Mountain bikers showed up to South Seattle en masse on Oct. 1, creating a partylike atmosphere in celebration of the grand opening of the Cheasty Trail System. Kids and adults mingled, decked out in helmets and bike shorts, straddling rugged bikes with wide, knobby tires.    

On that fall Saturday, which fell on Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day, Seattle Parks and Recreation gathered alongside Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mountain View to officially unveil the 0.8-mile mountain bike trail in Columbia City. There were pop-up tents with info about the trails, doughnuts and coffee, a slew of folding chairs, and a BikeMobile bike mechanic truck surrounding a makeshift lectern. 

Why so much hoopla over a trail less than a mile long? For Evergreen executive director Yvonne Kraus, this short-but-sweet single-track trail through Cheasty Greenspace represents something much bigger. 

“We’re taking mountain biking out of the mountains and into the communities so that it’s accessible to everybody,” Kraus said. 

Instead of a traditional ribbon cutting, mountain bikers pedaled under the ribbon, held by stakeholders who helped bring the project to life, including Kraus, City Councilmember Tammy Morales and Seattle Parks and Recreation interim superintendent Christopher Williams. 

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This South Seattle mountain biking hub provides trails closer to home for local riders accustomed to driving 30 minutes or more for trails farther afield in Western Washington

Pete Chavez, 13, hauled his bike out to Cheasty that morning and said he is thrilled because of “how close it is to where I live.” Meanwhile, 15-year-old River DeJong, whose family was instrumental in bringing the trail system to life, raved about how he can now “finish my homework and take a few laps.” 

But while Saturday was all about tight turns, bumps and berms, the journey to opening this short stretch of trail took more than 12 years and was harder than grinding uphill on a mountain bike: Dueling community groups squared off over the proposal, which touched at the thorny question of when and how to change municipal parkland from passive conservation to active recreation.

In 2004, Joel and Mary DeJong bought a house in Columbia City that abutted Cheasty Greenspace. They soon began exploring the nearby greenbelt and were shocked with what they found.

“We walked into the woods and it was completely sketchy,” DeJong said in June during a volunteer work party to put finishing touches on the trail. “There was a woman crouched down on a stump doing bird calls to warn the people in the woods who were doing who-knows-what. There were mattresses everywhere.”

Around 2008, Joel picked up mountain biking as a hobby and made regular drives to trails elsewhere in King County. Two years later, he realized the potential of Cheasty’s steep slopes, overgrown with invasive blackberry and English ivy under the cover of laurel trees. He walked the area with Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, who agreed the greenbelt met the criteria for mountain bike trails.

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Building out a trail system would improve the ecology by removing invasive plants, discourage encampments and create more recreation opportunities closer to home for neighborhood kids like his family’s four children.

It was, DeJong thought, a win-win-win.

Not everyone saw it that way. “The next eight years were a nightmare,” he said.

In 2013, DeJong’s Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mountain View group won a $100,000 Neighborhood Matching Fund grant for their proposal to begin clearing invasive plants. But a rival group with a similar name, Friends of Cheasty Greenspace, lobbied against any plans to create active recreation, especially mountain biking, which is generally prohibited on soft-surface trails in Seattle parks. That opposition held up the awarding of the grant due to a technicality about Parks’ bike prohibition, which eventually required a 2014 City Council vote. Mayor Bruce Harrell, then a council member whose district included Cheasty Greenspace, abstained from that vote.

In 2015, Seattle Parks and Recreation studied the proposal as required under the State Environmental Policy Act and made a “Determination of Non-Significance,” meaning the proposal did not require further environmental study. The opposition group successfully appealed this determination to the Seattle hearing examiner in 2016. (Friends of Cheasty Greenspace did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

As a result of the appeal, Seattle Parks and Recreation spent two years studying wetlands and wildlife habitat, hiring environmental consultants and reworking the trail system proposal. In 2018, a new Determination of Non-Significance was made, clearing the way for the trail work to begin in earnest on the first phase of the project, the South Loop. Designs for the second phase, or North Loop, eventually led to mediation between the rival community groups and Seattle Parks and Recreation.

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“In my experience, it’s pretty rare to have this level of opposition, including a SEPA appeal and getting involved with the hearing examiner,” said Michael Schwindeller, the trail network’s project manager at Parks.

There was some precedent for the standoff: In the 2000s, controversy swirled over the decision to add ballfields to Magnuson Park. In 2018, the city hired a mediator to calm community groups clashing over a proposed bike lane on 35th Avenue Northeast.

The Parks Department, however, stuck with the Cheasty project because of the level of volunteer commitment, which in 2014 notched the second most number of volunteer hours for any city park, DeJong said. 

“There was enough support within the department to keep it going and get the project to the point where it is today,” Schwindeller said. “Seeing the community outreach and volunteer hours that went into building the trail really speaks to the community support for the project more broadly.”

While a lot of sweat equity went into building this first trail, design and construction are not free. Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance estimates the cost at $165,000, which is two to three times more expensive on a cost-per-foot basis than staff-driven projects like the Summit Mountain Bike Park and eight times more expensive than volunteer-driven projects like the new Atlas Trail on Tiger Mountain.

“This is the most we’ve ever spent on less than one mile of trail,” Kraus said. “But it’s also the most important.”

For Kraus, this pilot trail is an opportunity for Seattle, which is surrounded by world-class mountain biking, to begin catching up with its peers around the world. She noted that there are mountain bike trails within city limits in places as far as Zurich; Queenstown, New Zealand; and Boulder, Colorado, as well as up and down the West Coast, including Bellingham, Olympia, Spokane, San Francisco, and Vancouver, B.C.

“What’s most important and meaningful for us is providing a wild outdoor recreation experience in the middle of an urban, dense city,” she said.