Palisade, CO

What to expect on the Palisade Plunge mountain bike route

Morgan Tilton
Mountain biker Eric Phillips navigates follows through tight switchbacks on the lower-third of the Palisade Plunge route.Photo by Morgan Tilton

The Palisade Plunge is one of the country’s newest, lengthiest mountain bike trails, which recently opened on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Finishing in Palisade, the entire 32-mile cross-country route officially debuted in July 2021. This summer is the trail’s first complete year.

With a cumulative 6,814-foot descent and 900-foot ascent, the Palisade Plunge features a huge elevation loss that crosses a variety of terrain and ecosystems.

Overall, this backcountry route is very remote and offers ample solitude. We didn’t see anyone else on trail the entire day we rode at the end of August.

Here’s what to expect to help you prepare for a safe, comfortable ride.
Mountain biker Eric Phillips starts the Palisade Plunge at Mesa Top Trailhead at 7:30 a.m. in late AugustPhoto by Morgan Tilton

What to expect along the route

After mountain biking the Palisade Plunge in August 2022, I consider the ride to have four general sections.

The mileage listed below is based on the trail signage, my GPS track, and is approximate.

This ride is considered to be difficult and best for advanced or expert mountain bikers.
Rider Eric Phillips mountain bikes across the Grand Mesa on the uppermost section of the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

Grand Mesa

From the start at Mesa Top Trailhead, the first part of the ride is a mellow warmup.

The singletrack meanders over the mesa top through grasslands, creek crossings, and clusters of rough basalt rock but nothing very technical.

There are a handful of punchy, short uphills and small collections of Aspens and pines.
Mountain biker Eric Phillips crosses one of several creeks along the Grand Mesa Palisade Plunge trailPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Overall, the trail is exposed to the sky. Cattle are present, so keep your eyes open for dung on the trail. This 11.8-mile section ended at an elevation of 9,878 feet.

  • Segment Mileage: Mile 0 to Mile 11.8
  • Start: Mesa Top Trailhead
  • Finish: Shirttail Point Trailhead
  • Elevation start: 10,748 feet
  • Elevation end: 9,878 feet
  • Ascent: 214 feet
Shirttail Point Trailhead is a good pitstop with restrooms but take your snack break a bit down the trailPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Wild Rose Trail

The next section begins at Shirttail Point Trailhead.

From this second trailhead, the route cuts through the volcanic cap that surrounds the mesa top and descends through a gully, dropping off the mesa top.

Here, trail developers renovated the historic Wild Rose Trail, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wild Rose Trail was originally built by John Otto, who led the creation of the Colorado National Monument.Photo by Morgan Tilton

Less than a .5-mile from Shirttail Point Trailhead, you'll see a trail sign with the history of the original trail and developer John Otto.

Adjacent to the sign, the aspen and pines trees open up, and the sweeping views offer a perfect spot for a snack break and history lesson.
Rider Eric Phillips descending into the renovated Wild Rose Trail on the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

The dirt is soft, and the grade isn’t too steep.

But the switchbacks are extremely sharp—it’s not uncommon to walk your bike—because preservation requirements would not allow significant changes to the trail’s character.
Eric Phillips riding the Wild Rose Trail, built by John Otto in 1910 with more than a dozen hairpin switchbacksPhoto by Morgan Tilton

The trail hugs the cliff side before continuing with switchbacks in Kannah Creek basin, a lush and densely forested area.

As you continue to descend, often the brush is so thick it’s hard to see ahead on the trail.
A short section of the trail is full of loose rocks alongside the cliff on Wild Rose TrailPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Sitting below the volcanic cap, there are plenty of basalt rocks in this segment, which speckle the singletrack, and boulders that bottleneck or sit alongside the trail.

The trail now feels more technical, and you can expect to be standing above your seat.

This section is where the majority of bikers experience mechanical issues due to the rocks and low visibility.
Eric Phillips crossing Whitewater Creek, the only reliable water source on the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

Though the historic Wild Rose Trail ends, the singletrack continues to rollercoaster through the thick trees along the hillside until you cross Lands’ End Road and reach Whitewater Creek at mile 16.

