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Photos by Evan Green
Colorado’s Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, is such a surprising piece of geography that many mountain bikers, pinning it west on I-70 toward Fruita or Moab, miss it. The chundery—and short—Palisade Rim trail sometimes lures riders onto the highway exit; for me, it’s always been the Palisade peaches.
Peaches and petroglyphs, grapes and gravel, burgers and bikes — the Grand Valley offers visitors a cornucopia of symbiosis. And the founders of the Palisade Plunge, western Colorado’s newest destination ride, are banking on mountain bikers to eat it up.
The Palisade Plunge is the most ambitious attempt yet to bring visitors to Western Colorado’s sprawling Grand Valley. The 32-mile trail, which opened in July, represents ten years of conversation and compromise between a diverse group of stakeholders. Construction took place over a lightning-fast two years, and in July, the Plunge opened from top to bottom.
In September I rode the Plunge with a group of journalists and some folks from Hunt and Pearl Izumi. We brought with us high hopes and expectations— could the Plunge become another Whole Enchilada?
The Palisade Plunge officially begins at 10,700 feet above sea level on top of the Grand Mesa. In the winter, the mesa top is a playground of cross-country ski trails spidering in all directions. In the spring, creeks trickle through the meadows, and in summer, cows stamp their hoofprints into everything.
The first 12 miles of the Plunge meander through this vast, scrubby, and pock-marked landscape, and there is very little descending. While starting the ride at the Mesa Top trailhead enhances its top-to-bottom allure, for those not inclined to ride the rutted, XC miles, two other drop-off points, at mile 12 and mile 13, are possible.
The U.S. Forest Service has permitted five shuttle companies to run riders to the top or mid-point of the trail (at 40 road miles from Palisade to the top of the Mesa, it’s a bit too much for a bike-powered self-shuttle). We used Palisade Plunge Cycle and Shuttle out of the Rapid Creek Cycles bike shop, which is co-owned by Scott Winans and Rondo Buecheler.
Winans and Buecheler both know first-hand the effects that mountain bike tourism can have on a region. Buecheler founded Over The Edge Sports in Fruita and then witnessed that town’s evolution. Winans is the president of COPMOBA, the western slope’s local advocacy group. The Plunge wouldn’t exist without his tireless work over the past decade. Among the many roles Winans played in the project’s development, a crucial one was occupying the seat of mountain bikers at a very crowded table of stakeholders.
The wall we’d all been waiting for. Of all the features on the Plunge, Otto’s Wall had received a fair bit of publicity. Descending the cliff bands that mark the transition between the alpine and subalpine life zones certainly had me worried. For this section of the Plunge, trailbuilders reconstructed a section of a historic trail built in the early 1900s by John Otto, the first park ranger at nearby Colorado National Monument.
For those without nose wheelie skills, all of the tight switchbacks can be walked. Killer views of the valley below abound in every direction.
The Grand Mesa is an unwieldy piece of geography, and the section of trail below Otto’s Wall frustrated both trailbuilders and us riders alike. The Kannah Creek Basin showcases classic Colorado scenery—a dense tangle of aspen, scrub oak and evergreens—at its finest, but this section of the trail felt interminable with meandering direction, rocky creek crossings, and short punchy climbs.
Related Story: Preview—Colorado’s New Palisade Plunge Trail
After the pedaly mesa top start and the twisty undulations of Kannah Creek Basin, our group arrived at Land’s End Road (which the trail crosses at about mile 20) in need of a lunch break. Although our total ride time on the Plunge was just under four hours, our group of experienced riders was out for close to seven (we had a varied assortment of mechanicals).
Moral of the story: You need lots of food and water for this ride. I can’t imagine doing it in the heat of summer. Especially the bit that follows the Land’s End Road crossing; this is where the trail becomes drier, more exposed to wind and sun, and—thankfully—very flowy.
My fellow journo-MTB’ers may disagree, but I think that riders can happily pedal the Plunge on wide range of bikes. While the travel du jour in our group was around 140, as evidenced by the multiple Privateer 141 and Pivot Switchblades, I was content with the efficient 115mm on my zippy Spot Ryve.
The truth is, the Plunge doesn’t really feel like a ‘downhill trail,’ and it is certainly not characterized by mile after mile of bashing into slickrock. The best bike for the Plunge is the one you can handle when it’s sketchy and pedal for countless hours when it’s not.
The most challenging and exposed riding on the Plunge happens in the last five miles. It also characterizes the type of desert-oriented riding we all expected—skinny singletrack that sidles along sheer drop-offs, steep rock gardens, tight turns, and playful slabby features. People who are more interested in this type of riding—versus experiencing the entire gamut of landscape changes that happen in a 6,000-foot descent—may choose to skip the top half of the Plunge and focus on the section of trail that’s closest to the town of Palisade.
We ended our ride at the Palisade Basecamp & RV Resort, which is exactly where we started. While the overall ride quality of the trail is perhaps yet to be determined, that part of the Plunge is mission accomplished — the trail ends within shouting distance of baked goods, burritos, and beer.