I am not a mountain biker, but, when I volunteered to go to the Oak Cliff Nature Preserve with some off-road cyclists, I got to hear some harrowing tales of off-road bike racing.

As a hiker, I prefer to take the trails at a slower pace, so I might catch a glimpse of a rabbit scampering to get under cover or a lizard racing off the trail. I found out about The Oak Cliff Nature Preserve after the trails made their public debut in March. I was happy to discover a nearby place for some peaceful communion with nature, where I can see rays of sun sneaking through the canopy, listen to the breeze brushing through the trees, ignore the faint street noises in the background, and imagine that I am far away from the city.

The Oak Cliff Nature Preserve is 119 acres of natural woodland and prairie habitat, located near Pierce and W. Saner (backing up to the Hampton-Illinois branch of the Dallas Public Library). The developers of the area purchased the land from the Boy Scouts, and in 1999, they donated the land to the Natural Area Preservation Association, whose mission is to protect the natural state of their 80 (and growing) Texas properties. The Preserve serves as a buffer between the new housing and the industrial sections along Westmoreland.

The Preservation Association contacted the Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association  for help with building some trails on the Oak Cliff property, but made little progress until they found Shadow Johns. He was the trail steward at Boulder Park (located at the corner of Highway 67 and Red Bird Lane). When he visited the Oak Cliff property, he liked what he saw and has since put hours into blazing the trails with the help of numerous volunteers.   

Shadow says the scheduled work days are hard to plan because he never knows how many people will come. Jeremy Morse, the assistant steward, says, “We try to have a work day about every other month. It’s hard to plan them around bike races.”    

On a recent work weekend, there were about a dozen volunteers, mostly from the Off-Road Bicycle Association. Shadow organized the day’s projects, including clearing, trimming and raking a new trail section, picking up trash, and building a new bridge.  It was rewarding work. The off-road cyclists planned to try out the new trail when the work was done.   

When I ask him about letting my son ride his bike with training wheels on the trails, Shadow answers, “We want the trails to appeal to a wide variety of people — hikers, young riders, and the people looking for more extreme off-road rides. There’s not much like that in Dallas. All of the more technical trail sections offer easier bypasses.” The bypasses are marked with small signs.   

The trails are divided into four loops. Loop one is 1.87 miles, and you can hike, jog or ride it without going on to the other loops. For a longer hike or ride, add loop 2 at 1.63 miles, loop 3 at .94 miles, or loop 4, which will be over 1.5 miles when the new section is finished. The total for the trails is currently 5.2 miles.   

Shadow is enthusiastic about future plans for the Preserve. “We hope to have an outdoor classroom right behind the elementary school,” he says. They have been working on benches and markers for a one-mile nature loop behind Jimmy Brashear Elementary, scheduled to be in place by springtime.   

The entrance takes a little persistence to find. Going west on Illinois from Hampton, make a left on Pierce. Pass the houses and a black chain-link fence, and turn left into the exit to the Potter’s House retirement community (it’s not marked). Turn right before the gate onto a dirt drive to get to the trail head. There’s a small sign on the iron fence to let you know you’re in the right place. On the weekend, you may have to park on the street.   

Contact Shadow Johns at 214-641-1452 for assistance or more information. Shadow posts information about the next work day on the trail head bulletin board. Come to the next one for a rewarding day of hard work, or just come to enjoy the trails.