Making tracks to Fruita
Fruita, Colo., and Moab, Utah, are linked by so much more than the 142 miles of Kokopelli’s Trail between them.
The high-desert destinations are veritable giants in the mountain biking industry. Fruita and Moab are globally known for their premier trail offerings and occupy a bullet on the bucket list of many an adventure seeker.
With its proximity to some of the most popular and longest-established trail systems, Fruita is the flagship town for the Grand Valley’s mountain biking scene.
“I live in Fruita. I moved to Fruita before this existed,” said Scott Winans, president of Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA). “It’s a podunk town, and now it’s known by riders all over Europe, riders in Africa, riders in South America, riders in North America, Canada. It’s globally known as a riding destination.”
Fruita is very much a micropolis, a sleepy little city without much in the way of retail infrastructure.
Five hotels or motels and a bed and breakfast are listed on a fact sheet posted at the city’s tourism website, gofruita.org. The city features a couple of downtown breweries and a handful of restaurants.
Main Street in Moab is an endless row of restaurants, brewpubs, gear shops and motels. On busy weekends, the wait for a table at some of the more popular establishments can be lengthy.
That quaint, relaxing atmosphere is part of Fruita’s charm, said Hot Tomato Pizza owner and avid cyclist Anne Keller.
“It’s not a crazy zoo,” said the Seattle native who once worked as a guide in Moab. “Nothing against Moab — I like Moab, and they’ve done quite a bit with the town, and it’s neat to see what they’re doing — but it’s so busy. I like that Fruita is not on that level.”
Keller is a big name in the mountain biking world. Not only has her business, which she co-owns with Jen Zeuner, become an iconic destination for hungry bikers, but she, as part of the crew at Over the Edge Sports back in Fruita’s formative years as a mountain bike town, helped craft the area’s recreation reputation. She’s a photographer whose snapshots from the local trails appear frequently in industry magazines.
Putting imagery from Fruita’s trails into the mainstream certainly upped the buzz.
“We see people come in and say, ‘I’ve never been to Fruita, but I’ve seen pictures of it,’ ” Keller relayed. “I think it was especially important in the mid-‘90s when Troy was really getting the scene going. He relied on these photographers coming in and shooting images of this area because, if you’re just driving through Fruita, you’re missing the trail heads and you’re missing the scenery.”
The Troy she referenced is Over the Edge Sports founder Troy Rarick, whose decision to morph a dilapidated downtown Fruita building into a bike shop back in the mid-‘90s helped spur the city’s mountain bike movement.
While sleepy from a retail standpoint, Fruita is very much awake on the recreation front. Little Fruita is a gateway to what is widely regarded as some of the best mountain bike riding in the world.
The North Fruita Desert trail system is just down the road. Kokopelli’s Trail begins in nearby Loma. Lunch Loop and Palisade Rim Trail are just a short haul east on Interstate 70. Rabbit Valley, positioned near the border of Colorado and Utah, is a quick trip west on I-70.
And, as Winans noted, people travel from all corners of the globe to ride “Fruita.”
“The name Fruita is kind of the flag that is most well-known, but what it really means is riding in the Grand Valley,” he said. “If anybody visits here, and thousands of people do annually, they’re riding the Tabeguache, the Lunch Loop area. They’re riding at Loma. They’re riding at Rabbit Valley. They’re riding at 18 Road, because everything is about a 15- to 20-minute ride from wherever you stay.”
Drive down Aspen Avenue in downtown Fruita and mountain bikes are seen dangling off the backs of cars in every direction.
People know Fruita. People flock to Fruita. But the backdrop is stratospherically different from that amenity-packed Main Street in Moab, which is perpetually bustling with tourist traffic.
Gear shops, guide companies, souvenir shops, motels, hotels and restaurants cooking up fare of all flavors compete for tourists’ attention. On weekends, vacancies are hard to come by at hotels, motels and campgrounds.
Different though they may be, Moab and Fruita share mecca status in the mountain biking world. Two spots situated roughly 100 miles of highway or 142 miles of Kokopelli’s Trail apart.
Moab rose to fame in the 1980s as the uranium mining industry faded and a recreation-based tourism industry that extends beyond mountain biking emerged. On a larger scale, the 1980s is when the mountain biking industry began to pick up steam in earnest.
