Santiago Oaks Regional Park is just a few weeks in to an innovative education program designed to promote trail etiquette among mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians who share the multi-use trails that crisscross the acreage nestled between Orange Park Acres and Anaheim Hills.

The safe and respectful use of trails is a countywide issue, with two-wheeled users trading epithets with two-footed and four-legged recreationists.  Equestrians blame hikers and bikers for startling their horses, hikers say they are often run off the road by speeding bikers, and land managers report that illegal trails carved out by errant users destroys habitat, plant life and increases water runoff damage.

Santiago Oaks Head Ranger Mike Wilson believes we can all get along if we simply respect each other.  And that is why, he says, he’s focused on educating trail users.  “I want everyone to feel safe on the trails,” he says.  “Families hiking with kids should feel as safe as mountain bikers coming around a blind curve.”

To that end, park volunteers are now giving out bells for bikers to attach to their handlebars.  The bells let others know when a biker is approaching, therefore preventing surprise encounters. So far, the bikers have welcomed the bells, and users of all types say the warning they provide is helpful.

Outreach not outrage
Handing out the bells also gives volunteers a chance to talk to trail users about their responsibilities, and what they can expect on multi-use trails.  Hikers, for example, can expect faster-moving horses and mountain bikes.  Equestrians may meet up with inexperienced hikers who are intimidated by the larger animals.  Common practice is that bikers yield to hikers and both yield to horses.

Along with the bells, park volunteers hand out trail maps and brochures that include a detailed description of safe and responsible trail use.

“It comes down to respect,” Wilson says.  “The people who use regional parks are neighbors.  The equestrian may not know the mountain biker personally, but they both come to the park regularly, and they probably live in the same community.  Most of the people who come here think of Santiago Oaks as ‘their’ park.  They care about it; they want to take care of it.  That’s why we think educating users about trail etiquette works better than strict enforcement.”  Although, he adds, the rules are enforced and flagrant offenders will be cited and fined.

The good neighbor policy also extends to canines.  Dogs must be leashed at all times.  But many aren’t.  “We have fold-up water bowls that we give out to dog walkers,” Wilson says.  “At the same time we hand them the water bowl, we can talk to them about the rules.”

The giveaways signify inclusion, Wilson suggests.  He wants everyone to feel welcome in the park.  “Our approach,” he says, “is, hey, glad you’re here.  Here’s a bell or a water bowl, and these are the rules.”

Wilson is transferring to another OC park this month. Derrick Ankerstar plans to pick up where Wilson leaves off.  “Look for education tents along the trails,” he says.  “We’ll be handing out more bells and water bowls, educating people about horses and dogs off leash.  We want everyone to enjoy the park.”

Santiago Oaks Park promotes good neighbor policies by being one