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Taking the Plunge

palisade plunge

After 10 years of planning, construction, and problem-solving, Colorado’s new $3.4 million megatrail is finally ready to ride—and it’s worth it.

It’s an inauspicious start. In the first 3 miles of riding the new Palisade Plunge mountain bike trail outside of Grand Junction, I’ve flatted out, raunched my crotch on the crossbar, tumbled into the bushes, and am bleeding, at least minorly, from all four limbs. Small scrapes mostly, including both calves cactus-pierced by my flat pedals whipping around, but bleeding nonetheless. By the time I catch up to my group, sunscreen dripping into my eyes and dirt on my brow, I realize it didn’t take long for this trail to live up to its billing as Colorado’s newest, most epic and anticipated mountain bike megatrail. 

It’s mid-July and I’m on the first full descent of the new 33.8-mile Plunge trail, along with its designers, BLM and economic development officials, and, thankfully, even owner Scott Winans and bike mechanic Geoff Roper from Rapid Creek Cycles. While they’ve all ridden portions of it, they’ve never ridden this part—its new 3-mile section down its top cliffs—nor linked it all together in one ride. I ask for a Band-Aid before we continue on.  

palisade plunge
Upper sections of the plunge roll through lonely meadows.

“Epic” is exactly what its builders and stakeholders wanted to create. Opening July 24, 2020, after 10 years of effort, the Plunge is the most anticipated mountain bike trail to grace Colorado in over a decade, built to rival such other shuttle-to classics as Moab’s Whole Enchilada and Mag 7 and Salida’s Monarch Crest. Yes, long known for its peaches, Palisade is now also known for its pedaling. 

The brainchild of Winans and Rapid Creek Cycles partner Rondo Buecheler, the route traverses seven distinct alpine-to-desert ecosystems while dropping 6,000 vertical feet from the top of 10,735-foot Grand Mesa down to the town of Palisade far below. Broken into three distinct sections, it serves up everything from rolling singletrack to technical, don’t-fall, spaghetti-noodle-clinging-to-a-fridge switchbacks. Throw in vistas of the La Salles and San Juans, desert spires of Colorado National Monument, and lush farmland of the Grand Valley, and it’s one you’ll want to notch on your dropper seat post.

“It’s definitely a marquee draw for the region,” says Winans, head of the 30-year-old Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, which ushered its completion. “The upper 11 miles are mellower and are great for intermediate riders; then, as you drop off the rim and head down, it gets more advanced, with the last 5 miles being the most technical.”  

The trail’s first section winds 11.8 miles through rolling, wildflower-filled alpine terrain from Mesa Top to Shirttail Point, all above 10,000 feet atop Grand Mesa and a welcome reprieve to the heat of the valley far below. (The day we ride it, Palisade will top 107 degrees.) After getting shuttled 75 minutes up Scenic Byway 65 by Buecheler (I try to ignore the bottles of Ibuprofen on the van’s floor), we start the day rolling across flowy singletrack through fields of wildflowers and the old ranching homestead of the Raber family. About two hours later, we cross a dirt road where the bottom drops out, along with our stomachs, seemingly off the edge of the world. From here, the trail drops straight down to the Colorado River 6,000 feet below. 

A series of walk-them-if-you-value-your-life switchbacks mark the beginning of the 23-mile lower section. Its uppermost 3-mile section follows a reworked portion of the century-old Otto Wall trail—named for John Otto, who created Colorado National Monument in 1911—before dropping another 19.2 miles through cliff bands, slickrock ramps, creek beds, and more. 

If the trail is convoluted, so was its $3.4 million construction, taking a decade and nine different stakeholders to build—including three federal agencies, three municipalities, private landowners and lease holders, nonprofits, and mountain bike advocates. Trail-building company Singletrack Trails did the grunt work, its crew rappelling down its cliff faces to place rocks for treads and jackhammer through shale.  

It wasn’t rocket science, but luckily that’s Winans’ background. The former rocket scientist for Estes Cox helped navigate the project’s red tape and even redder cliffs. “It was a long process and a lot of work,” he says. “The top of Grand Mesa is a giant plate of lava, with very few places where you can break through. I was having anxiety dreams of dying before the trail opened.” 

