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Innovation in Orange County

Innovation in Orange County

Open Space Explorers Program Expands Access for Mountain Bikers

Posted: March 22, 2024
In the Irvine Open Space area of Orange County, CA, three mountain bikers ride down the switchbacking dirt singletrack.
Photo courtesy of: David Browning, Orange County Mountain Bike Association

Disneyland. Knott’s Berry Farm. FOX’s The O.C. – Maybe you’ve heard of Orange County, California, with its “always summer” Mediterranean climate, which makes it comfortable to be outside under clear, blue skies all year long. Or its surf-perfect beaches, tide pools, world-renowned shopping areas, famous surf breaks, and boat-filled coastal harbors. 

Or maybe you’ve heard of the County of Orange because of the stellar mountain biking on trails like 5 Oaks, Lizards, and Rock It in the OC Parks, San Juan, or The Luge in the Trabuco Ranger District, all supported by decades of powerful mountain bike advocacy in Southern California. Or because of all the mountain bike and gravel pros and industry influencers that live there. However, if you know the area surrounding Irvine, CA, you know it is densely populated, beautiful, and sought after as both a place to live and to visit for mountain bikers and other recreation enthusiasts.

Mountain Bike Organizing and Advocacy

Mountain biking and mountain bike advocacy have been alive and well in Orange County for almost 40 years. SHARE Mountain Bike Club, a long-time partner in advocacy with IMBA, was established in 1988 and, for over three decades, did trail maintenance and event support. In 2020, Orange County Mountain Bike Association (OCMTBA) formed as an IMBA Chapter. OCMTBA joined the California Mountain Biking Coalition (CAMTB), the statewide advocacy organization representing over 250,000 mountain bikers. CAMTB provides a unified, statewide platform to proactively engage with state, regional, and federal agencies; tracks legislation and planning efforts affecting trail access; and expands bike-friendly trails in CA.

In 2022, OCMTBA and SHARE merged, consolidating the mountain bike trails and advocacy organizations in the area. Mountain bike advocacy infrastructure is both strong and long-lived in this area. The efforts are impactful and necessary to protect and improve mountain bike access.

The Great Balancing Act: Access + Conservation

Near the third most densely populated city in California (Irvine), it is no surprise that balancing the number of people interested in outdoor recreation with access to the existing trails and parks is no small challenge. Space is limited, and new spaces are slow to develop with outdoor recreation amenities. Adding conservation of the natural landscape, flora, and fauna further complicates this balancing act.

Learn More About Local Balancing Efforts with the Laguna Canyon Foundation

Balancing Trail Load with Managed Access

Trail load refers to the weight of demand and utilization of trails by outdoor recreation enthusiasts in an area. Trails with dawn to dusk, open-access, that are close to places people want to recreate or lead to well-known, highly sought out features and landscapes will naturally bear greater utilization by trail users than trails that aren’t open to the public all the time. They will naturally carry more of the load. 

Managed-access trails and areas have specific times and dates they are open and are patrolled by a land manager who can provide information, connection, and enforcement of trail and area restrictions. The caveat “access through scheduled programs only” regularly accompanies access information in these areas. Managed-access trails require more from land managers’ time and resources, but can be used to limit, reduce, or balance the load of trail users. Both types of access have implications for conservation and for interaction with the natural environment, including the plants and animals that call those areas home. 

Balancing trail load is an important function of land managers and conscientious mountain bike organizations alike in areas like the County of Orange, with its 3.2 million people on just over 940 square miles of land. Land managers and OC Parks staff have employed managed-access restrictions to conserve resources and balance the trail load. Although frustrating for outdoor recreationists who want to have greater access than one weekend a month to specific outdoor spaces in their areas, managed-access allows a high degree of control of both resources and agency spending for land managers.

Balancing Trail Load with New Spaces

Balancing trail load can also be accomplished by developing sustainable, new open spaces. Born of a decade-old land grant from the Irvine Company, OC Parks opened two of three new open spaces in the Irvine Ranch Open Space in 2023, with the third slated to open in June 2024. With new places to ride, the well-utilized, longer-standing trails experience reduced trail load.

The new spaces include:

  • Saddleback Wilderness opened March 2023, with 3.3 miles of new trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, accessible during monthly self-guided Wilderness Access Days or scheduled programs.
  • Gypsum Canyon Wilderness opened in November 2023, boasting 500 acres of new park space, 6 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. This area is also accessible through scheduled programs with advance registration only, including Wilderness Access Days which allow for self-guided exploration at your own pace, or docent-led guided programs which take place in small groups with interpretation along the way.
  • Red Rocks Wilderness is scheduled to open in June 2024, and is anticipated to mirror managed-access restrictions in the two other new open-space wilderness areas.


Innovating Access: Open Space Explorer

For the people of the OCMTBA, it is super cool that there are new, sustainable places to ride, close to home! Aaaand, it is bummerific that these new spaces are challenging to access. 

Instead of sitting around feeling bad or operating outside of managed access restrictions, OCMTBA leaders got together with another local stakeholder group and came up with a new program that will provide threefold benefits: the Open Space Explorer program. This will offer additional access for mountain bikers, raise funds for the local Orange County Parks Foundation, and demonstrate that recreation user groups (like mountain bikers) can host a successful event that is mindful and respectful of conservation easements and managed access restrictions.


Enter Open Space Explorer

In partnership with the Natural Communities Coalition, OCMTBA has successfully received an event permit to host the first Open Space Explorer Day at the Gypsum Canyon Wilderness on Saturday, April 27, 2024. Respectful of load balance, the OCMTBA and the Natural Communities Coalition will host a fundraising “takeover day” event benefiting the OC Parks Foundation. Participants will get access to free coffee and donuts, complete access to all the trails, and hosted lunch from a taco truck at the end of the day so folks can nosh and swap stories about their rides. They’ll also earn their Open Space Explorer badge for Gypsum Canyon.

Space is limited, so if you’re in the area, register now!



OCMTBA and the Natural Communities Coalition hope to plan additional events at Saddleback Wilderness Area, Limestone Canyon, and the new Red Rocks Wilderness. With the successful implementation of these events, OCMTBA also plans to share the strategy and how-to with other local hikers, trail runners, and equestrian groups so they can set up Open Space Explorer days of their own or join the mountain bikers in planning multi-user group events. 

Fundraise to support local land management agencies? Check.
Partner with local conservation and outdoor recreation coalitions? Check. 
Expand access for mountain bikers in managed-access areas, while contributing to load balance on trails and conservation in open spaces? Check. Check. Check.

Mountain bikers can use many strategies to balance conservation and expand access to the places we love. IMBA is excited for OCMTBA and will continue to follow the progress of the innovative Open Space Explorer program. Look for a guest-written follow-up blog in May after the first Open Space Explorer’s event!
About the author
Kate Noelke, IMBA's Communications & Advocacy Specialist

Kate grew up on the backwaters of the Mississippi River biking, paddling, and wandering through the beauty of the Driftless Region of SW Wisconsin. She loves to make and share food she's grown or foraged, and believes all bodies belong on bikes (and wandering trails via whichever mode of…

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