GraniteMaps is a clear and reliable app to help mountain bikers and hikers explore Wilder Ranch and UCSC’s upper campus.
by L. Clark Tate
Jan. 7, 2015—It’s a sunny Saturday in late December out at Wilder Ranch. Austin Riba and I sidestep a passing horse-drawn carriage before rolling up to the first fork in the trail to plan the day’s ride. I pull out my iPhone and he his Android to take a good look at the GraniteMaps App. Up pop contours depicting Wilder’s bucking foothills and cascading trails.
Thus commences a mid-day mountain bike ride to field-test Santa Cruz’s first local trails app. GraniteMaps is a static (i.e. no cell service required) mapping system that shows and names trails, ranks their difficulty, delivers regulatory, flora, fauna and emergency facts, and provides a Google Maps-style, GPS enabled, “you are here” button. A 2.0.0 version dropped in mid-December, adding points of interest (think Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing or the West Side Pump Track) and quite a few additional trails on UCSC’s upper campus.
Pro Local Knowledge
GraniteMaps’ best feature is also its most unique—local knowledge. Riba, who grew up in Half Moon Bay and has been squirrelling around Wilder Ranch since he was a kid, knows these trails real, real well.
Where Google Maps, or the popular crowd-sourced app Strava, show a tangle of partially named spaghetti-like loops, GraniteMaps is clear and uncluttered—every trail was selected by Riba himself. It calls out sanctioned (i.e. legal) trails in color. Trail names appear at a useful scale and, when clicked, provide riders, walkers, and runners with descriptions and regulatory constraints.
Riba wants GraniteMaps to be useful to all trail users. He traces all routes in an area, not just bike-friendly ones, and asserts that GraniteMaps trail ratings (shifting from easy-peasy green to blue and then black as difficulty increases) will make sense for hikers too. Steep, rocky trails are harder to walk after all.
To track the trails, Riba, a software coder whose company is called Pedal Driven Programming, runs a simple GPS program on his Android while romping around, uploads the data into his own homebrewed mapping software, and cleans up the tracks a little back home.
Other local parks are coming soon (next up is Nisene Marks) and will be available as separate downloadable apps. “Each one will be customized and curated specifically for the region,” Riba says.
“It’s pretty simple,” Riba says.
Back at the first Wilder Ranch fork, a few finger-flicking zooms and taps explain the two available routes.
Option 1: Head up Englesman Loop, which is “Easy, Open, Bikes OK” according to the app, which also notes, “Fastest way to access upper campus from Wilder Ranch.” Option 2: The Ridge Loop, also easy and open to bikes, and described as “Wilder fire road. Small amount of singletrack where it joins Zane Grey trail in the south.”
Riba votes for the Ridge Loop so west we go. A five-year racer for Team Lost Coast Brewery—a development team for bike racers and advocates—Riba schools me on the climb, and the rest of the ride. But he does so very nicely. “Take deep breaths and pedal slowly,” he coaches as I spin my wheels, very slowly, up the slope.
Along the way Riba talks about many Wilder childhood romps with his surfer/firefighter father, experiences that led to a love of the outdoors, one of his favorite elements of mountain biking. “Even if people get tired of mountain biking,” he says, “they can take back an appreciation of nature.”
There are still a few rough edges on the map, which has been available for about a month. Since trails names are only labeled in one place, it can get confusing when trails meet and fork—but the personal location marker provides constant clarification.
The Granite Maps terms of service page states: “Trails marked as closed should be treated as such. GraniteMaps assumes no responsibility for the illegal use of any trails, marked or unmarked.”
This seems like standard legalese but it holds weight for the Santa Cruz mountain biking community. For better or worse, this new local technology is brushing against some old local issues. The app’s best feature, the local knowledge, is also what links it, and Riba, to an ongoing controversy—the use of unsanctioned trails in Wilder Ranch.
The original version included two unsanctioned trails, the much-loved Sweetness and Mailboxes. Riba added two more in the update, Cave Gulch and the elegantly titled Poop Chute. He also more clearly displayed the trails’ sketchy status. Cross symbols now denote unsanctioned trail names and the illegal paths now have a unique look – light gray dashes. Click on the trail names and you’ll see “THIS TRAIL IS CLOSED…USE AT YOUR OWN RISK” along with, “You run the risk of citation for riding this trail.”