  • Segment Mileage: Mile 11.8 to Mile 16
  • Start: Shirttail Point Trailhead
  • Finish: Whitewater Creek
  • Elevation start: 9,878 feet
  • Elevation end: 8,600 feet
  • Ascent: 209 feet

Whitewater Creek

This is a great lunch break spot, where you can enjoy the sound of Whitewater Creek while you’re filtering water.

This is the only dependable water source along the entire route, which continues to enter sunny, dry desert terrain, so be sure to top off all of your bladders and bottles.
Eric Phillips enjoys riding a wide, smooth bend after Whitewater CreekPhoto by Morgan Tilton

We each carried approximately 5 liters of water, which was the recommendation of Rondo Buecheler, co-owner of Rapid Creek Cycles and our shuttle driver.

The trail has a variety of character between Whitewater Creek to the north side of the Blowout, a noticeable geographic feature in the landscape where the trail follows the edge of a crescent-shaped white gorge.

The steep cliff face sits below a collection of red rock spires similar to Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos.
Late season blossoms line the trail in the centermost section of the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

When you leave Whitewater Creek, the forest surrounding the singletrack opens up with views of the sky and the edge of the mesa ahead.

Wildflowers line the trail, which has a handful of technical drops. The path gets smoother and flowy in spots.

Then the singletrack crosses a burn area along a steep hillside of piñon pines, scrub oak, cactus, and sagebrush, which is one of my favorite parts of the entire ride.
We liked the views from the burn area of the Palisade Plunge, which was also smoother and had more rhythm than Wild Rose TrailPhoto by Morgan Tilton

The charred vegetation creates a large contrast to the arid landscape and the first far-off views of Palisade are in the distance.

The rollercoaster section of trail is not overly technical but is a blend of rocky and smooth to keep you engaged and out of your seat.

  • Segment Mileage: Mile 16 to Mile 24
  • Start: Whitewater Creek
  • Finish: North side of the Blowout
  • Elevation start: 8,600 feet
  • Elevation end: 7,500 feet
  • Ascent: 331 feet
Looking back at The Blowout from the geologic feature's northernmost pointPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Technical desert riding

Soon after passing the north end of The Blowout, where you can look back and see the bright red towers above the canyon, you’ll reach the first caution sign.

The warning post is for steep, rocky, rough terrain ahead—where we hiked our bikes down a series of rocky drops along a cliff band.
The entire Palisade Plunge is well-marked with signage sharing mileage, risky sections, bail outs, and interesting facts.Photo by Morgan Tilton

From here onward, the trail character is full of technical desert features like what you would encounter on challenging trails in Fruita or Moab.

Pay attention to the trail signage, and be sure to scope out the technical sections of the route before dropping in.

A section of the trail crosses slickrock, where the route is designated with painted white stripes.
Gazing down at the town of Palisade from the final-third of the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

The majority of the elevation loss is between mile 26.5 and 32—2,317 feet—but the trail doesn’t get super steep.

There are many sharp turns built into the trail and there are still short spurts where you’ll need to pedal uphill while descending to the valley.
Eric Phillips sending a drop on the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

As you descend, there is a portion of switchbacks that is particularly challenging because the trail is super narrow, exposed, and the dirt is loose.

Eventually, the trail descends into a narrow gulch, where you’ll exit to the west, cross the highway and reach the Palisade Rim Trailhead next to the Colorado River.
Entering the gulch in the closing mile of the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

  • Segment Mileage: Mile 24 to Mile 32
  • Start: North side of the Blowout
  • Finish: Palisade Rim Trailhead
  • Elevation start: 7,500 feet
  • Elevation end: 4,728 feet
  • Ascent: 146 feet

You’ll need to ride your bike another 2 miles, approximately 10 minutes, on pavement to reach the town of Palisade.
Author and rider Morgan Tilton relaxing at Palisade Rim TrailheadPhoto by Eric Phillips

Ride duration

According to Scott Winans, the co-owner of Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade, the average mountain biker can expect to ride the entire 32-mile route in 6 to 7 hours.

Though, on the higher end, some mountain bikers might need 12 hours to comfortably ride the entire route.

On the lowest end, some racers might be able to speed through the route in sub 4 hours.

For most, the Palisade Plunge is an all-day adventure!

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO

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