GRAND JUNCTION — Perched on basalt boulders at the end of a path freshly carved through a jungle of scrub oak, Scott Winans is as close as ever to a 10-year goal that promises to highlight the recreational assets of his Grand Valley home turf.
“It’s been a lot of work to get here. A lot of work,” he said, plunging his face into the icy Whitewater Creek tumbling off the Grand Mesa. “Sometimes I can’t believe it’s finally happening.”
For more than a decade, Winans and a small band of outdoor recreation advocates in Mesa County have worked on an audacious plan for a 33.6-mile trail plummeting 6,000 vertical feet from the top of Grand Mesa to the Colorado River in Palisade. The Palisade Plunge trail project corrals three federal agencies, three municipalities, landowners, water districts, ranchers and hunters under a single banner, marking a coalition of Western Slope residents about as diverse as can be assembled.
“At any point, if any one of the partners had really held back or come out against this, it would have killed everything.” Winans said. “Even a lack of enthusiasm would have done it. There has been so much partnership and interaction that led us to this point. We are stronger as a community across this whole valley because of this project.”
Last month, a team of trail builders started boring singletrack into forest so thick they might as well be miners blasting tunnels. When the crew with Singletrack Trails finishes — hopefully next year, depending on funding — there will be more than 31 miles of new purpose-built trail, and about 3 miles of existing singletrack, descending from the basalt-fluted alpine rim of the state’s highest mesa. Riders can start at 50-degree temps in the alpine and jump in the river in the 100-degree valley when they finish. It’s a destination-worthy trail destined to become a crown jewel of Colorado mountain biking, joining the state’s Monarch Crest and Utah’s Whole Enchilada as iconic, must-pedal rides.
“The total commitment in concept, from Day One, was that it had to be high-quality trail experience,” Winans said. “This thing would never be what we envisioned if someone got on it and said ‘Ho-hum, I don’t need to come back and do that again.’”
But support for the trail isn’t rooted in making mountain bikers happy. It’s about growing the valley’s economy with an asset projected to draw visitors and new residents and contribute at least $5 million a year to local businesses. With that kind of promise, the arduous process of designing, approving and building the Palisade Plunge is emerging as a model for communities across the West as they tap trails to breathe new life into old economies dependent on crops, coal, oil and cattle.
When people started realizing the economic impact of a destination mountain bike trail, that’s when they started buying into the Palisade Plunge, said Rondo Buecheler, who sold his Over The Edge bike shop in Fruita in 2006 and opened Rapid Creek Cycles, along with co-owner Winans, in downtown Palisade.
“It took meetings, meetings and meetings to get everyone to see this big picture,” he said. “This is not about a little bike shop in Palisade and it’s not about a group of core mountain bikers. It’s about the economic health of the whole valley. This is going to help everyone here.”
Support for the Plunge Trail really started to galvanize in 2013, when Mesa County, Grand Junction and the state’s Department of Local Affairs pitched in on a study that outlined the Grand Valley’s assets and challenges in the fight to grow the region’s economy. Researchers with Northstar Destination Strategies urged Mesa County’s economic development leaders to champion the valley’s outdoor amenities to lure new lifestyle-focused businesses and residents.
That report, which was crafted in part through meetings of outdoor manufacturers, led to the creation of the valley’s Outdoor Recreation Coalition and formalized a valleywide effort to grow recreation opportunities and businesses and market the Grand Valley as an outdoor playground. Today, the Palisade Plunge’s partners include Mesa County, the Town of Palisade, city of Grand Junction, Grand Junction Economic Partnership, U.S Forest Service, BLM, Powderhorn ski area and the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA).
“We are business owners, nonprofits, folks representing insurance, housing, real estate, outdoor manufacturers and we have taken it to the community to invigorate this discussion about the outdoor recreation economy,” Winans said. “I think more people are seeing the economic side of recreation now.”