Places such as Moab, Fruita, Durango and Crested Butte make the Southwest the place to be if you’re into mountain biking. And Fruita has a prominent spot on the pedestal.
“I used to blow right through and go straight to Moab,” said Jeff Graceffa, sitting in the parking lot at the foot of the Kokopelli’s Trail in Loma. “Moab was always the spot for years and years. Now, it’s kind of blown out, and there’s just too much of everything. You can’t find a camping spot nearly as easy. I come here to escape, to be outside.”
Graceffa, who owns The Secret Stash Pizza in Crested Butte, is a frequent visitor to the Grand Valley’s trails, but he still ventures to Moab from time to time. After all, the red rock backdrop is unrivaled.
“I love the scenery,” he said. “I love to go hiking, see the scenery, just looking at stuff.”
Like in Fruita, riding in Moab offers a little something for everyone in terms of difficulty and terrain types.
Moab’s signature red rock is on display in full force at Slickrock Trail. Its leg-, lung-, and bike-bruising, expert-level terrain is easily Moab’s most famous mountain biking route.
Tyson Swasey, who works at Poison Spider Bicycles in Moab, has ridden both areas’ trail systems extensively.
“The trails are not as rocky in Fruita,” said Swasey, a Moab native who has worked with Grand County Trail Mix, an organization responsible for trail maintenance and development in the area, on a number of projects. “You have 18 Road, stuff like that. It’s butter smooth there. That’s kind of what a lot of the new trails (here) have been oriented toward.”
In with the new
There is new trail everywhere in Moab.
Scott Escott, Trail Mix’s volunteer coordinator and lead trail builder, said roughly 80 miles of trail have been built in Moab in the past three years. According to Sandy Freethey, chairman of Trail Mix, that figure rises to 130 if you go back to 2008.
“We’re really fortunate because the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the people involved in writing the RMP (Resource Management Plan) saw the handwriting on the wall that there needed to be a separation of user groups because of how the mountain biking population exploded,” Escott explained. “You can’t have jeepers, climbers, mountain bike riders all fighting for the same resources.”
The BLM’s 2008 Resource Management Plan called for 150 miles of new singletrack-trail development. Trail Mix has taken the reins from there.
Singletrack is a buzz word in the industry. The Grand Valley’s abundance of singletrack mileage, which presently hovers in the 300-mile range, according to Winans, is what fueled its rise to fame.
“Before, it was just the classics,” Swasey said of Moab. “We had 11 miles of singletrack, 11 miles of mountain bike singletrack.”
The locals are loving the new stuff.
“We’ve been working on our trails, and there’s so much new stuff,” said Gena Cain, who works at Moab Cyclery on Main Street. “Most people were going to Fruita to ride because it’s new and fresh and because of its good trails, but I think both destinations are desirable.”
With that new stuff came added variety. Moab is no longer just for expert riders.
“Before we had all these new trails, there was a lot of advanced riding here,” Swasey said. “There was very little beginner, some intermediate and a lot of advanced riding here. That’s been the whole purpose of putting in all the singletrack, to get more beginner-oriented mountain bike trails dedicated to that.”
Mountain bikers traveling from afar often cram Moab and Fruita into their itinerary. After all, both destinations are globally known.
“People come here from all over the world,” relayed Landon Monholland, manager at Over the Edge Sports. “This is not just a bike shop, it’s a destination. I’ve had people get on their knees and kiss the floor when they came in. It’s weird.
“They come from all over the world. This place is world class, and people come here to ride Fruita now. It’s almost synonymous with Moab now. People come to ride both.”
Monholland is partial to his home turf, though.
“We have the most unique stuff,” he contended. “We have super buff, fast, smooth stuff at 18 Road. We have a little of everything at Kokopelli. We have big cross-country miles out at Rabbit Valley, and then you have super, chunky, rocky technical stuff at Lunch Loops. It’s all unique.”
Both Fruita and Moab have plenty to offer in terms of variety and adventure on the trails.
“It’s been a mutually beneficial thing,” said Rarick, who cofounded Over the Edge Sports with Rondo Buecheler in 1995. “With the international audience, everybody who comes to Moab goes to Fruita and everybody who comes to Fruita goes to Moab. On the international scene, we have two top-10 mountain bike destinations. That’s pretty huge.”