MP TRAIL MAP: Palisade Plunge

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If you haven’t yet explored Grand Mesa, now’s the time to plan a summertime mountain biking getaway. The brand new Palisade Plunge Trail promises a jaw-dropping mountain bike adventure. Grand Opening – early June.

DON’T let THE VIEWS FROM I-70 FOOL YOU.

If you’ve judged the wilderness area outside of Grand Junction by the seemingly empty high desert plateaus visible from the interstate, then you’re missing out on exploring what is arguably the most accessible backcountry area in the Rockies – Grand Mesa National Forest.

This area is a destination for spring-summer-fall mountain biking, thanks to COPMOBA (Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association). This nonprofit organization has, for more than 30 years, spear-headed the development of singletrack throughout the region. Their latest enterprise is a multi-entity collaboration planned for completion this spring, the Palisade Plunge, a 32-mile mountain bike trail descending 6000 feet from the top of Grand Mesa to the town of Palisade.

TEAMING UP FOR THE PALISADE PLUNGE

This brand new, big-daddy singletrack already gaining notoriety in the mountain biking community. A world-class thrill ride promising to bring countless top-tier riders to the area. This ride will be the longest-ever point-to-point singletrack trail ever developed without piecing together multiple, previously existing routes. The trail will cross from alpine forest to arid desert, from U.S. Forest Service to BLM. And, as any Western Slope activist will guess, it also crosses a patchwork of ranches, grazing areas, private lands, and municipalities. To bring together this many entities, especially those who can at times operate with opposing interests, is a feat in itself.  The process of planning, designing, funding, and building the Plunge has taken more than ten years. 

PALISADE PLUNGE HISTORY

The idea has been around a lot longer than that. “Connecting the top of the Mesa to the floor of the river valley has its roots in the region’s indigenous people,” says Scott Winans, the board president of COPMOBA, the nonprofit mountain biking advocacy group that helped bring together the multifaceted coalition behind the project.  

Old deer and elk footpaths are now gently-banked dry creek beds and big, sweeping rollers, with a historical connection not only to the Ute who hunted there but also to the region’s renowned pioneer John Otto. He arrived in Colorado in 1906 and, enchanted by the landscape, wished to encourage more people to visit the backcountry. So, he used a pick and shovel to carve out passageways through the rocks, creating the earliest hiking trails in the area. Otto is best known for his first ascent of the spire now known as Independence Monument. And he also built a route to the Mesa top, stacking rocks in one section to form a forty-foot-tall wall stabilizing a cliffside.

Otto’s Wall is a show-stopper aspect of the Palisade Plunge route, reclaimed and rebuilt during the trail’s construction. It requires riders to pedal atop the wall for a length of more than 400 feet, braving huge exposure and a steep drop-off.

WORDS OF CAUTION

“Many riders will rightly choose to walk Otto’s Wall and several other exposed stretches along the route,” says Winans, who has been involved in the Palisade Plunge from the beginning.

Winans cautions riders to know their limits, treat this expert terrain with the caution and respect it deserves, and bring plenty of water for the 32-mile mostly-dry, mostly-desert route. He provided mile-by-mile details for the trail map descriptions that follow. Keep in mind that our map is intended to give riders enough juice to get packing – not to replace the detailed signage posted throughout the trail.  

MP TRAIL MAP: PALISADE PLUNGE TRAIL
MP Trail Map: Palisade Plunge
TOWN OF PALISADE: MOUNTAIN BIKE BASE CAMP

The official start /finish of the 32-mile Palisade Plunge trail is in downtown Palisade, shown on this map as TH4.  Park here. Find restrooms on-site. Refuel and hydrate at restaurants, shops, and markets within walking distance of this point. You can also find bike shops nearby for last-minute extra tubes or other gear. Bike shuttle services can bring your group to either the Mesa Top Trailhead or Shirtail Point Trailhead.

Advanced reservations are recommended. 

Ample water is a must; there are no water sources on the trail

MP’s TRAIL MAP breaks the route into three sections based on accessibility and skill level, so families wishing to take up the long – though technically less-challenging – upper portion may plan accordingly.

MESA TOP SECTION

Scheduled for completion and a grand opening in late-Spring/early-Summer 2021.

This 11-mile stretch of singletrack begins in a mixed pine, spruce, and aspen forest that moves through high mountain meadows and grasslands, passing two reservoirs and sections of rocky terrain. You’ll find rolling climbs and descents, with a drop in elevation of 900 feet. Skill = beginner-intermediate Rated blue for length. Out and back from TH1 is 22 miles. Pack in plenty of water.

1. TH1 PARKING

Pit toilets and signage for the top section of the Plunge. Plus several other established intermediate singletrack trails to and around the Flowing Park Reservoir.

2. ROAD CROSSINGS

Expect 3 crossings of Lands End Road. Soon after the first crossing, look for signage for the historic Raber Cow Camp where you can check out pioneer cabins from the 1830s.

SHIRT TAIL POINT SECTION

The Shirt Tail Point Trailhead parking area is easily accessible by any car.  Pit toilets; no water.  TH2 allows the Plunge to be broken into sections based on skill level and time commitment. Beyond this point, a 3.7-mile stretch includes sections of exposure and technical riding. It connects with Land’s End Road, providing an “out” and a chance for skill and aptitude check before continuing into the final, longest, most extreme section. 

