Mountain bikers have been riding the trails carved into the bluffs at Platte River State Park for decades, its hills and rocks providing a challenge many yearn for, with the scenery providing the icing on the cake. Now they have a new set of singletrack trails loaded with unique features all for themselves as part of an addition to the park that could become a mountain bike destination for riders from across the country.
Along with 4.4 miles of new trails, mostly tailored to intermediate and advanced riders, are features that include stair-steps, drop-offs, a boardwalk, log rides, curved wall rides, numerous switchbacks, a launch pad, flat ramps, low-water crossings and table top ramps. A new access road on 358th Street, a mile east of the park’s main entrance, leads to a new parking lot and trailhead, which is equipped with a restroom and a repair station. A skills track near the trailhead will help riders test their abilities before heading out into the hills.
The new trails grew from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Outdoor Venture Parks, an innovative public-private partnership, on a 46-acre addition to the east side of the park, which now covers 510 acres. The addition was completed in 2012 with the help of the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation. Construction of the trails began in the fall of 2018 and, other than adding a few signs and two scenic overlooks, is mostly complete.
Eighty percent of the project’s $700,000 cost will be reimbursed by the Recreational Trails Program, a Federal Highway Administration program that dedicates a portion of fuel excise tax paid by off-road recreational vehicles for trail development. A significant portion of the remainder of the cost was covered by a donation by Lee Stuart of Lincoln through the Lee and Debby Stuart Family Foundation, which is funded by Lee’s grandfather, James Stuart.
The trails were designed and built by a contractor and laid out to preserve the park’s terrain. Troy Nelson, an engineer with the Commission, attended the International Mountain Bike Association’s Trail Lab in Bentonville, Arkansas, to learn more about sustainable trail design, with the goal of making the trails more resistant to erosion caused by weather and general use. Nelson was integral to construction, helping to select enjoyable and safe trail sites for users. Some features were moved, ensuring riders could see the obstacles in time to decide if they wanted to go over or around them, and some trails were rerouted to make uphill sections easier to ride.
Some trails in the area, including the popular Stone Creek Trail, predate the park, having been part of the youth camps that were there prior to the Commission acquiring the area and opening the park in 1982. Mountain bikers likely found their way to the trails soon after the heavy-duty, wide-tire bikes, born in California in 1978, hit the production lines of existing manufacturers and startups in the 1980s.
Paul Sonksen of Lincoln has been riding the park’s trails for more than 25 years. When he started, he didn’t know about the trails across Decker Creek on the east side of the park.
“There were a bunch of guys I didn’t even know that were maintaining the trails and building more,” he said. “I was riding the old trails over by the cabins in the main park. Then one of the guys in the shop said, ‘Have you ridden east?’ They called it the race route. He took me out and there were all of these trails in here.”
About the time Sonksen started riding in the park, trails advocacy group Trails Have Our Respect was formed – a local chapter of IMBA. THOR members volunteer their time and grab shovels, hoes, trimmers, chainsaws and any other tool they might need to build and maintain trails in 11 locations in and around Lincoln, Bellevue, Fremont, Lincoln and Omaha, and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Sonksen is trail leader at Platte River State Park for the group, which has helped create miles of new trails and helps park staff with trail maintenance.
“They definitely take pride in helping maintain those singletrack mountain bike trails,” said Adam Johns, park superintendent, adding that without the help of the group, “We probably wouldn’t have a park full of trails.”
The trails are used heavily, with only mud and deep snow keeping riders at bay. As the trails became more popular with mountain bikers, however, conflicts arose, especially with the horse trail rides conducted during the summer months. To access the trails on the park’s east side, riders needed to use the same access road along Decker Creek, and the Owen Bridge across it, as the horses did. “We’d meet the horses on the trails and, for some reason, horses are scared of the bikes,” Sonksen said. So from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day Weekend, trails were closed to bikers from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Eliminating those trail conflicts was one of the driving forces behind the project and one of the reasons Lee Stuart, who is also involved in the Game and Parks Foundation, helped fund it through his family’s foundation. Stuart grew up in California in the same area where mountain bikes originated. He bought his first mountain bike when he came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1987, and it has been one of his top outdoor pursuits ever since. He didn’t discover the trails at Platte River State Park, however, until after he returned to the state in 1997. “I’m a mountain biker, but I live in Nebraska and guess what: There aren’t any mountains around,” Stuart said. “But we’ve got some amazing mountain biking here, including at Platte River State Park.”
Not being able to ride those trails during the day for much of the spring and summer, however, was far from ideal for Stuart and others who ride the trails. “It made it hard for guys like me to get out on the weekend,” Stuart said.
With the expansion, the trails used for horse rides are now for horses only, and the older trails will continue to be shared by hikers and bikers. But the trails on the new addition are for mountain bikes only. Stuart said he’s happy he was able to play a small part in resolving that conflict and is glad more people can get out on the trails and use the parks as a result.
When Sonksen and other THOR members heard Game and Parks was building new trails, access and parking at the park, “We were all for it,” he said. “Any added mileage is a plus.”
Sonksen and others in the group weighed in on features and design, and continue to do so, suggesting changes where needed. “The features are great,” he said. “It will be interesting. We’re riding it, and when you ride a trail for a while, you find the line, so it’s going to need some altering.”
Word is getting out on the addition: The new parking lot is sometimes full. “Hopefully it will put us on the national mountain bike map,” said Johns. “We hope it becomes a mountain bike destination, where somebody from Texas is going to stop on their mountain bike trail tour and want to spend the night and ride the trails and visit our stores and help with our local economy.”
“It’s getting there,” said Sonksen, noting that IMBA standards require 20 miles of trails to be a true destination. The park now sits at 17.5 miles. “For Nebraska, it’s a lot of miles, and a lot of elevation. It’s actually pretty good.”
Good enough that his friends from Colorado following his rides on a fitness app are impressed to see he can get 1,500 to 2,000 feet of elevation change on a 12-mile ride. “You get a workout here, that’s for sure.”
Stuart enjoys showing off the trails as well. “I take pictures and videos and send them to my friends that I grew up with in California and say: ‘Hey, this is what you think of when you think of Nebraska, you think of cornfields. But look what we’ve got!’” ■Click here for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Eric Fowler’s photography methods: Speedlights & Bikes.