The BLM, following an environmental review of the trail along with the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation, approved the trail in 2018, noting the Plunge’s expected annual impact of $5 million in Mesa County, including $1.9 million a year in Palisade. A 2018 study funded by the Outdoor Alliance showed mountain bikers visiting the Grand Mesa and Grand Junction region stirred an economic impact of more than $8 million a year and contributed more than $550,000 a year in state and local taxes.
The Plunge Trail marks a shift in the BLM toward a more expansive view of projects that consider the role of recreation in local communities, said Chris Pipkin, the recreation planner for the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office.
“The BLM’s national recreation strategy is called “Connecting with Communities” and this shows a real emphasis beyond working with just recreation user groups … and looking more broadly at local governments and businesses and the private sector and kind of looking at the BLM as a facilitator for what the community wants as far as recreation,” Pipkin said. “And it was very clear this is the type of opportunity the community wants. This has been one of the most complex projects I’ve been involved with as far as the number of partners, but there is broad-ranging support.”
The Plunge got another boost when former Gov. John Hickenlooper named it among his 16 high-priority trail projects four years ago as part of his Colorado the Beautiful campaign to connect residents with outdoor spaces. (Hickenlooper also included the Grand Valley’s long-planned Colorado River Trail connecting Palisade with the Kokopelli Trail on the Utah border in his so-called 16 for 16 list.) Since 2016, Great Outdoors Colorado has awarded close to $30 million to regional trails across the state, including $572,000 last year to begin construction on the first 18 miles of the Palisade Plunge. COPMOBA applied for a second-round of GOCO and Colorado Parks and Wildlife grants to finish the top section of the trail over the rim from the Mesa Top Trailhead.
Winans and his trail team originally sketched the Plunge Trail aligning with an existing Forest Service trail for about 12 miles, but the agency pushed for a new route that would help connect different trail networks on top of Grand Mesa. The trail drops off the steep rim following a piece of historic and unused trail created more than a century ago by John Otto, the explorer whose work to protect the canyons around Grand Junction led to the 1911 creation of Colorado National Monument, where he served as the park’s first custodian until 1929.
Swerving through a field of lava-rock scree, the trail slices through untouched forest and high desert that has not seen much human traffic in the last couple centuries.
“And that changes my soul a little bit,” said Janie VanWinkle, a fourth-generation Coloradan whose grandfather forged cow paths below the Grand Mesa rim with a cattle operation her family runs today.
“When you are sitting in this valley, like I am right now on North Avenue, you can look up at the Grand Mesa and see exactly where the trail is going. It’s always been important for me to know that’s one of our last wild places. And that’s changing. I’m not saying it’s not good or bad. It’s just changing,” she says.
VanWinkle, the president-elect of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and owner of VanWinkle Ranch, has never opposed the trail, which runs adjacent to her cattle operation on land she leases from the city of Grand Junction. But she’s raised concerns, sometimes louder than she wished she had to.
And the mountain bikers and trail advocates listened. They routed the trail around her pastures. They are learning to close gates they pass through. They visited with her often and infused her concerns into their plan.
“I will tell you that the value of working together cannot be overstated in any of this. There are parts of it that frustrate me … but all my concerns, they have addressed. And that’s not always the case when it comes to livestock and outdoor recreation,” said VanWinkle, whose 20-year-old son hopes to be the family’s fifth generation cowboy. “My family firmly believes that livestock producers and outdoor recreation have to communicate and we have to find common ground. If we don’t, we, the crusty old cowpunchers … we will be on the losing end.”
Earlier this year VanWinkle joined representatives from the BLM, COPMOBA and Grand Junction in a presentation at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s annual Partners in the Outdoors conference in Breckenridge. They talked about how the four found consensus to make the Palisade Plunge happen.
“It was about finding our common ground. The first thing we have in common is that we all appreciate the landscape,” she says. “These partnerships, they have not been easy to work through. I think we are there though. My grandpa made parts of this trail. Someone is riding bikes on trails that were first cow trails. We have to honor those who came before us in order to move forward. I think that’s happening. And I think we recognize that outdoor recreation certainly adds diversity to our economy and we need that.”
This article was reported and written in partnership with Aspen Journalism.