Colorado’s San Luis Valley is the kind of place that makes you feel blessed just for being there. It’s so remote, so high, so big and stuffed with so many dramatic geologic formations that you seem to absorb it all on a cellular level. And tiny Del Norte (population 1,598) is a stubborn little oasis amidst these superlatives. A farming and ranching community at its core (and originally, a mining town), Del Norte has long been a waypoint for travelers headed over Wolf Creek Pass. The Windsor Hotel, a newly refurbished Victorian, is one of the oldest crash pads in Colorado, built as it was in 1874. And since the construction of the first rope tow up Wolf Creek Pass in 1938, athletes and outdoorsmen have steadily been moving here to harvest powder and and explore backcountry trails.
Trout and big game have always been plentiful, attracting the Ute Tribe for millennia and the Ancestral Puebloans before that. The valley’s free-roaming buffalo are gone, but one enterprising rancher is breeding a healthy herd just north of town. During my visit in June, the tawny-colored newborn calves stood out against their black parents, skipping about on spindly legs. Heck, even Mammoth once roamed the San Luis Valley. And the area’s rich wetlands have long been an important stop for migrating birds.
One family of outdoor athletes has been instrumental in developing the adventure sports scene in the area. Eric Burt took over Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa in 1983 and opened a sister store in Del Norte in 2016, in large part to serve the growing mountain biking scene. It’s a family affair, with his wife Lisa and two sons, Raleigh and Leighton, running the business with him.
“Growing up around here, we had the run of the place. You can’t imagine,” says elder son Raleigh Burt, 25, the stores’ director of business development. Kristi Mountain Sports, Del Norte, occupying an historic brick building constructed in 1882, is on its seventh life; it’s been a bank, a grocery store, butcher shop, hardware store, flower shop, and gift shop over the years. The adjoining courtyard is well-shaded and set up with the essentials: picnic tables, a hammock and fresh-water spigot.
The Burts have collaborated with local trail builder Brinkley (“Brink”) Messick, 35, to help develop (and benefit from) the singletrack around Del Norte. What was a loose collection of fire roads and “user-generated” trail has been modified, improved, and expanded in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “There’s been an incredible relationship with public land managers,” says Messick, who lives in Salida. “I’ve worked with lots of agencies throughout the state, and there’s something special in the valley—maybe it’s the agricultural heritage, where you help your neighbor. That local spirit combined with the positive relationship with land managers, makes the valley really unique, supportive and symbiotic.”
Originally from North Carolina, Messick came to Colorado in 2003 to run a horse packing program for a kid’s camp during his college summers. Colorado’s amazing recreation got him “stuck” in the area. He never left and has since worked for nonprofits, like Southwest Conservation Corps, where he was volunteer and partnership coordinator, and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, a San Luis Valley-based position that interfaces with the BLM. Today, he works for Colorado Mountain Club as conservation outreach and project manager. More than anyone, Messick has been instrumental in making Del Norte a destination for mountain biking.
“Brink’s the man,” says Burt. “In the last six or seven years, he’s had his hand in all the trail design and trail building around here.”
Messick cites the Southwest Conservation Corps, specifically, as the heaviest lifter. Partially federally funded, the group has a great relationship with the BLM, and attracts mostly young volunteers willing to put their backs into the sweaty physical labor of trail building.
The riding around Del Norte is divided into three main “lowland areas”: Penitente Canyon (20 miles of singletrack), Pronghorn (10 miles of singletrack), and Stone Quarry, (15 miles singletrack). A fourth area, Lime Kiln (a network of jeep trails just south of Stone Quarry), allows motorized access, making it ideal for e-bikes. And the alpine “highland trails” (still snowed in during my visit in June), upcountry to the West of town in the San Juan Mountains, also present great riding. Around town, the trails feel more like Moab or Fruita: desert, rock formations, rolling hills. The higher elevation trails feel like Crested Butte: forests, meadows, ridges. You can even bike to the top of 13,209-foot Bennett Peak on a forest road right out of town. In total, about 50 miles of singletrack flow around Del Norte. (Add the “two-track” options, and it’s well over 100 miles.) And that’s not counting all the forest/alpine riding in the Rio Grande National Forest.
Messick’s “purpose-built” trails are far more sustainable than the “user-created” singletrack, and cleverly snake through the terrain to mitigate erosion. He also considers the area’s rich cultural history, which goes back thousands of years, when building trails.
“We’ve done re-routes to avoid cultural spots,” says Messick of various pictograph sites. “Before we build on public land, it has to be surveyed by archaeologists.” The area has rock art panels created by the Jicarilla Apache and Ute. People have been traveling the San Luis Valley pretty much since humans have been in North America. It was an intersection for many historic trade routes associated with the Ancestral Puebloans, local tribes, and the Spanish, partly because Wolf Creek Pass is the headwaters of the Rio Grande River.
Combine the area’s history with the natural beauty and the spider webs of singletrack, and you’ve got the makings of a real scene. Founded in 2015 by Salida-based rider Sydney Schallit, the 12 Hours of Penitence is an annual race held in October. It’s mostly a team event, but a surprising number of solo-riding masochists loop the 16-mile course. And this year, the race is a fundraiser for a local high school mountain biking team.
“It’s been an honor to be involved in the trail development here,” says Messick. “I started because I saw the value and potential, but it’s evolved into something that’s grown momentum for the actual sport. Local youth are getting into it, and these trails have become a part of the community.”
Building that kind of personal connection to the land is key to protecting it. “Not to get too political, but right now, our public lands are in danger,” says Messick. “It’s awesome to have these recourses.” Trails create access for more people, and with more people comes a louder voice for protection. That interest promotes stewardship. In other words, trail building is stewardship.
“I still get so much enjoyment from simply riding,” says Messick. So should you. Spin the black tubes, people, and craft your own special feelings in Del Norte. This land is our land.
Lend A Hand
Want to volunteer to build a better trail system? The American Mountaineering Center (americanmountaineeringcenter.org) in Golden, Colorado, houses three great organizations that support trail building in Colorado and beyond: the Colorado Trail Foundation (coloradotrail.org), the American Alpine Club (americanalpineclub.org) and the Colorado Mountain Club (cmc.org). The Southwest Conservation Corps (sccorps.org) has offices and volunteer opportunities throughout the Southwest.