North Park's 43 miles of linked trails offer challenges for mountain biking on South Ridge, hiking on West Ridge, cross-country skiing by the golf course and walking through swampy terrain around the Latodami Nature Center.
"North Park's trails are world class," said Gary Rigdon, chairman of the Friends of North Park, a citizens support and advocacy group. "Mountain biking and trail running in Pittsburgh is a natural, because we have more acres of parks per person and more trees per square mile than almost any other city in the country."
Last Thurday, Mike Rodack, trail steward for North Park's Pittsburgh Trails Advocacy Group, gave a presentation on the state of North Park's trails.
The group's mission is to "protect and encourage access to shared-use trails in Western Pennsylvania." It was founded in 2001 by a group of mountain bikers who were concerned that bikers were not welcome to use trails in Hartwood Acres.
"The culture of trails-users has changed in just the past few years," Mr. Rodack said, noting that everyone who uses the trails needs to work together to maintain them.
Mr. Rodack explained that bikers building trails without park approval was at the root of the problem.
"Once a rogue trail is built and becomes known to users, the trail surface becomes worn in, thereby causing an even greater number of people to be aware of the trail," Mr Rodack said. "Once established, such trails are difficult to close."
Andy Baechle, director of Allegheny County's Department of Parks, said he is pleased at the role of the advocacy group.
"I was told to kick the mountain bikers out of Hartwood Acres, but that seemed like a bad idea to me," Mr. Baechle said. Instead of banning the bikers, Mr. Baechle decided to work with the group to end unauthorized trail-making.
Mr. Rodack said many of the North Park trails are not part of a comprehensive trail system and have not been built to common trail construction standards.
All advocacy group trails follow International Mountain Bicycling Association guidelines. Rather than crushed stone or paved trails, group volunteers cut paths into the forest largely without the aid of heavy equipment.
Mr. Rodack said because those trails are handmade, a well-stocked base of volunteers is constantly needed to help with trail construction and maintenance.
"The large number of park users is both an asset to maintaining the trail system as well as a challenge," he said. "Even a relatively small percentage of the many users can be used to maintain the trails."
The group's recent Medrad's "Day of Caring" involved repairs to the golf course cross-country ski trail, where a stream comes down the golf course and dumps into a gully. Trenches were excavated to intersect the water and direct it off the trail.
The Dr. J. Freeride trail and skill park, which was built for bikers in the South Ridge area near Pie Traynor Field, has become so popular in the two years since it was built, that it was highlighted in a PBS documentary about North and South parks. The overall trail system is based on a linked loop, Mr. Rodack said.
"In this type of system, a series of loops are linked together so that users may use a 'local loop' or link multiple loops together to create a longer route," he said. The four major loop areas in North Park are West Ridge, golf course, Parish Hill and North Ridge.
"Short trails in the Nature Center and South Ridge areas create the linked loop system," he said.
The advocacy group saw an influx of volunteers beginning 2010, with the construction of the Pfundstein Trail, which winds along the contours of North Ridge. The project was in honor of mountain-biker Stefan Pfundstein, who died May 2009.
"Stefan Pfundstein's family, friends and co-workers collected more than $2,200 to donate to the Friends of North Park to have a mountain bike trail built in his honor," Mr. Rodack said.
Elaine Davis of McCandless is an advocacy group volunteer and avid hiker.
"I recommend it to people of all levels," she said of trail building. "They teach you exactly what to do. And if you're not able to dig, you can rake. There are plenty of tasks to go around."
She is promoting the "Dirt Monster 5 Mile Trail Race/1 Mile Walk," on Nov 4, starting at the Grant Pavilion on Wildwood Road. The race will benefit the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.
"Trails need routine maintenance," said Robert Habegger, who serves as the advocacy group's volunteer coordinator and heads up the marketing and communications committee for Friends of North Park.
The group doesn't allow power tools, although workers are permitted to use cordless drills. Trail building involves a lot of digging, and every advocacy group workday begins with a safety lecture and ends with a party.
"Single-track trails are desirable for all user types," said Mr. Rodack, noting that narrow, winding trails promote more of a feeling of being in the woods, instead of just in the park. "As long as they're well-designed and not used during excessively wet periods, they can support many users and user types."
As a precaution to protect the North Park environment and native habitats, Mr. Baechle said there will be no more new trails.
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.