Trail haven: Fast-growing mountain biking scene bringing vast array of people to Grand Valley

Russ Skinner takes a break from riding with his daughter Sage, 7, son Reese, 5, and his wife Thea at the Lunch Loop.



Russ Skinner came to the Western Slope for vacation from Michigan to check out Colorado’s wide array of mountain-biking trails and fell in love instantly. He left his nine-year teaching job, took a pay cut and moved his family to Colorado for a new beginning.



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For more on mountain bike trails in the Grand Valley, check out “Ride,” The Daily Sentinel’s special mountain biking section in today’s edition.



Russ Skinner wanted to move to the Grand Valley so much, he was willing to take a pay cut.

The 37-year-old teacher was offered a job with School District 51 as he and his family were traveling to the Western Slope on vacation to check out the fast-growing mountain biking scene. He quickly accepted the job.

“Mountain biking was the reason we came here,” he said. “Mountain biking is my number one thing. I had a teaching job in Michigan I’d been at nine years. I took a significant pay cut to come here and I have a 7-year-old and 5-year-old. My wife and I were dedicated to trying something new.

“We had a great time and fell in love with the place.”

Not many people would be willing to take a pay cut to move across the country, but more and more people are visiting the area for the mountain biking opportunities.

There were 63,000 more visitors on the trails north of Fruita on 18 Road and the Tabeguache trail head area last year compared to 2007, according to the Bureau of Land Management.

The North Fruita desert had 90,000 visitors in 2009 compared to 57,000 in 2007. The Tabeguache trail head had 60,000 in 2009 compared to 30,000 in 2007.

Usage numbers for the Kokopelli Loop near Loma weren’t tallied because it’s on McInnis Canyon National Conservation Area land.

The BLM, with the help of Mesa State College, is in the process of doing a visitor assessment study and is discovering the trails are attracting people from all over the world, which in turn brings in millions of tourist dollars.

“The study we did was more of a visitor assessment and what people want,” BLM Recreation Program Manager Chris Ham said. “We did ask economic questions, but it’s not refined enough. Twenty-four million (dollars) is conservative. What it does indicate, it generates enough economy in the valley, it would be nice to take a larger look at it. We would like to do that so we can answer some questions.”

Ham says it is clear the trails are bringing in a vast array of people who probably wouldn’t consider vacations here.

“Since we have these trails, people come from regional, national and international places,” he said. “If we didn’t have these trails, people wouldn’t likely be here. People are taking vacations here because they know what they’re looking for. It’s an excellent place for putting this all together.”

The Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA) started building trails in the area in 1989, beginning with the 142-mile Kokopelli’s Trail from Loma to Moab, Utah.

Over the Edge bike shop owner Troy Rarick, who grew up in the Grand Valley, opened his shop and started building trails north of Fruita.

“When we started in the winter of 1994-95, a few of us were looking for someplace to ride,” Rarick said. “We started by following trails in the area, built links and turned them into loops. The stuff we built was more fun than riding cow trails.

“It was interesting at that time because there was not a plan for that land. It was used to dump trash and refrigerators. Everyone asked me if we had permission to build. We didn’t, but we didn’t have opposition to not build it, either.”

The next spring, Rarick started the Fruita Fat Tire Festival.

“In the first year of Over the Edge, we had trails going and a momentum of people coming to check out the trails,” he said. “Local businesses in Fruita asked me, ‘We’re starting to see new customers from out of town. How do we get more of this?’ I said, ‘We’ll start a mountain bike event.’ “

The festival will celebrate its 15th year from April 30-May 2 and more than 1,500 people are expected to show up.

“In the initial days, if you saw another rider out there, you probably knew who they were,” Rarick said. “Now, the parking lots are full and I might not know any of them. It’s exploded as far as the visibility.”

The mountain bikers will have a lot more trails to choose from than they did in the early years of the festival.

There are an estimated 75 named trails of various lengths in the Grand Valley, COPMOBA President Chris Muhr said, totalling 1,500 miles, including fire roads built by various groups.

“It’s because we decided 21 years ago, we wanted long trails and we wanted singletrack trails,” Muhr said. “The construction of singletrack trails is like the Holy Grail of mountain biking.

“It’s difficult to pull off unless you have the right group of people and longevity to see programs, trails from start to finish. It often takes one to five years from conception to final construction.”

It’s not just a case of cyclists blazing trails any more.

“There are a lot of studies to be done. There are National Environmental Protection Act guidelines to follow,” Muhr said. “If you have a bunch of fly-by-night guys building singletrack, they aren’t going to be able to stick it out.”

Skinner loves the trails because of their proximity and various degrees of difficulty.

“First of all, there are a lot of them within a small area,” he said. “There are a lot of different options. The house we’re currently in is a half-mile from the Lunch Loop area. We ride some of the best trails in the country.

“They are more challenging than anything we had in Michigan. I tell my friends here I didn’t see a rock until I came here. The rocks change the whole mountain biking game. Some of the other trails aren’t quite as technical, but easily as fun.

“The trails themselves are amazing. Our jaws were dropped the whole ride.”

COPMOBA has worked with the BLM on everything from where to how to build trails so they would not only last, but preserve the fragile desert landscape.

“When we founded the group to get the Kokopelli’s Trail started, we had a lot of support from the BLM office,” Muhr said. “We had political support, too. Senator Tim Wirth, Congressman Ben ‘Nighthorse’ Campbell and Governor Bill Ritter were pushing to develop this.

“It’s waxed and waned a little bit over the years, but we have an excellent working relationship with them. We’re developing a good working relationship with the U.S. Forest Service as well.”

COPMOBA has plans to continue building links to trails in the Tabeguache Lunch Loop, Kokopelli Loop, on Grand Mesa and to assist in developing trails in Palisade.

Volunteers are needed May 1 to help construct a 22-mile trail through the Gunnison Gorge between Austin and Olathe, called the Sidewinder Trail. To assist, visit http://www.copmoba.org.

The relationship between COPMOBA and the BLM is crucial in continuing to build trails. The two entities have such a good relationship, the BLM state office recently selected COPMOBA as its 2009 Volunteer of the Year.

“I was in Meeker for most of a decade and wish I had a group as active as they are,” Ham said. “They understand stuff does take time. We have outstanding relationship with them. Regardless of how slow things may go, the end result is an outstanding trail system. There’s no short term; it’s very long term. I’ve not seen many relationships like this in my career (15 years).”


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