The sleepy border town—once known more for sex changes than bike rides—has a plan to become Colorado’s hot, new gravel-grinding destination. Here’s how one dedicated local is proving this place has real cycling soul.
After 24 hours in Trinidad, I still haven’t seen another bike.
Instead I see a Main Street lined with original buildings from the late 1800s, tin-ceilings and gilded borders intact. Pick-up trucks with dog and driver bounce down streets paved in rusty red brick. A bronzed statue of a canary in a coal mine, and a few Italian restaurants let you know where the miners came from. In early March, it’s sunny and breezy, and a shimmery coat of snow sticks to the north-facing aspect of Raton Mesa above town. I’ve been told there are some 1,500 miles of dirt roads nearby that wind through scrubby grasslands, along canyon rims and up to where the forest meets the plains. A gravel riding paradise. So—where are all the bikes?
At the Mountain Ventures Summit in Mammoth Lakes, California, last month, Juan De la Roca found himself trying to explain Trindad.
“I’d be telling people I was from this beautiful place with great gravel riding that had no outdoor recreation industry yet and was also super affordable to live in, and they’d say, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing, where is it?’”
In Colorado, where cities along the Front Range and the ski towns nestled in the mountainous center of the state are experiencing tremendous growth and becoming cost prohibitive for many people, De la Roca’s advertisement for Trinidad sounds like a tip that’s too good to be true. The problem is, no one has ever heard of it.
But Trinidad’s relative obscurity doesn’t bother De La Roca. In fact, it’s one of the reasons he was drawn to it in the first place, and it’s definitely why he’s committed himself to bringing the place into the light.
The city of 9,100 people on the banks of the Purgatorie River in southeastern Colorado has always attracted the adventurous type. From Mexican and Spanish explorers sussing out the Santa Fe Trail to the coal miners and ranchers reaping the riches of the land, Trinidad was founded by people who realized its potential. The 60s and 70s lured people to Las Animas County for reasons unique to the time—notably the experiment in counterculture communal living called Drop City, or the work of Dr. Stanley Biber, a Korean War veteran who’d come to Trinidad to serve as the town surgeon (but his career path took a sharp left turn and resulted in a nickname—“The Sex Change Capital of the World”—that just won’t go away).
But lately, life hasn’t been easy here. Despite its rich history, modern Trinidad has been plagued with the same problems many rural areas face: substance abuse, a lack of sustainable economic opportunities and a subsequent “brain drain.”
“This has been a problematic part of the state for a long time,” says De la Roca, who owns and operates Backshop Bicycle Travel Supply.
However, the town’s challenges have put Trinidad at the forefront of a very important conversation: how to address the widening gap between urban and rural. Fortunately, it’s a conversation that people want to jump into. According to Abby Leeper, communications manager for the Colorado Tourism Office (CTO), the state is very interested in the town.
“Supporting rural economic development across the entire state is a priority for Colorado,” she says. “The CTO offers several competitive grant and promotional opportunities through our Colorado Rural Academy for Tourism (CRAFT) program, which provides an array of training resources aimed at helping communities advance tourism-related strategies to drive economic development.”
A few years ago, as a new Trinidad-transplant (who’d logged professional career time in Denver and Austin, Texas), De la Roca began to stitch together his own rural economic development plan. Indebted to his marketing background and with an inherent curiosity about his surroundings it dawned on him.
“I’d gone around and looked at the roads, noticed where private property ended and public began,” he says “Cycling is obviously big in Colorado, and I knew that the gravel trend was coming. Having lived on the Front Range and used the RTD bus and light rail system to get to the start of a ride, I realized we could do the same with the Southwest Chief [Amtrak] train.”
In October of 2018, De la Roca submitted a proposal to the CTO, hopeful they would agree with his vision of using gravel riding—under the bigger umbrella of outdoor recreation—to foster interest in Trinidad. His “Explore Las Animas Dirt Series” was selected by the grant committee, and beginning this May and continuing through September, a series of curated group rides will roll out from the old train depot in town.
Colorado can claim a fair share of mountain-bike destination success stories, from Fruita to Fort Collins but there were two reasons De la Roca chose gravel. One, the roads were there. “The blueprint is in place to make mountain biking in Trinidad awesome,” he says, “but we can do gravel right now.”
Furthermore—and I can attest this is true—the gravel in Las Animas County is top-notch. For the summer series, De la Roca created seven routes that lead riders out of the city and into a landscape that’s as varied physically as it is culturally. While infrastructure is limited (sorry, no mid-ride espresso), riders will stumble upon the remnants of mining towns, sprawling ranches and even prehistoric archeological sites (please be respectful).
