "abandoned" fitness equipment sprinkled around the park and the chaotic network of trails, and they seized on the idea to revitalize the fitness-walk possibilities of the area. He defended the trail, saying these types of "certified" 5K trails can be popular and provide more access for senior citizens.

"We just wanted one trail that was 5K so you could run it, jog it, or use fitness equipment on it," he says. "We wanted to bring more people out."

Mission Continues, which is based in Missouri but has a Phoenix chapter, approached the city's parks department with the idea, and officials moved ahead with it. The group contributed free labor and about $2,000 to the project, Cannon says. Veterans from the group transplanted the old fitness equipment and installed some new features, moved boulders, and performed other trail work.

The decomposed-granite surfacing was done after the volunteer group finished its part, he explains, saying that he isn't sure who ordered the new surface.

Engel spends a lot of time at the park and was doing a training run there in late July when she noticed the new concrete drainage structures. She contacted the city and learned about the project, then launched her activism effort.

Engel says that when she first met with bureaucrats about the issue, "they apologized immediately."

She believes the area can be restored to its original state if the new trail is removed, but that it'll take time.

"We are going to change this DEPLORABLE and DISRESPECTFUL decision made by the city without Public Notice and not following Masterplan that was approved," she wrote on Facebook in late August.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio, through his assistant, tells New Times that from now on, the parks department will solicit public input before making any similar alterations to any trail in the future. He supports the plan to develop a parallel mountain-biking trail next to the new trail.

"While some have expressed concerns over the upgrades on the path, we have also heard that many others are happy with the changes," DiCiccio says. "It is my understanding that aging hikers, recreational users, and members of the disabled community will have better access to the mountain because of these changes. However, making sure that the new trail doesn’t exclude any previous users, especially the mountain biking community, is critical."

Meanwhile, Tempe officials announced in May that they would begin addressing a homeless encampment on the 300 acres of the park it oversees, but some park users say that even more trash has accumulated in in Papago since then.

The Tempe City Council has a public meeting scheduled for October 13 to discuss options on dealing with the homeless at Papago.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.