The City Different embraces mountain-town identity

Mountain bikers ride the La Tierra trails in 2012. New Mexican file photo

Many Santa Fe visitors say they come for the arts, food and architecture. In describing the City Different, internet sites such as TripAdvisor use phrases like “rustic sophistication,” “Spanish Colonial charm” and “feels a lot like Europe.”

But ask people who live here, and many will tell you that Santa Fe is becoming known for other things — like mountain biking — and public and private agencies are seizing on a swell of interest in outdoor recreation to draw more visitors.

“Santa Fe’s known for its arts, first of all, and its history,” Tim Rogers said. “And so the whole outdoor recreation scene has been lesser-known, but I think that’s changing.”

Rogers, the trails program manager for the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, is coordinating one of many pushes to promote this mountainous patch of Northern New Mexico as a destination for outdoor recreation. He has been working to link all the trails around Santa Fe County through a project called the Grand Unified Trail System — or GUTS — which has drawn support from several government agencies and nonprofits that see benefits to the community, as well as to the local tourist economy, in offering more access to outdoor activities.

Officials say the push to promote mountain biking really got its start in 2012, when the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit came to the city. About 500 people from around the world gathered in Santa Fe that year to talk about the future of mountain biking. Two years later, the GUTS project launched and the Outside Bike & Brew Festival had its inaugural run, drawing thousands of people to the city to mountain bike, drink beer and listen to live music. With the third and largest Bike & Brew held recently, the effort to promote mountain biking and other outdoor recreation is continuing to gain steam.

Recently, the North Central Regional Transit District said it will allow mountain bikes on the Blue Buses that carry passengers up the mountain to the Santa Fe ski basin when the Mountain Trails Route resumes in July. Previously, the Santa Fe National Forest had banned bicycles on the regional buses, prompting an outcry from riders.

The North Central Regional Transit District piloted the shuttle route to the top of Ski Santa Fe last winter. The buses had a slow start early in the ski season but eventually proved popular. The only problem was the bike ban.

In a column in The New Mexican in March, Rogers said, “The decision by Santa Fe National Forest officials to ban bicycles from the Blue Buses through its permitting process is controversial. It runs counter to the U.S. Forest Service’s specific policy to promote multimodal alternatives to the private automobiles that run incessantly up and down Hyde Park Road.”

The ban also undermined “the supportive partnership of the city of Santa Fe, Santa Fe County, local businesses and the community,” he said in the column, “which had looked at the bus up the mountain as a logical, long-awaited strategy to improve quality of life, reduce motor vehicle traffic and spur economic development.”

GUTS is also a key part of that strategy. In January, the Santa Fe City Council passed a resolution in support of the plan. In February, 16 groups, including nonprofits and state and federal agencies, signed an agreement to work together on GUTS. And in June, the Santa Fe County Commission is expected to vote on a similar resolution.

The county is also working to quantify the hundreds of miles of trails in the area, developing an online, interactive trail map in April. David Griscom, Santa Fe County’s economic development manager, said he hopes to release a version compatible with smartphones in a few weeks.

“The reality is, we’re a mountain town,” he said. “We’ve never thought of it until now.”

He points to the 2012 mountain bike summit as the start of a new type of tourist economy for the area.

“Ever since then,” Griscom said, “it’s really kicked off.”

Two years after the world summit, the International Mountain Bicycling Association recognized Santa Fe as a 2014 Silver Level Ride Center, a signal to its more than 40,000 members that the area has diverse trails and welcomes cyclists. There are 37 Ride Centers around the world, and only 12 of them are Silvers.

Also that year, the first Bike & Brew drew about 8,600 people. The five-day event finished its third year May 22, and though an economic impact study is still pending, organizer Chris Goblet believes that around 10,000 people attended.

Other evidence that outdoor recreation in Santa Fe is gaining momentum, Griscom said, is a series of running races scheduled for Sept. 10. They include 50-mile, 50-kilometer, 13-mile and 1-mile-uphill runs. In fact, he said, in 2014, Outside magazine named Santa Fe among the top 10 high-altitude running towns.

Rogers, 53, has been riding the dirt trails and city streets around Santa Fe for decades. Every day, he commutes on his bike. Every week, lately on Thursdays, he meets at a Dale Ball Trailhead in the city for a 5 p.m. mountain bike ride with his friends.

He’s heard people estimate the miles of trails winding around the city. At the recent bicycling and beer-drinking festival, Mayor Javier Gonzales said the network included about 300 miles of trails.

But Rogers doesn’t know.

“I guess there’s a finite number,” he said, “but it doesn’t seem that way.”

Dan Schwartz can be reached at 505-428-7626 or dschwartz@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @NMDanSchwartz.