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“Bigger than a trail”: Grand Valley’s Palisade Plunge set to open after 10 years of planning, partnerships

The work of three federal land agencies, three municipalities, landowners and mountain bikers yields not just Colorado’s most anticipated trail, but a model for how communities can bring big ideas to fruition.

Riders descend the lower section of the Palisade Plunge, a 34-mile trail that drops 6,000 vertical feet as its winds off the Grand Mesa down to the Colorado River. Three federal agencies, three municipalities, private landowners, nonprofits and mountain bikers spent more than 10 years planning and constructing the trail, which is a considered a model for partnerships on major trail projects. (Joey Early / RockyMounts, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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PALISADE — “This next stretch, this is where the exposure becomes, um, moreso,” Scott Winans says.

The dozen-plus mountain bikers lean over their handlebars and scan the cliff next to the narrow singletrack. A few nervous chuckles evaporate in the gusting wind. 

For the next hour, the riders mutter “moreso” to each other as they navigate a ribbon of dirt above sheer cliffs. 

The 32-mile, soon-to-open Palisade Plunge is the most anticipated mountain bike trail to debut in a decade in Colorado. It’s taken more than 10 years of negotiations between federal and state agencies, local communities, mountain bikers and private landowners. And the end result is a trail that will challenge even the most skilled mountain bikers as they bounce down the crown jewel of the Grand Valley’s blossoming outdoor recreation economy. 

But the Palisade Plunge is more than an economic engine luring mountain bikers who are expected to deliver as much as $5 million a year to Mesa County. And it’s more than a destination-worthy trail that traverses distinct alpine-to-desert ecosystems, blending rolling singletrack with technical, high-consequence terrain and unrivaled vistas.

Scott Winans, the longtime head of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, spent more than 10 years negotiating the development of the 32-mile Palisade Plunge trail, which descends more than 6,000 vertical feet from the top of the Grand Mesa to the Colorado River. The bottom section of the trail — which is scheduled to open later this fall — features technical, exposed singletrack. (Joey Early / RockyMounts, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Palisade Plunge is emerging as a prototype for how diverse groups, agencies and governments can combine forces and spend many years working to build something big. 

“We are going to set the tone not just for Mesa County and what it can do for us economically, but for the whole country as a model for how, when a community comes together to get something done, we can really do it with partnerships with federal government and the state government and so many other groups,” Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said last week as she addressed a crowd in the new $187,000 Shirttail Point parking lot built by Mesa County to serve as a Palisade Plunge launching point. 

Descending more than 6,000 vertical feet from the top of the Grand Mesa to Palisade’s verdant vineyards along the Colorado River, the trail is set to join Colorado’s Monarch Crest and Utah’s Whole Enchilada as mountain bike rides that draw hardy pedalers from all corners. 

“This is the first point-to-point, shuttle-able, purpose-built mountain bike trail ever in the country. All the other point-to-point trails have been pieced together by linking existing trails,” said Greg Mazu, whose Singletrack Trails crew is building the Plunge Trail. 

Last week, Mazu’s trail sculptors were rappelling down the Otto Wall to build a section of the trail. The steep stretch that spills from the top of the Grand Mesa was where John Otto, the architect of the Colorado National Monument, forged the link between valley and mesa more than a century ago. The Singletrack builders used ropes to suspend themselves as they placed rocks on a narrow shelf, rebuilding Otto’s famed pathway for a new generation of mountain biking adventurers.

“Don’t ride off the trail in a couple spots,” Mazu said with a smile. 

The trail was built in two phases over the past three years. The first phase is set to open later this fall. The second phase should open by spring. During a pre-opening descent with trail builders and land managers, mountain bikers got a taste of the trail, with hazy views of the Colorado Plateau. To the south is Cimarron Ridge in the San Juans; the La Sals hover above the sandstone canyons of Colorado National Monument to the west and to the north the region’s iconic Bookcliffs tower above the fertile Grand Valley. 