“These roads go through legit backcountry,” De la Roca says. “Your bike has to be in good order and supplied, and you need to know your limits. The riding is challenging. ‘Las animas’ means the soul. The riding here is about digging in deep and enjoying the challenge.”
De la Roca’s other incentive to stick to the gravel roads centers around history. Land ownership in Las Animas County remains largely private, dating back to the Mexican land grants of the 1800s. Easy access to recreation on public lands is limited. However, this too shows signs of changing, especially with the state now committed to outdoor recreation here.
Early this year, the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy (with financial support from Great Outdoors Colorado and Colorado Parks & Wildlife) purchased the privately-held Crazy French Ranch, 30 square miles of wildlife habitat, critical ecosystem, and access to the signature geographic feature of the area, 9,633-foot Fisher’s Peak. Although it will take at least two years of careful planning, Fisher’s Peak Ranch, as it’s now called, will eventually open up a level of public access to nature that residents of Las Animas County have never seen before.
De la Roca views the Fisher’s Peak Ranch acquisition as a catalyst to draw more cyclists and hikers to the Trinidad area. With so many people participating in the gig economy, he says, it’s only a matter of time before people see Trinidad as a nice, quiet place to live and work. This vision is at the core of the Explore Las Animas Dirt Series, as well.
“I want to create awareness for the whole Trinidad-Las Animas experience,” says De la Roca. “The objective is to get people pulling off I-25 to ride their bike, but we want to see downtown spending, lodging tax revenue and the attraction of small businesses.”
Although the Explore Las Animas Dirt Series had not yet kicked off when I traveled to Trinidad, I pretended like it had. I grabbed a cup of coffee in town and parked at the old train depot (where riders can camp and use the facilities during the ride series). I loaded up a suggested ride, the ‘Rocky Mountain Canary’ route on my phone and pedaled out of town along the Purgatorie River.
After a few miles of pavement, I crossed the railroad tracks and hung a right onto dirt. The Spanish Peaks bloomed behind me. There were more cattle guards than cars. The dirt road bisected a ranch and felt so intimate I had to make sure I wasn’t trespassing. When I got back to town, I walked to over to Nana and Nano Monteleone’s Italian Deli and Pasta House for a homemade marinara lunch (served with a side of local Al-Capone-in-Trinidad folklore). I snapped photos of the oldest synagogue in the state and imagined putting a brewery in the old Chronicle-News building. Next time I’m here, I thought, I’ll definitely see more bikes.
If big-sky bike rides on rarely-trafficked gravel roads are your thing, point it to Trinidad.
From the Explore Las Animas adventure ride series (explorelasanimas.com) to the Pony Xpress 160 (coloradogravelgrinderchampionship.com/pony-xpress) and Branson Hi Lo Country Gravel Grinder (Facebook.com/pg/BransonHiLoGravelGrinder) events, bike rides are giving town hall meetings a run for their money here. Here are a few of the rides we’re most excited for.
Sunflower Valley Tour / Explore Las Animas Dirt Series and Southwest Chief Bicycle and Comedy Festival. 73 miles, +2,517 feet elevation gain.
Pony Xpress 160 / Colorado Gravel Grinder Championships. 160 kilometers, +7,000 feet elevation gain.
Super Trinidad Rodeo / Explore Las Animas Dirt Series. 95 miles, +7,354 elevation gain.
Pancho and Lefty’s Loop / Explore Las Animas Dirt Series. 78 miles, +4,086 elevation gain.
Branson Hi Lo Country Gravel Grinder. 50 miles, +2,477 elevation gain. 27 miles, +951 elevation gain.
You’d be remiss to ride in Trinidad and not spend some time exploring the city’s odd, intriguing attractions.
First, go way back in time at the Louden-Henritze Archeology Museum to view prehistoric artifacts and trace the area’s geologic timeline. Then, saddle up to the A.R. Mitchell Cowboy Museum, one of the country’s finest collections of Western art and collectibles, Native American art and artifacts, and Hispanic traditional and religious art. When you’re thirsty, Moose’s Social Club and Martini Bar is just what a small town bar should be: according to their website, “nothing fussy.” And for the carbo-load you need for the next day’s ride, reserve a table at Rino’s Italian Restaurant and Steakhouse, where the Trinidad-native and Las Vegas-famous Cordova family will serenade you with song while you enjoy the spaghetti.