NICE MARMOT: THE PROCESS OF TRAIL BUILDING WITH HARLAN HOTTENSTEIN

The Grand Targhee Bike Park has a new trail! Nice Marmot as it is called, twists and turns its way down the southwest face of Fred’s Mountain. Starting at the top of the Dreamcatcher Lift, the new intermediate downhill trail snakes through the Happy Hunting Grounds and down the right side of the Nasty Gash before ending at the bottom of Crazy Horse where it meets up with the lower section of Sidewinder. From top to bottom, Nice Marmot covers two miles of terrain and descends just over 1,200 feet of elevation. Those are the quick facts but, to get some deeper insight into the trail building process we sat down with the trail’s creator, Harlan Hottenstein.

If you have found yourself on a downhill trail in the greater Teton area, then you have most likely experienced Harlan’s work firsthand. We have been lucky enough to have his trail-building expertise here at Grand Targhee since 2012. Harlin has been working on trails in the area since the ‘90s, including extensive work on Teton Pass and at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. How did he get into trail building? The answer is simple, and it starts with his passion for riding.

“It became apparent as soon I started mountain biking that most trails weren’t built for mountain biking. I would ride trails or even jeep roads with certain sections that were just awesome. It was the closest thing that I could think of to powder skiing without powder skiing basically. But then those awesome sections of trails were connected by lots of stuff that wasn’t so fun or just outright crappy. I spent years as an over-enthusiastic volunteer and then started getting hired eventually.”

Over twenty years later and Harlan is still building trails chock-full of those awesome sections. With help of people like himself, the mountain biking world has evolved drastically over the past two decades. The days of sub-par trails are long in the rear-view mirror. So how does he do it? How do we go from a raw mountainside to a finished product?

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Step 1: A Blank Canvas

Here at Grand Targhee each trail must be preapproved by the Forst Service. Once approved, the trail builders are given a general area where they can build the designated trail. In the case of Nice Marmot that area essentially encompassed the terrain from the Dreamcatcher lift line to Lost Groomers on the south facing side of Fred’s Mountain. The challenge for Harlan was how to build an intermediate trail from the summit of the mountain through the approved area.

“I always try to incorporate natural features or at least the contours of the hillside into whatever I build. It was basically a lot of walking around and looking for cool stuff to incorporate and trying to figure out how to build significant stretches of trail connected with turns and get to the bottom of the hill. What it really came down to was where could I do 180s because it’s too steep to turn around on most of the given area.”

If you have walked around the upper mountain of Grand Targhee during the summer months you can begin to grasp some of the challenges that a trail building crew would encounter. There are very few direct fall lines, the dirt is full of loose shale, and the past few summers have resulted in very dry conditions. But if you give a dedicated mountain biker an opportunity to build a new trail, chances are they’ll find a way. Sure enough, after a few summers of walking the hillside, a plausible route was determined. Once the general path of the trail has been walked out and flagged, they go to work.

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Step 2: Problem Solving

When it comes to building a trail, the terrain dictates everything. At the end of the day there is only so much a trail builder can do to alter the rugged landscape. They start with the problem child of the trail; the terrain features and sections of trail that are going to pose issues in the building process such as an exposed turn or extremely rocky stretch of trail. Most of the time, those problems arise on the switchbacks of the route.

“None of these turns coming down this are super smooth berms or have an even radius and that’s by necessity. You run into big rocks or run out of fill material. You start running into tree roots and when are working around some of this older growth stuff we try not to disturb that. It’s sparsely treed as it is, and we don’t want to be killing anything unnecessarily. There are a few white barks that we must worry about because they are protected. When you think you are far enough away, you start skimming some roots, and have to reconfigure.”

These sections can often result in drastic rerouting and reshaping of the trail, so it is important to make sure to have dealt with them before building out the entirety of the trail.  

Step 3: From the Top Down…

Once those difficult stretches of trail are handled, it’s back to the start. When working on a downhill trail, crews work from the top down just as a rider would do. Depending on the trail type and terrain, a wide variety of tools are used to get the job done. However, in the case of Nice Marmot, most of the work was done via machine.

“An experienced operator and trail builder can get really close to a finished product with just a little mini excavator. We can get it to the point where it would actually ride fine without the handwork, but that last little bit is very essential, particularly in a bike park with the volume of traffic we anticipate.”

Rakes, shovels, and other hand tools are used to comb over the trail and rid it of loose rocks and excess debris. A shoutout goes to our wonderful trail crew for all the hard work they have done on this trail along with all the other trails at Targhee over the course of the summer. If you see someone with a hand tool out of the trail show them some love. If the trail building process is of interest to you, then just like Harlan, you can get involved as a volunteer with community trail workdays. Even if you don’t see a future for yourself in trail building you can still accumulate some good karma with the bike gods.

Of course, it is a bike trail, so part of the process involves riding a bike. When Harlan’s not in the excavator he is on two wheels trying to get a feel for how the trail will ride and what different levels of rider’s experiences will be like.

“I’m trying to predict the fires that need to be put out and then feeling out the flow of it. Is this a fun experience or is this what we are looking for?”

The trail building process doesn’t stop when the trail opens. There are always tweaks to make and sections to fix. The crew will look to see where riders are over braking or struggling on the trail and make the appropriate changes. You as riders can help your local trail crew out by riding within your comfort zone. When you have a smooth ride down the trail, in turn, remains smooth. Over time the ideal line will evolve, get ridden, and be cemented.

“With a trail like Nice Marmot, once plants bounce back and regenerate this should ride for the most part like singletrack. It’s going to look a little road-like for the first full season though next year but, by spring 2023 this trail won’t look so machine built.”

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Step 4: Get Ready to Ride

So, what will this trail look like? What will it ride like? It will be like our Bring It On Home trail, only on steroids. Long fast straightaways full of side hits, small jumps, and natural rock features. Mellow rollers fill in the areas between the banked switchbacks and the occasional sneaker line will keep you on your toes. When riding this trail or any trail for the first time take Harlan’s advice and start out with a couple of mellow laps.

“Neck it back 20% and feel it out. I think by nature nobody wants to get injured, so by enlarge the majority of riders take it pretty slow their first time down any trail. You start throwing peer pressure, alcohol, Kodiak courage, stuff like that into the mix and things can change.”

The man has been riding longer than some of you have been alive so please heed his words of wisdom. Get out and enjoy the new trail and rip it up but remember that ski season will be here before you know it. You’ve been doing something right if you’ve made it to this point in the bike season in one piece so keep it up and ride responsibly.

Thank you to Harlan Hottenstein, Clay Curley, Andy Williams, our trail crew, bike patrol, and all of our mountain operations staff for your work on Nice Marmot and all of the trails at Grand Targhee.

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