There were sections of smooth dirt burrowed through dense scrub oak. Steep rock steps carved into walls required precise piloting. A narrow chasm carved by eons of runoff delivered river running-like thrills. The descent of the full 32 miles will take careful riders several hours and will likely distress unprepared or unskilled mountain bikers.

“What is shaping up right here is one of the premiere challenges in the country for mountain bikers,” said Cathy Ritter, describing how her Colorado Tourism Office plans to champion the Palisade Plunge as a “star attraction” for the knobby-tired riders who flock to these kinds of trails. “What’s created here is going to be the kind of attraction whose fame will spread and build reputation.”

The economic spark from the Palisade Plunge will feed the Grand Valley’s growing outdoor recreation industry, which in recent years has attracted new residents and businesses. Grand Junction’s new Las Colonias Park, with an outdoor recreation industry business campus, is home to zipline developer and manufacturer Bonsai Designs and bike-rack builder RockyMounts. 

“I’ve been a bike advocate for 25 years, and what we are witnessing is monumental,” said Bobby Noyes, who founded RockyMounts in 1995 in Boulder and last year moved his 14-employee business to Grand Junction where he’s building a 20,000 square-foot headquarters a short pedal from the city’s Lunch Loops trail network.

Noyes, at the same kickoff event in the parking lot, spoke about his interactions with Grand Valley residents who have weathered the region’s notorious boom-bust cycles as the energy economy fluctuates. He talked about the scars those economic ebbs and flows can leave on a community. He, like others in the outdoor recreation world, see trails as a tool to lure new businesses that can help iron out those painful low points when oil and gas rigs are idled.

“And this trail, this one blows all the others away,” he said. 

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Ritter sees the Palisade Plunge anchoring even more economic development. It’s already begun. Rondo Buecheler, who opened Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade in 2006, has purchased passenger vans and custom-made bike trailers for his new Palisade Plunge Shuttle Co. to haul riders up from Palisade to the top of the mesa. A hiply renovated 1950s-era motel opened last year in downtown Palisade with cruiser bikes, craft beers and coffee. Grand Junction in recent years has seen an influx of young entrepreneurs drawn by the region’s affordability and access to the outdoors. 

Ritter sees more local bike shops, more lodging and more tourism-based business opportunities springing from the trail. 

“This can be just the beginning of the development of an important niche for this region,” she said. 

Scott Winans, the longtime head of the 30-year-old Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, sat through hundreds of meetings in the past decade as he shepherded the Palisade Plunge from dream to dirt. The challenges seemed endless a decade ago as mountain bikers proposed a trail through one of the largest roadless areas on the Grand Mesa. 

The trail crosses through lands managed and owned by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation, which means the trail went through intense study under the National Environmental Policy Act. It traverses property owned by Grand Junction, which leases the land to ranchers who run cattle on the terrain, who in turn lease access to a hunting outfitter. That stretch of trail took some negotiation. 

Other private landowners flank the route. Palisade has property along the trail where it protects the city’s water supply. 

Palisade detailed the planning involved in the creation of the Palisade Plunge to the Colorado Chapter of the American Planning Association, which this month honored the trail in its Great Places award program that recognizes projects and communities “that represent the gold standard in terms of having a true sense of place, culture and historical interest, community involvement and a vision for tomorrow.” 

Greg Wolfgang, the manager of the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office, descends a section of the Palisade Plunge trail as BLM outdoor recreation planner Chris Pipkin looks on. Three federal agencies, three municipalities, private landowners, nonprofits and mountain bikers spent more than 10 years planning and constructing the trail, which is a considered a model for partnerships on major trail projects. The BLM is championing the Palisade Plunge and the collaborative process behind the creation and construction of the 32-mile trail as a hallmark of the agency’s “Connecting with Communities” outdoor recreation strategy. (Joey Early / RockyMounts, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers found a culturally important site along the route as well as threatened plants and a golden eagle nest. People have never been to this formerly inaccessible terrain, so wildlife managers pushed the trail away from critical habitat. 

