We had this amazing mountain biking vacation planned to California. And then I pulled my hamstring. Instead of scrapping the trip, I thought I had the perfect solution: rent an e-bike whose pedal-assist would help on climbs or when my injury was slowing me down. But then my buddy posed a question that stumped me: Are e-bikes even legal in California? What if the rules said I couldn’t ride it on trails like a “motor vehicle?”
Is it Legal to Ride an E Bike on a Trail in California
Unlike some states, California law is clear that an e-bike is legal and not a motor vehicle. Still, that doesn’t mean you can hop on any trail like a traditional bike. Additional regulations may vary by city, county or trail management agency.
What Are California E Bike Regulations?
Defined by the California Vehicle Code, an e-bike, or electric bicycle, is “a bicycle equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts, separated into three classes.” While drunk driving laws apply, other motor vehicle regulations (driver’s license, insurance, registration) do not.
One interesting element to California’s laws regarding e-bikes compared to other states is its strict focus on the 3 classifications and accurate classification labeling. While most state laws divide e-bikes into classifications according to their speed capability, California takes it a step farther.
E-bikes in California must be labeled according to their classification, and if a user modifies it after purchase in a way that matches a different classification, the user must change the label. For more on e-bike classifications, and e-bike laws by state, visit Wikipedia (link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_bicycle_laws#California)
What Laws Govern E Bikes in California?
In California, e-bikes are regulated like bicycles, and the same rules of the road apply.
- Cyclists should stay to the right of a lane and signal turns appropriately.
- No riding under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Not subject to the registration, licensing, or insurance requirements that apply to motor vehicles.
- Class 3 e-bikes face greater restrictions (i.e. helmets required; rider can’t be under age of 16).
- Local governments have the authority to restrict the use of e-bikes under motor power on bike paths.
Can you ride an E Bike in Yosemite National Park and Other California National Parks?
The short answer is: yes. However, in Yosemite that simply means access to 12 miles of paved bike trails and use of paved roads. The Trump administration passed a resolution in August of 2019 allowing e-bikes in National Parks. Though there may be some variations between parks, generally e-bikes are permitted anywhere traditional bicycles are allowed. In Yosemite, where mountain biking is not permitted anyway. However, other California National Parks like Sequoia National Park, which has robust mountain biking trails, offers more ebike riding opportunities.
Read more about regulations in YNP at this link – National Park Service – Yosemite
Are E Bikes Legal in California State Parks, BLM Land and Other Recreation Areas?
California State Park policies on ebikes is not very enticing. In general, state parks do not permit their use at all. A few, like Anza Borrego State Park, allow them on roads and some other paved surfaces, but not enough to make a California State Park worth visiting for eMTB.
Head to BLM land! BLM ebike regulations were impacted by the same recent change affecting National Forests. Currently, the general rule is that any BLM trail open for motorized usage is also open to ebikes. Meanwhile, many trails designated for non-motorized use are beginning to welcome ebike riders, depending on the land manager. The overall Golden Rule is: Check local regulations for the specific trails you want to ride.
Searching for some great mountain bike trails in the Western USA? I’ve written some epic guides:
- 18 Best Mountain Bike Trails in Montana – MAPS included
- 13 Best Mountain Bike Trails in Colorado – MAPS included
- This one is my favorite – 15 Best Montana Bike Trails in Utah.
Do E Bikes Harm the Trail More Than Regular Bikes?
Part of the reason that e-bikes aren’t currently permitted in California State Parks is that park administrators plan to spend a year researching and analyzing the impact of e-bikes on trails. This will include effects on wildlife, conflict with other users and most notably: do they damage trails more than traditional mountain bikes.
While no one knows what the ultimate decision will be, early information looks promising. According to the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, a mountain bike advocacy group, “Growing evidence is showing that, when ridden responsibly, the impact of e-bikes is no greater than that of traditional bikes.
After much research, review of other policies and positions, and input from our members and the public, the SDMBA Board of Directors has developed a statement that reflects a broad consensus regarding e-Bikes and e-Mountain Bikes (e-bike), hereafter referred to as “e-bikes”.San Diego Mountain Biking Association
SDMBA supports the use of Class 1 e-bikes on all traditional natural surface mountain biking trails, unless there are specific circumstances to prevent such use.” The organization also points out what I discovered due to my injury: “Cyclists have also experienced the benefits of this new technology, allowing them to continue to enjoy the outdoors when potential health and mobility challenges might otherwise prevent this activity.”
Routes and Trails for E Bikes in California
California is a big state. It’s hard to make route and trail suggestions without significantly limiting the geographic focus. If you’re planning your visit and route around mountain biking, here are some good ebike destinations:
- Lake Tahoe (link: https://wsd-pfb-sparkinfluence.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2018/05/Lake_Tahoe_Map_Web.pdf)
- Big Bear Lake, San Bernadino National Forest near Riverside, CA (link: https://wsd-pfb-sparkinfluence.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2018/05/Big_Bear_Map_Web.pdf)
- Mammoth Ski Resort, Mammoth Lakes, CA (link: https://www.ocregister.com/2020/07/24/mammoth-mountain-launches-new-e-bike-trail-designed-for-motorized-bicycles/). The Bosch eMTB Flow Trail is perhaps the first trail in the country designed specifically for eMTB. Since it’s only 0.7 miles long, you’ll probably want to check out the other mountain bike trails on Mammoth Mountain too.
If you already have your California vacation route planned and want to find e-bike trails along the way, two helpful trail finding resources are:
- Mountain Bike Project (link: https://www.mtbproject.com/directory/8007121/california) Make sure the box is checked at the top of the trail description that says “ebikes allowed.”
- People for Bikes eMTB Map (link: https://peopleforbikes.org/emtb/)
Trail Etiquette for E Bikes
The mountain biking community, as well as hikers and other trail users have approached eMTBs on trails with reluctance and even some resistance. Regardless of the reasons, you can help minimize conflict and be a positive ambassador for the burgeoning sport of ebiking by practicing some simple trail etiquette.
- Be friendly and courteous and always announce your approach. Communicate your intention to pass.
- Follow trail signs and guidelines, including one-way markers, closed signs and ebikes permitted/prohibited.
- Knowing the rules regarding ebikes also gives you the information you need to respond to other trail users questioning whether they’re legal on the trail.
- Be a good steward. Pack out your trash. Ride only on designated trails (no shortcuts!). Don’t ride when trails are muddy as it causes severe damage.
E Bike Vacation Success!
By the way, my California mountain biking vacation was a success – pulled hamstring be damned! It took some extra research and planning ahead of time, but I found an abundance of trails that allow ebikes. We enjoyed fabulous weather, some incredible views, and I may have even found my new favorite sport.