Chris Pipkin, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM’s Grand Junction office, had an epiphany about how to get through the trail’s crux. “I woke up in the middle of night and Google Earthed it and saw where four sets of sheep tracks converged and found a way through,” he says, adding the project involved “the most stakeholders of any project I’ve ever worked on.” 

But the end result, says Winans, is worth every broken drill bit, bead of sweat, and stakeholder meeting. “It opened up access to public land that no one had access to before,” says Winans. “It’s truly an amazing trail—in an amazing part of the state.” 

A model for similar partnerships, it’s also projected to be viable economically, with its $3.5 million price tag, including $1 million in roadwork, estimated to bring in $5 million per year to Mesa County, says Steve Jozefczyk, deputy director of Grand Junction Economic Partnership. “And that number will only grow as word spreads,” he says. “We also see it as motivation for people to relocate here.”  

And like the peaches and grapes growing in Palisade far below, its fruits are already blooming. Between the four shuttle services operating the trail, Buecheler estimates as many as 3,000 people rode the Plunge in its inaugural season last fall, with that number expected to double this year.

“Most of the riders loved it for what it is—a great cross-country adventure trail, with challenging singletrack, a little exposure, incredible views, and a true backcountry feel,” says Buecheler. “The people that were disappointed were the ones that didn’t do their homework and thought it was a downhill run or didn’t believe it’s truly a black diamond trail and got in over their heads. We had a fair number of out-of-towners combining it with Whole Enchilada and Monarch Crest for a trail-riding trifecta.” 

Still, it’s not for the faint of heart or heights. And if you’re not overly technical, prepare to get comfortable hopping off your bike and walking. “It’s an adventure trail—with consequences,” says Winans, adding there’s too much up for it to be a true gravity trail. As well as descending 6,000 feet, it also has 1,900 vertical feet of climbing. “That’s going to keep the pure gravity riders off of it,” he says.  

After negotiating the lower section’s top 3 miles, we cross Lands End Road and enter the final 19 miles, which still includes 1,350 feet of climbing. Here, the trail gets flowy, and we relish ripping down its smoother singletrack. At Whitewater Creek, which we plunge our heads into to cool off, a freshly fallen aspen tree is rife with bear claw marks. 

If you are looking for big thrills, the plunge will immerse you.

Eventually we round a corner hugging a cliff band and see Palisade and the welcoming Colorado River far below. But we don’t celebrate too soon; it’s still 3,000 feet of descending away. We flow, climb, traverse, and drop and raise our seat posts until coming to a sign at Mile 26.5 warning :“This section of trail crosses very steep slopes and passes along the edge of vertical cliffs. Use extreme caution—there’s no shame in walking!” Eyeing my already hardening scabs, I take that advice to heart. 

Later, we come to the aptly named “Plunge” itself, a steep ramp of rock connecting the trail’s upper and lower rims. While Roper rides it flawlessly, the rest of us shoulder our bikes and hike down next to it, utilizing Anasazi-like footholds carved into the sloping rock. 

Toward the end, the trail cascades through a serpentine creek bed of slickrock ramps and ledges in a tight-walled canyon. Here, it’s more reminiscent of Moab than the upper portion clinging to Grand Mesa. Soon, some six hours after starting—counting flats, photos, and refueling—we’re spit out at trail’s end, right at the banks of the Colorado River. Licking our collective wounds (Rondo says there were no major incidents this year, but “about half the riders showed up with some blood”), we plunge in to cool off and celebrate what has fast become the most epic ride in the Rockies. 

And we’re just a short coast away from a juicy Palisade peach and handcrafted IPA at the Palisade Brewing Co. downtown. 

If You Go: Rapid Creek Cycles offers rental bikes and a $35-per-person shuttle service for the 1.5-hour drive to the trailhead (you’ll want to use it, as it’s a heckuva drive to convince a nonriding loved one to make—or to retrieve your own rig afterward). 

Photos by Chris Wellhausen

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