Palisade, CO

What is the Palisade Plunge and why is it a big deal?

Morgan Tilton
Author and mountain biker Morgan Tilton looks down on Palisade from a high point on the Palisade PlungePhoto by Eric Phillips

One of the country’s newest and lengthiest mountain bike trails recently opened on Colorado’s Western Slope in Palisade, which is well known for harvesting state-grown wine and fruit.

Called the Palisade Plunge, the cross-country style bike route completely opened in July 2021. This summer is the route’s debut year.

The 32-mile Palisade Plunge includes a cumulative 6,814 feet of descent and 900 feet of ascent.

What makes the Palisade Plunge unique

There are few mountain bike routes nationwide with an elevation profile like that of the Palisade Plunge. The mileage is lengthy, and there is a huge volume of descent. As a result, the ride crosses through an array of ecosystems and terrain.
Rider Eric Phillips reads an informative Palisade Plunge sign in downtown PalisadePhoto by Morgan Tilton

The route requires an early morning shuttle drop-off, remote experience, and the trail’s end is in town, where you can replenish your energy with tasty food.

Two other comparable rides exist.

One is the Monarch Crest Trail, which is also in Colorado. The 36.2-mile ride has a 5,890-foot descent. The other ride is the Whole Enchilada, in Utah, which is 34 miles with a 7,800-foot descent.

Despite similarities between the three trails, the endurance rides are unique and different from one another.

“It’s natural to compare the Whole Enchilada, Plunge, and Crest, because they share generalities, but they are very different rides,” said Scott Winans, who serves on the Board of Directors for COPMOBA, the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trails Association, and helped pioneer the Palisade Plunge route.

Winans is also the co-owner of Rapid Creek Cycles, which offers a USFS-certified shuttle service for the Palisade Plunge.
In downtown Palisade, Rapid Creek Cycles offers an excellent, certified shuttle service for the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

Winans continued, “They all have that set of characteristics of roughly 30 miles and dealing with alpine starts and lower elevation finishes and similar elevation changes. They each have all different terrain types, too. Though, I wouldn’t liken any of those three to each other outside of those basic similarities.”

That trio of national trails are all in the West, in Colorado and Utah, and relatively close to one another from a regional standpoint.

“We’re having a fair amount of people doing a trifecta trip and spending a couple days in each spot and riding each of the three rides,” said Winans.

Where the Palisade Plunge and its trailheads are located

To experience the entire 32-mile route, riders need to take a United States Forest Service (USFS)-certified shuttle from the town of Palisade to Mesa Top Trailhead.

The 50-minute drive takes riders southeast of town and to the top of the adjacent Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world.

The elevation of Mesa Top Trailhead is 10,737 feet.

At the end of the route, the town of Palisade is at an elevation of 4,728 feet.
Author and rider Morgan Tilton stands at Shirttail Point Trailhead after riding across Grand MesaPhoto by Eric Phillips

A second trailhead option is available for folks that don’t want to ride the total distance or are not interested in the segment that crosses the top of the Grand Mesa.

Instead, bikers can be shuttled to the Shirttail Point Trailhead at approximately 9,800 feet.

For riders that start at Shirttail Point Trailhead, the ride is approximately 20 miles to reach Palisade.

Depending on the conditions in spring and early summer, shuttling to Shirttail Point Trailhead is also an alternative if the upper portion of the route still holds snow.
The top of the renovated Wild Rose Trail offers expansive views of the surrounding valleyPhoto by Morgan Tilton

Historic Wild Rose Trail was restored for Palisade Plunge

At Shirttail Point Trailhead, near mile 12, the Palisade Plunge route drops steeply through the volcanic basalt cap that surrounds Grand Mesa: This is the section of the historic Wild Rose Trail, which now takes riders down into the drainage of Kannah Creek basin.

On the edge of Grand Mesa, the stunning panorama offers views of the surrounding turquoise bodies of water. The 500-square-mile Grand Mesa is home to more than 300 lakes, due to landslides that have shifted lava rock, which fell and created depressions. Those bowls are now filled with surface and groundwater, according to KVNF.

“The top of the mesa is formed by this lava cap, which is generally flat and impermeable to water. That’s why we have so many lakes atop the mesa. It’s also crumbled, and you’re left with huge rock piles,” said Winans.
Mountain biker Eric Phillips descends the Wild Rose Trail on the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

At the top of the overlook is an educational sign about John Otto, who led the creation of the Colorado National Monument.

In 1910, Otto also built the Wild Rose Trail to connect Palisade to the top of Grand Mesa, which includes more than a dozen hairpin switchbacks. The route required that Otto blasted through the volcanic rim.

Otto also engineered retaining walls, made from basalt rocks and boulders and backed by steel and iron pipes that were inserted into the bedrock cliff sides. The retaining walls have withstood more than 100 years and are still present today.

Trail builders restored the dormant Wild Rose Trail, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for the Palisade Plunge.
Shifted lava rock has helped shape countless lakes on and around the Grand MesaPhoto by Morgan Tilton

A section of trail through the rock cap was geologically difficult to find and also needed to meet the wildlife, backcountry, and land management requirements of the USFS.

“That trail had long been fallow and was in terrible shape. We thought, ‘We can rebuild this. And what a neat historical tie to reuse this portion of trail.’ There are also so few places to get through rock band physically. The Wild Rose Trail was surveyed by the [State Historic Preservation Officer] and the forest service, and there were limitations on how much we could diverge from existing tread,” said Winans.

Who created the Palisade Plunge

Another unique aspect of the Palisade Plunge development was how many constituents were involved with the approval and construction process, which took close to 10 years.
Opened in 2021, the Palisade History Museum is full of the town's recreational history and storiesPhoto by Morgan Tilton

“It’s really rare for so many partners to be involved and for this sort of project to happen,” said Janet Hawkinson, Palisade Town Manager.

Among the many partners involved with the creation and management of the Palisade Plunge project, the collaboration included the City of Grand Junction, City of Fruita, Town of Palisade and Mesa County as well as the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and Powderhorn Mountain Resort.

The Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Department of Transportation, and VanWinkle Ranch—which operates via a lease on part of the land through which the trail runs—also had key roles in the foundational planning process.
Mountain biker Eric Phillips descends toward Palisade on the Palisade PlungePhoto by Morgan Tilton

“For the forest service and BLM land, they had to do environmental impact studies, and it took multiple years to do those required reports. Then to get the design plan done and approved,” said Hawkinson.

Two entrepreneurs that were particularly involved with spearheading the route’s creation include Rondo Buecheler and Scott Winans, the co-owners of Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade. The shop offers a certified shuttle for the Palisade Plunge.

Beyond shop duties, Buecheler is the ski patrol manager at Powderhorn Mountain Resort, which is passed during the shuttle to Mesa Top Trailhead. A longtime leader in the bike industry, Buecheler also opened the pivotal Over the Edge Sports in Fruita, in 1994.
Author and rider Morgan Tilton on the Palisade Plunge, which is an adventurous, exploratory ridePhoto by Morgan Tilton

In addition to the shop, Winans is the Vice President of Engineering for Mountain Racing Products. He has also been on the Board of Directors for COPMOBA, the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trails Association, for more than 13 years and he was the president for 11 years.

Founded in 1989, the trail building nonprofit moved the needle for the building of the Palisade Plunge.

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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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