Welcoming new riders to our trails
Just a few minutes from downtown Florence in Northwest Alabama is Wildwood Park, a secluded wooded area with beautiful views of Cypress Creek and six miles of challenging mountain bike trails. Florence has been designated a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation for the last 36 years, and IMBA Local member organization Shoals MTB is working to create a holistic trail system in this urban forest.
The need for green
Wildwood Park has been a recreational area for over a hundred years. Rogue singletrack has been around in the park for almost as long as people have been mountain biking. Over the last three decades, much of the trails have fallen into disrepair and have become, well, wild and wooded. Florence, like many parts of the country, has seen a big increase in riders over the last ten years so there was a need for more modernized trails in the city.
The existing Wildwood trails were also less than ideal for developing new riders. According to Shoals MTB Director Eero Wilson, the need for beginner-friendly trails was made apparent by bike shop customers who would report back after their first ride.
“From the shop perspective, that was something we picked up on pretty quickly. We sell all these entry-level bikes to people and they come back reporting, ‘well that was interesting.’ We have people come in excited. They see pictures on Facebook about stuff going on at Wildwood. They want to get into mountain biking and we're going to have to tell them, you may not want to start there. The park really excludes beginners. That became pretty debilitating,” said Eero.
It was clear that Wildwood Park needed a different kind of green.
More than just a trail plan
In 2020, Shoals MTB applied for and was awarded a Trail Accelerator Grant (TAG) to fund a trail plan for Wildwood Park. TAG recipients are required to come up with matching funds, and the Chapter partnered with the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area to secure the match. Muscle Shoals is part of the National Park Service’s National Heritage Area program, with the mission of promoting cultural tourism through education, preservation, and conservation of heritage and culture in six northwest Alabama counties. Shoals MTB also got the support of Florence Parks and Recreation, and its Director Tina Kitchens was involved during the planning phase.
Eero encourages trail groups to get to know agencies and departments which can be partners in getting more trails on the ground. “Planning is something they [Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area] could help fund, so when we had the planning opportunity, they were ready to jump in. That was a huge asset for us, having a partner that mostly already said yes. I definitely encourage people to recognize the federal and park service departments in your area. Their goal is to be involved in some of these projects and unless they’re asked, they don’t know what projects are going on,” Eero said.
When IMBA Trail Solutions went to Florence and surveyed Wildwood Park, they saw opportunities beyond just a mountain bike trail. They saw possibilities for the entire urban forest community of Florence.
“Wildwood Park is essentially downtown. It’s a dense hardwood forest just half a mile from a D1 university, the University of North Alabama. It’s surrounded by housing communities which are significantly and historically underserved. We’re building trails to connect to that. It’s got tons of opportunities that the IMBA folks picked up on pretty quickly. They pointed out this isn’t just a bike trail; this is going to be a quality of life development plan for your whole community,” said Eero.
The Wildwood Park green trail is the first phase of that plan. With the design in place, Shoals MTB worked to gather funding for construction and support from the community.
Funding and community support
To fund the construction phase of the Wildwood green trail, Shoals MTB used the Dig In program in early 2022 to raise funds and unlock a matching grant from Shimano. Most of the donors were Florence locals who at some point rode in Wildwood Park and recognized the need for a green trail. Some donors were riders from the early days of Wildwood rogue trails. They now have children and want a beginner trail so they can introduce their kids to mountain biking.
According to Eero, the passion and energy of Shoals MTB inspired the new Florence Parks and Recreation Director Bill Jordan to fully support trail development in Wildwood. “That really resonated with him–we had a group of people who have literally committed their lives to this project and raised the better part of a hundred thousand dollars to get things done. He saw the passion involved and really understood that it was obviously something the community was interested in, and how can the city continue that effort. He had been working in the city for 25 years so he knows how things work. He knows everybody, and everybody knows him and likes him, and that’s a big plus too,” said Eero.
What really got Bill stoked for new bike facilities in Wildwood Park? IMBA Foundations! Bill and Eero attended Foundations in Bentonville, Arkansas in April 2022 and saw what was possible for Florence. “He drank the Kool-Aid,” Eero laughed. “He came back and bought a bike. And of course now, he’s like, ‘we’ve got to get better trails. This kind of sucks. I thought we were going to be able to ride bikes when we got back from Arkansas.’ And I said, now you know what I’ve been working on. Let’s go, man. Let’s get it done.”
An ecosystem of trails
Magnolia trail, the first green trail in Wildwood Park, is set to open in the early spring. Shoals MTB hopes its opening will be the first of many other trails that will connect to other parts of the city.
The organization has also partnered with Singing River Trail, an over 200-mile greenway connecting numerous northern Alabama communities. Eero sees immense value in being involved with the Singing River Trail, even if it is not a mountain bike trail. “I've done my best to stay involved with them because I know the more we put into trails, the easier it is for everybody. I know there are some mountain bike organizations that think, if it’s not mountain bike trails, I’m not interested. I’m at the point now where I see the benefit to it all. I’m happy to advocate for all trails regardless of whether it’s mountain bike-specific or not,” Eero said. “We’re looking at an ecosystem of trails.”
Six projects are raising funds through the Dig In program to get more and better trails in their community and introduce new riders to mountain biking. Learn more and make a contribution.
The next round of Trail Accelerator Grant applications will open in early summer. Learn more about TAG and see if your project is a good fit.