IMBA Trail Solutions Project Manager Steve Kasacek on the nitty gritty of designing Walden’s Ridge Park trails
This is the third installment in a series detailing the trail construction and modernization of Walden’s Ridge Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
By Lucy Higgins • November 3, 2022
As user groups across Chattanooga, Tennessee formed a coalition to create Walden’s Ridge Park, there was a unifying goal across bikers, climbers, and city officials: to have thoughtful, well-designed trails that would be accessible to all the invested parties, and then some. To achieve that, the coalition applied for IMBA’s first Trail Accelerator Grant, intended to “provide a jump-start to communities that have the interest and political support to develop trail systems but need assistance to get projects up and running.”
Upon receiving the grant, the coalition started working with Steve Kasacek, project manager for IMBA Trail Solutions, who worked carefully to make sure climbers, bikers, hikers, and runners all had access to the 200 acres of rock, waterfalls, and slopes within the park. We caught up with Kasacek to learn more about his thought process behind trail development in one of his favorite places to work. —Lucy Higgins
Steve Kasacek: The purpose of the Trail Accelerator Grant is to get more good planning and designing out there on the landscape. There’s a fair amount of grant money and money out there for constructing trails; it’s always easier to get money when you can get something physical out of it. But the plan—the piece of paper with the design, layout, details, flagging—that’s not as fun. So that was part of the impetus for this grant.
A lot of what I do with IMBA is on the planning and design side, so my first site visit was essentially a week on the ground. I went out there with a couple different field staffers to help me—one of them was Randy Spangler. He’s obviously a phenomenal rider and builder, he’s got a very creative eye. And another guy, Adam Rice who no longer works for us, but he’s a trail designer. We went out on the property and we did planning work. We met with the Southeastern Climbers Coaltion and went out with them, we went out with North Chickamuga Creek Conservancy, SORBA Chattanooga.
Really how I describe planning is we talked to everyone, we heard what everyone wanted, what they thought they needed. I’ve been through Chattanooga a number of times before, so I had an understanding of what the community already has for riding. Then we basically just walked around and GPSed points of interest, where the trailheads were going to be…so that was my role. Not just crafting something sustainable, but thinking of the visitors’ needs, how are people going to circulate and flow through the system. We’re always trying to think about how people make decisions.
The way that the site is laid out, a lot of the boulders are up in the northeastern corner of the property. On the map, all the way to the right. There was a trailhead that was going to be all the way to the left. And the mountain bikers are mostly interested in the rock, but the rock that the boulderers aren’t climbing, and going downhill. And there’s like 900 feet of usable elevation.
There are two types of trails at Walden’s. There’s shared use and there’s the gravity trails. Right out of the trailhead you’ve got an upper line, that’s the most direct route to the boulders, and then you’ve got a lower line. The upper line is hand built by volunteers, and the lower line is machine built.
So if you’re a mountain biker that shows up, you’re mostly there to ride gravity, and you’re most likely going to take the lower line which gets you to the top of all the gravity runs. If you are a boulderer, you’re most likely going to go out the upper line, which takes you right to the boulders. If you’re a mountain biker and you go out the upper line, you can still ride it, it’s just not as quick and efficient as the lower line.
Each gravity [trail] has a distinct flavor based on the terrain. If there’s good slope and lots of red dirt, they’re all jump trails; where it’s more rocky, they’re all rock trails. There’s essentially four top-to-bottom runs and they each kind of have their own flavor. That was another big part of design trying to make that work.
Boulderers describe themselves as turtles, and I can picture this—you’ve got someone with like two pads strapped to the back, one strapped to the front, and their intention for using the trail is just to get to the boulder. They don’t want a trail that snakes around, they want to get right there.
It was very challenging. It was one of the more challenging design projects because there was just so much fun, dynamic unique landscapes to work with. Sometimes the south is old mountains and the landforms are all similar, like the slope is all 30 percent and it’s all dirt and no rocks. And you can’t do much more than bench a trail in and go along. We had a lot of luck with this project, with the boulders that people wanted to climb in a place where we couldn’t put mountain biking trails.
There was huge community support, everyone wanted [the trail system]. We had to make sure it was going to last a long time, be relevant for a long time, make sure we’re minimizing the chance for people to have conflict on the trail. It was a lot. But I will say, Chattanooga is one of my favorite places to work. There’s a lot of cool, outdoorsy people. A lot of good beer, good food.
I love geeking out on this stuff. planning and designing is not the Instagram-worthy stuff—it would just be pictures of people walking in the woods or looking at maps or doing GIS work or filling out permits. None of that looks good on Instagram. But I love it.
Walden’s Ridge Park is slated to open around the New Year, 2023.