That’s a $200 citation by the way, at least at Wilder Ranch. That is the cost of a state park infraction ticket for trespassing in a closed area, according to Jamie Stamps, a State Park Peace Officer for the North Coast, which includes Wilder Ranch. Additional fines are possible if there is any resource damage.
Stamps and other land managers contend that unsanctioned trails are a big problem.
“Illegal trails are damaging because we aren’t able to maintain them at all,” Stamps says. “We don’t have the resources.”
Improperly built or unmaintained trails—so-called “social trails”—drain poorly in the midst of winter rains. Soil washes away, exposing the roots of vegetation, and dumping dirt into downhill streams. As Stamps puts it, “It’s not environmentally sound at all.”
UCSC Campus Natural Reserve Steward Alex Jones agrees. In an essay he penned on the use of “social trails” in the UCSC Campus Natural Reserve, he writes that that, due to lack of maintenance on illegal trails, “erosion continues, soil that takes thousands of years to develop is lost, new trails are cut through sensitive habitat, and use increases.”
And then there’s the safety issue, a priority for both Stamps and Riba. “If we find somebody and they’re hurt our concern is to make sure that they are okay,” Stamp says. So search and rescue won’t be sent out with fines in mind. Trouble is, without accurate mapping of the illegal trails, it’s awfully hard to find an injured rider on them.
“Those trails are closed and for good reason,” Riba says. “They’re not built well and they could be dangerous.”
Concern for safety was a big factor in his inclusion of unsanctioned trails. In the case of an emergency, it’s important to know where you are and get help as quickly as possible.
“The point of a good map is to give you as much information as possible so that you can make an informed decision,” Riba says. “Ignoring those two trails didn’t seem responsible.”
Stamps and Jones don’t entirely agree. They feel that mapping the illegal trails draws more attention, and people, to the tracks. Both were glad that Riba hadn’t included more illegal trails.
“I downloaded the app and noticed that he choose not to put [all] those trails on there, which I was surprised about,” Jones says. Jones also noted that he was glad Riba labeled the illegal trails as such, saying, “that made sense to me.”
Stamps says the inclusion of the social trails might lead to more use.
“I think the concept is great, to provide accessibility to people,” she says. “That part is fabulous.” However, she continues, “I don’t support or advocate them putting the trails on there that are illegal.”
Riba points out that the trails are already publicly mapped. “Google Maps has more unsanctioned trails than I do.” Though Riba’s more easily read app definitely makes them more visible, as he puts it, “Just because I put a trail there doesn’t mean I’m telling you to go ride it.”
Riba is hopeful that his decision to include the unsanctioned trails might generate a discussion. “Maybe it could spark a positive change,” he says. Stamps welcomes such a discussion too. “I’d love it if they would work with us some, so that they could make it effective and make it healthy for the trails in the park.”
Jones also believes that communication is the key. “I see the place for a reasonable discussion to be held,” says Jones, who participated in a panel discussion on the upper campus trails last year. “I am totally willing to be there.” He contends that something needs to change as “trail conditions are worsening and there isn’t any way of maintaining them as use increases.”
Read about the panel discussion on mountain biking on upper UCSC campus.
On the Trail
When we reached Ridge Loop ridgeline the sky is a gallery of cloud types, shapes, and colors. Meanwhile the sun and sky work that particular Wilder brand of magic where racing cloud shadows contour the rolling landscape’s natural relief and mosaic of plant forms for maximum dramatic impact. Beyond the picnic-tabled lookout the cloud-capped mountains of Monterey looked every bit like an errant Hawaii Isle, come to the mainland for a visit.
It was a dazzling day, one that completely validates the local love of running, walking, and riding loops around Wilder—the same love that begat GraniteMaps.
“Honestly, I just did it because it was fun,” says Riba. He expected to show the app to a few friends, use it to bulk up his resume. But then he got 1,300 downloads and a flood of gratitude from users. “And it’s a complete shock—let’s just say a pleasant surprise—how much people have appreciated it.”
“Austin’s done something really special,” says Dave Robinson, outreach director for Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz and co-owner of The Ride Guides. Robinson contends that by labeling the trails, often inconsistently nicknamed among local riders, GraniteMaps will help the biking community swap stories of awesome escapades and discuss trail conditions, which is particularly important in the rainy season.
“I think it’s gonna add a lot to the community,” he says. “It’s cool to see him utilize and leverage the technology to really help people get out there safely.”
Visit GraniteMaps.com to download the GraniteMaps Santa Cruz app for free.