5 reasons these Washington mountain bike trails are worth the ferry fee

TACOMA, Wash. — Vashon Island and bikes go together like chains and sprockets.

The quiet, hilly roads of the island and its conjoined neighbor, Maury Island, have long been a classic South Sound ride for road cyclists.

Recently, a different type of bike has been spotted more frequently on arriving ferries. Traditionally not rating even as high as an afterthought when it comes to mountain biking, Vashon Island has a new trail system that might change that perception.

Backed — as these things almost always are — by an army of volunteers, King County recently unveiled 2.5 miles of mountain bike trails on Maury Island’s Dockton Forest.

The first of four proposed phases consists of easy and intermediate single track trails, with more challenging routes planned for future expansion.

The trails opened April 22, so it’s too early to say if Vashon’s mountain biking reputation can compare to its road biking status. Brian Starr, owner of Vashon Bikes, says the trails and advancements in bike technology mean “mountain biking might give road riding a run for its money.”

“We love cyclists on Vashon Island,” said Jim Marsh, a road cyclist and executive director of the island’s chamber of commerce. “We think (Dockton Forest) is a feature that will encourage more cyclists to visit.”

But is Dockton Forest really worth the effort for a South Sound mountain biker? A road cyclist, after all, can pedal onto the ferry for $6.30 and start their ride the moment they arrive at Tahlequah.

A mountain biker could, too, of course, but with Dockton Forest located about 11 miles from the terminal, it’s more likely they’ll shell out $18.20-$23.20 to bring along their car.

I did the latter recently and quickly got the answer to the question. It’s yes, and here are five reasons why:

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Credit: Craig Hill

Credit: Craig Hill

1. IT’S QUIET AS A WHISPER

I asked Marsh to describe the local buzz surrounding the trail. He chuckled and answered, “it’s more of a whisper.”

Word is out, making its way around mountain biking circles, but so far the stream of knobby tires is more of a trickle.

I shared the trails with only a deer and a banana slug. Considering my questionable mountain biking skills (I may have been the slowest of the three of us) I enjoyed being able to cruise the trails without concern that I was in the way of others.

While weekend visitors aren’t likely to get that private experience, the location all but assures a quiet, low-pressure escape.

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2. MR. HYDE

I noticed Mr. Hyde while climbing Chairlift, a trail used to pedal back to the top of the trail system after descending the intermediate trails. Mr. Hyde snaked through a lush green gully like a snowboarder’s track in a half-pipe.

I took a few precursory laps on, naturally, Dr. Jekyll, a flat trail classified as easy. Then I dropped into the gully.

The finely-crafted trail linking steep downhills and uphills required only a couple taps of the brakes and a few pedal strokes.

It struck me that Mr. Hyde makes you feel the way you might while ripping down a perfectly groomed ski run. It lets even the modestly skilled feel like a hero for a few seconds.

I took four runs before I pulled myself away to check out the other trails.

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3. IDEAL BEGINNER TRAILS

When Swan Creek Park’s mountain bike trails opened in 2014, they were a tremendous gift to Tacoma and the South Sound, but when I took my first lap on the easy trail I couldn’t help but think, “This is easy? I must be even worse then I thought.”

To be fair, Metro Parks Tacoma actually designates the trail “easier,” not “easy.”

At Dockton Forest, a group of trails called UFO, Gravel Grinder and Erratic are classified as “easy,” and they live up to the billing. The single track is flat, requires minimal technical skills and offers a pair of basic ramps for those who want to take it up a notch.

Providing a nice progression from easy to intermediate, Dockton Forest seems like an ideal place to learn or teach.

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4. SUPPORT THE SPORT

Shop owner Starr grew up on Vashon Island and has ridden in Dockton Forest since he was a kid. He and his friends rode makeshift trails and built jumps in little-used sections of the woods. Each year King County officials would tear out their work, and they’d start over.

Starr credits a part-time county employee and island resident, Dave Warren, for stopping the vicious cycle.

“He was sick and tired of tearing out the jumps,” Starr said. “He helped the county realize that while we are trying to get kids to want to go outside, this was discouraging people from doing it.”

In 2014, the Vashon Mountain Bike Association started putting together a proposal to build an official trail system. With the support of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (the sport’s most influential trail building and advocacy group in Washington) and local land preservation groups, the dream became reality fairly quickly.

“We are grateful that the county fast-tracked this and gave kids something to do this summer,” Starr said.

As is often the case with local multistage trail projects, phase one is a test run. The coming weeks and months will determine if more trails will be added.

So, for those who love the sport, a trip to Dockton Forest to ride or volunteer is a good way to show support.

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5. IT’S MORE THAN BIKE TRAILS

Marsh, from the chamber, thinks Vashon Island could become a popular weekend trip for mountain bikers looking to do more than just ride.

“Folks in Seattle, Tacoma and the (Olympic) Peninsula can get here with a quick ferry ride,” he said. “You can catch a show or have a great meal. You feel like you are hundreds of miles away, but you are not.”

After a few hours pedaling through the woods, bikers can easily tack on a visit to Vashon’s restaurants, go kayaking, visit the island’s famous bicycle tree or take a hike in one of the many protected green spaces.

“There’s a lot to do,” Marsh said. “It makes for a fun trip.”

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