3. OVERLOOK

An easy 1/3 mile ride from Shirt Tail Point to an overlook with unforgettable views of the Grand Valley, Unaweep Canyon, the La Sals, the San Juans, and the Bookcliff Range.

4. OTTO’S WALL

Immediately after the overlook, the trail meets Otto’s Wall, named for John Otto, an early advocate for building trails and getting people out into the backcountry; also the first person to climb the Colorado National Monument. Riders will traverse the top of a 40-foot-high rock wall originally built by Otto, reclaimed and rebuilt during Plunge development. Many riders may choose without shame to walk this section.

5. ONE OF THE ZIPPIEST PARTS

An expert forested run down a nose with switchbacks and a substantial descent.

6. NOTED TRAIL CONNECTION

Coal Creek equestrian trail, not encouraged as a bike trail.

7. EXPECT TO BE WOWED.

Dense stands of aspens and scrub oaks, big basalt boulder fields, and open meadows, plus intermediate flowing water crossings (small creeks, most often dry).

8. POSSIBLE BAILOUT POINT

At mile 14.7, the trail crosses Lands End Road for the third and final time. This bailout point turns this section of trail into a unique backcountry singletrack experience because it offers road access on both ends. Just be aware that the last leg back to TH2 involves steep sustained uphill and multiple switchbacks along a 4WD section of road.  At the top, check out an old stone observatory building with with a picnic area and stunning views.

LOWER PALISADE PLUNGE

OPENING  in late-Spring/early-Summer 2021.

This final 17.3-mile stretch brings you from a high alpine landscape, through the desert, all the way into the town of Palisade. High-stakes, remote backcountry riding with big exposure and drop-offs require focused deliberation from expert riders. Know your limits. Do not hesitate to walk certain sections. Know from the beginning that the only way out is through – turning back can put downhill riders at risk.  That said, most of this mileage is intermediate, presenting a rolling, cross-country descent with long stretches of fun singletrack through a diverse terrain that you simply cannot experience elsewhere.

9. WHITEWATER BASIN

As soon as the trail crosses Lands End Road, it immediately begins a roller-coaster descent across mountain meadows and juniper stands. You will travel below the Mesa rim, which forms your Eastern horizon. 

10. CLIFF LAKE

At mile 17.5, the trail moves into a warmer, drier Western-facing stretch through the remains of an old forest fire and new-growth piñon and juniper. 

11. THE BLOWOUT

Between miles 22-23, you’ll come to a section above where a huge chunk of the side of the Mesa slid eons ago, forming a wide rim that you’ll pedal along, crossing an area of big exposure.

12. THE LAST BIG DECENT. 

Before heading down, stop and take in a rare view of the top of the Bookcliffs, which are otherwise only visible by plane. Notice the stark boundaries between the arid desert and agricultural land irrigated by the Colorado River curving below you. Watch riders on the Palisade Rim trail several hundred feet below.

13. APPROACHING PALISADE RIM TRAIL

The character of the trail changes as you get closer to Pal Rim. A serpentine maze winds down through steep, exposed terrain. Walking your bike is at times an excellent choice. Pay attention. Be aware of rockfall potential onto the trail below. Also, take time to appreciate hoodoo rock formations and a magnificent keyhole rock.

14. CONNECTOR TRAILS TO PAL RIM

You can opt to enter the Pal Rim area at the Ute Petroglyph section and at about a quarter-mile aboveTH3, which is also the parking lot for the Pal Rim area.

15. AHHHH…

Take a short, mellow ride along North River Road to TH4, the Palisade Plunge’s formal start and finish in downtown Palisade, with parking and bathrooms one block north of the TH. Here’s everything you could want after a truly epic ride – a lively small town with lodging, bike shops,  bakery, coffee shop, brewery, wineries, and a distillery.  Rest assured – you’ve earned it.

DISCOVER THE TOWN OF PALISADE

Perhaps your group splits, with expert riders on the Lower Plunge section while others SUP a non-technical float opportunity starting at the Palisade Rim parking lot (shown as TH3 on our map) flowing to the Riverbend Park in downtown Palisade.  Everyone can meet up after the ride at one of the fun, eclectic and inviting restaurants, bars, wine tasting rooms or coffee shops in the colorful downtown areas.

While you’re there, in the small mountain town sometimes called the “Napa of Colorado,” treat yourself to some of life’s more quaffable, less strenuous adventures. Getting people to stop and visit, stay for a while, is the impulse behind this exciting milieu of outdoor options, funded in part by the State of Colorado and GOCO grants to spark economic activity here. Whatever your interest, skill set, or season, here is a nearby getaway for a week, a weekend, or a day trip – offering much more to discover than you may have imagined racing past this I-70 exit in search of a camping spot down the road. No need to go far. Big thrills are now very close to home. 

LEARN MORE

COPMOBA  (Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association) 
A nonprofit in its 32nd year of developing mountain bike trail systems on the Western Slope.

DISCOVER other getaway destinations in MP’s Trail Map Series

About Kathryn Camp

MOUNTAIN PARENT Editor & Designer • When Kathryn is not at her desk with MP, she cycles, snowboards, skis, writes fiction and keeps bees in downtown Carbondale with her teenage children, husband Rich, and their wayward husky-coyote Zelda.