Riders beat path to Grand Junction
It was either at a party or in a passing conversation when Derek Nehrenberg first heard about mountain biking in Fruita.
But after one visit, Nehrenberg, a former University of North Carolina genetics researcher who ranks his love of mountain biking second only to his love of science, was hooked. He promptly relocated from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Fruita.
“If you’re a mountain biker, there aren’t many places that beat Fruita,” he said. “Mountain bikers are swarming in here, and it’s not because of the restaurants. It’s not because it’s a cool place to hang out. It’s a good place to ride.”
Open any national mountain biking magazine these days and you find mention of the hundreds of miles of trails that crisscross the Grand Valley. Expect similar coverage for motorized recreation, where a rider can go from Grand Junction to Green River, Utah. In early 2000, the magazine TransWorld Motocross listed the Grand Junction area as the nation’s second best place for free, or off-trail, riding, and track riding. The floodgates opened.
Just in the past few years, the number of folks who have flocked to Bureau of Land Management or other public land around Grand Junction has soared. Of the 6 million people a year who use public land in Colorado, 1 million of those visitors are hitting areas managed by the BLM’s Grand Junction Field Office, the greatest concentration of visitors to any BLM area in the state.
From California, East Coast
Specifically, some of the most popular trail heads for motorbikers and mountain bicyclists are seeing huge gains in use. In 2007, 27 1/4 Road and the desert north of Grand Junction, an area popular with dirt bikers and all-terrain vehicle users, had about 100,000 visitors, according to the BLM. Last year, the number spiked to 374,774.
As other areas in the nation require extra fees and emissions testing for riders, it’s unlikely use of public land in this area will decrease, said Mike Oliver, a professional motocross racer in Grand Junction.
“There are free riders coming over from California and guys coming from the East (Coast) for their whole vacation. When it snows on the Front Range, they’re coming here,” he said. “It’s happening by word of mouth.”
Several factors make the area alluring for motorized users, Oliver said. Access is easy from Interstate 70 for the 27 1/4 Road area and the 29 Road riding areas. When other high altitude parts of the state are awash in mud or snow, local areas are usually dry. Terrain in the desert is punctuated with adobe hills and offers a natural playground of jumps and dips. Open land offers camping for families to park RVs and spend long days riding, making for a more reasonably priced vacation. And, because there is so much open space, with 1.2 million-square miles in the Grand Junction area, there is plenty of it to go around.
“Because there’s so much area that we can ride, it never gets boring,” Oliver said. “I can ride from sunup to sundown and never see the same thing.”
Groups that work with the BLM to create mountain biking trails also have long kept in mind the thrill of the ride and creating trails for all abilities. The spectrum is no more evident than at the Tabeguache area, with access off Little Park and Monument roads. For children or beginners, there is Kid’s Meal trail, with a series of informational signs that shows riders how to pedal through sand, roll off rocks and maintain balance. Experts and downhillers can play on Free Lunch, with its 6-foot drops and designated playground. Those trails and the Kokopelli Trail, which connects Colorado and Utah, are a first for the BLM to incorporate trails for all abilities, BLM spokeswoman Erin Curtis said.
Users spread out
Much of the reason for the area’s growing recreation popularity is the vast amount of trails. Although the newly expanded and upgraded Tabeguache trail head always seems to be crammed with vehicles, those users are spread out into the backcountry.
“The comments I get are, ‘I can’t believe I only saw two people out there, and the parking lot is full,’ ” said Chris Muhr, president of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association. “You can get a mile away from the trail head and be inside the city boundaries, and you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Muhr, a former geologist for the BLM, said he approaches the trail-building process from a different perspective. Government employees often get a bad rap, and people get frustrated with the slow pace of change, he said. But local BLM employees and trail builders long have nurtured good relationships, and that shows in the quality of trails.
Future projects for the association, with the help of other trails groups, include trails around Palisade, Gateway and Moab, Utah.
“I was in Moab when I heard it was better riding here,” Muhr said. “So many people were stopping in Grand Junction, we were choking Moab off.”
Many of Moab’s trails were created when mountain bikers forged their own trails, or they are the remnants of former access routes for uranium mining. Although the Moab area is flush with trails, the caliber is not considered as high as Grand Junction, and there is less of the coveted single track “that is the Holy Grail of mountain bikers,” Muhr said.
Muhr’s group, which has received many accolades for its trail-building partnerships, was most surprised recently when he received a call from a reporter from Forbes magazine. The thrust of the story? The economic impact of mountain biking on the Grand Valley, an estimated $24 million a year, Muhr said.
“We are hitting some radars we never believed we would hit,” he said. “Half the people in town don’t realize the impact mountain biking has, but New York does.”
When planning for future trails and improvements, BLM officials take into account a multitude of considerations, said Chris Ham, a recreation planner with the agency.
“It used to be that if you build it, they will come,” he said. “Recreation is a little more complex than that. People are not just going out there to ride. They’re looking for different sets of benefits.”
Mesa State College students have been staked out at trail heads, interviewing users about their reasons for being there. Topping the lists: solitude, health and spirituality. More often than not, people said they moved to the area precisely because of its outdoor opportunities.
Ham often hears from users who want to maintain the area’s character and not become a recreation mecca, like Moab has. Keeping the outdoor experience enjoyable for all requires a balance of fitting the right trails and open space with the appropriate users.
“We’re kind of ahead of it right now,” Ham said. “We’re able to see the lessons from other places.”