“This Palisade Plunge is not just a trail,” said Bob Morris, the district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in charge of protecting wildlife on the west end of the Grand Mesa. “It’s a good representation of how federal agencies, local municipalities, nonprofits and state agencies like CPW can come together to provide outdoor recreation to an entire community.”

With just about every meeting with landowners, cities and land managers, trail alignments shifted. And that was OK, Winans said, because the vision kept moving forward.

“You have to be willing to see your vision evolve as it meets different community needs,” Winans said. “A big project like this could have been killed along the way by any one of these partners. Not out of malice, but just by having a priority that doesn’t quite jibe with this.”

Palisade Plunge partners have raised more than $2.1 million in funding for the trail, which includes a $527,000 Colorado the Beautiful grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and $1.2 million from Great Outdoors Colorado’s Connect Initiative grant program. Another $110,000 was raised by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association to monitor and maintain the trail in the coming years. 

Those dollars helped plan and install not just the trail, but a menagerie of multicolored signs with maps that show mileage, elevation, management boundaries and, occasionally, stern warnings. 

“Use extreme caution — there’s no shame in walking!” reads the sign at Mile 26.5, with a warning that the trail crosses very steep slopes and “passes along the edge of vertical cliffs.”

“We put a lot of thought into these signs,” said Chris Pipkin, outdoor recreation planner with the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office.

Trail designers includes a network of signage on the Palisade Plunge trail, which stretches 32 miles and drops 6,000 vertical feet from the top of the Grand Mesa to the Colorado River. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

A 2018 survey funded by the Outdoor Alliance found mountain bikers pedaling in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests spend $24 million in a year in surrounding communities like Grand Junction, Ouray and Crested Butte. The study showed visiting mountain bikers supporting 100 jobs in the Grand Junction area and creating an economic impact of $7.3 million. The BLM says mountain bikers drawn to the Palisade Plunge will infuse $1.9 million a year into Palisade, part of $5 million the trail is expected to deliver annually to the Grand Valley economy. 

Ken Gart, a co-owner of the Powderhorn ski area atop the Grand Mesa and a member of the Grand Valley’s Outdoor Recreation Coalition, called the Palisade Plunge a critical tool in a transformational process playing out across the Western Slope that starts with a bike ride and ends with a new resident or even a new business. 

“People visit and play and then they come more often, and before you know it they relocate here or they relocate their business here and it’s really a virtuous cycle that I’ve gotten to see here in Colorado over and over,” Gart said as he welcomed the group in the new parking lot on the world’s largest flattop mountain. 

BLM outdoor recreation planner Chris Pipkin on the Palisade Plunge trail. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

It wasn’t just the trail the BLM built above Palisade, said Pipkin, who this summer was part of a presentation at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Partners in the Outdoors conference highlighting the Palisade Plunge as a model for “building community by building trails.”

The trail has been elevated by the BLM as a national model for the agency’s Connecting with Communities outdoor recreation strategy, which encourages local managers to develop closer ties with private businesses and local governments to grow recreational opportunities. 

“We also at the local level developed a trail development process: step-by-step, here’s how to go from concept to construction and how to work with different agencies to build those partnerships,” Pipkin said. “So we definitely built something bigger than a trail here.”

IF YOU GO: The trail is not open yet. Planners expect to host an opening event for the first phase of the trail later this fall. When it does open, bring more water than you think you need. There is about 1,350-feet of climbing in the 17-mile first phase, which begins on Lands End Road and ends in Palisade. So it’s not all downhill. There are maybe two places a mountain biker can bail off the trail if the terrain proves too challenging and the final miles dropping into Palisade are by far the stoutest sections of the ride, where a bobble can lead to a long tumble. So if a rider is feeling wobbly heading into mile 26, it might be best to backtrack. As Mesa County’s outdoor recreation boosters and mountain bike advocates script a marketing plan for the Plunge, expect to hear a lot of warnings alongside the cheering.  

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