Add the Palisade Plunge in southwest Colorado to your must-ride list

I squinted against the sun’s glare, looking at a point in the shale and sandstone cliff towering above us. It resembled the silhouette of a shark’s snout, I thought, as I watched my riding partner, Eric Phillips, hike his mountain bike back up the trail along the sweeping ridgeline toward the point. He wanted to ride down and jump a second time off a drop, from rock to loose dirt.

Exhaling, I relaxed a bit and turned to take in the panorama. The hogback we were riding overlooked the green oasis of Palisade, population 2,800, and the winding Colorado River, two colorful streaks in the burnt sienna and ochre landscape of southwest Colorado.

We were close to finishing our all-day ride on the Palisade Plunge, a 32-mile mountain bike route from the top of the Grand Mesa to Palisade. The remaining descent to the teal water below was 4 miles and 1,750 feet. This segment would also be the most technical and exposed portion of the ride, which we’d been anticipating since our shuttle driver, Rondo Buecheler, dropped us off hours before at Mesa Top Trailhead.

“The last eight miles the temps will really warm up. That’s where the trail is harder, too; it needs to be a foot wider. There are spots that we’re constantly working on that are narrow and off-camber,” said Buecheler, co-owner of Rapid Creek Cycles in Palisade. He has helped spearhead the trail’s development over the past decade.

Fortunately, Eric and I were gifted a late-summer day with cauliflower-shaped clouds, no rain, and mellow temps on our Plunge ride at the end of August.

“Are you ready? Get a video of me!” Eric yelled. I pulled out my phone just in time for his launch off the shelf, flying higher than the first time he’d jumped. As both tires touched down, a thick cloud of dust kicked up around him and his bike slid to a stop. Eric let out a huge laugh. “I think I broke my bike!”

We were 28 miles and 7.5 hours into our day. Fortunately, we both had ample food and water (because we’d filtered some at Whitewater Creek, at mile post 16). Most importantly, Eric hadn’t gotten hurt. But neither of us had a headlamp. I hoped our hike-a-bike wouldn’t take until nightfall.

“All right, let’s see what we can do,” I said, as we pulled out our tools. Within 20 minutes, we’d removed the derailleur — which had shattered when Eric landed — and chain. We high-fived and decided to celebrate that he could finish the ride sitting on his bike — albeit in a chainless, gear-free fashion with moments of straddle-running like a toddler on a Strider. As adventurers often say, everything can be going right until things go wrong — and then, they can go really wrong. Especially when you’re exploring a remote place in solitude.

The Palisade Plunge officially opened from top to bottom in July 2021. Few mountain bike rides in the United States feature an elevation profile with such a whopping descent through various ecosystems and terrain that also funnel you close to craft tacos and microbrews. Two bucket-list rides are in the same wheelhouse: Colorado’s 36.2-mile Monarch Crest Trail near Salida and Utah’s 34-mile Whole Enchilada near Moab, with a respective 5,890 feet and 7,800 feet of descent.

Riders often overlook that those rides also include a healthy amount of ascent — more than 2,000 feet of gain on the Monarch Crest and nearly 1,300 feet of climbing on the Whole Enchilada. Similar to the Palisade Plunge, both of those rides require an early morning shuttle drop-off to safely, comfortably complete the route in a single day. Comparatively, the Palisade Plunge features 900 feet of climbing and a 6,814-foot descent. A huge portion of that elevation loss is in the last 4 miles along winding switchbacks as you drop into town.

Many Palisade-area pioneers have gazed up at the steep slopes of the Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, and envisioned a trail that would connect the high alpine tabletop with the valley below. Who wouldn’t want to escape the heat below on a hot summer day? Two of these dreamers worked over the past decade to establish the Palisade Plunge for mountain bikers and hikers, including Buecheler, who started Over the Edge Sports in Fruita in 1994. He’s also the ski patrol manager at Powderhorn Mountain Resort and guided dory boat trips in the Grand Canyon for nearly three decades.

The other dreamer is Scott Winans, vice president of engineering for Mountain Racing Products and co-owner of Rapid Creek Cycles. Winans has served for more than 13 years on the board of directors for the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trails Association, the trail-building organization that supported development of the Palisade Plunge. They live for the outdoors.

We were ready to ride the Plunge as soon as we heard about it. The trail showcases Colorado’s vast landscapes, wildness, and diverse ecosystems. Also, the cross-country rhythm was a welcome change from the steep alpine trails we typically ride.

In my perspective, the Palisade Plunge had four distinct sections.

Our ride started when Buecheler dropped us off at the trailhead at what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. The upper portion of singletrack rolled along the mesa through grasslands, creek crossings, rock patches, and sparse pockets of aspens and pines. Cattle roam the land, which we’re used to from riding in the Gunnison Valley, where we live: Keep your eyes open for cow patties up there.

When we reached Shirttail Point Trailhead, near mile 12, the trail dropped steeply through the volcanic basalt cap that surrounds the edge of the plateau with an eye-opening overlook. We took our first snack break while reading the trail sign about John Otto, placed above a dense aspen grove, blue jewels of water, and piles of crumbled lava rock below. Otto was the primary advocate for the creation of the Colorado National Monument. In 1910, he built a route to connect Palisade to the top of Grand Mesa — the Wild Rose Trail, featuring more than a dozen hairpin switchbacks. He blasted an entrance into the rock band and constructed retainment walls that still stand more than 100 years later.

For the Palisade Plunge, trail builders restored Otto’s fallow trail, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which met the Forest Service’s environmental requirements while adding a history lesson along the route.

Due to the historic nature of the Wild Rose Trail, the switchbacks could not be widened and are sharp. Below the immediate descent, the singletrack dives into the trees and for several miles the rolling trail is full of chunky lava rocks and pinched by boulders through the lush, overgrown forest. Trail visibility was difficult. Beware: This is the section where many bikers experience mechanical issues and is where Eric’s derailleur was initially bent, which led to the bike blow-up on the ridge.

After we filtered and topped off our water at Whitewater Creek, the trail became smoother, flowy, open, and led to my favorite section — a rocky, rollercoaster segment of trail that skirts a steep hillside through a burn area of piñon pines and sagebrush. The first far-off views of Palisade were in the distance.

By mile 22, we had eyes on the Blowout, a steep, white-rocked bench that curves below a collection of red rock spires and hoodoos like a mini Bryce Canyon. Near here, the terrain evolved again into slickrock marked by white paint stripes followed by technical, rocky desert riding from the ridge to cliffs to the exit gully.

Overall, the entire Palisade Plunge is well-marked with mileage, educational signs, and bail-out points. I’ve never done a mountain bike ride with so much ecological and trail diversity in a single day, and the adventure was worth the effort.

When to go

We initially scheduled our Palisade Plunge ride at the beginning of the season, after the winter closure was lifted May 1, but the upper half of the route, which sits at an elevation of 10,737 feet, still held snow. We waited until the complete route opened in mid-June, but a heat advisory required a second trip postponement: We had no desire to ride all day in triple-digit heat. We rode once in Fruita during 100-degree temps and finished a relatively short loop with headaches and nausea. Heat exhaustion, let alone heat stroke, is not to be messed with.

Overall, it’s important to be flexible with your trip dates: If you want to ride the entire route, you’ll have to wait until the snow has melted, which varies every year. Then, watch for heat advisories. It’s better to schedule a trip for a day between late August and the end of September, when shuttle operations halt, than risk heat stroke.

Book a shuttle

We booked our certified shuttle ride with Palisade Cycle & Shuttle, which offered great customer service — even with our numerous trip changes — and it was fun to learn about the route from Buecheler on the drive. When Eric and I were late to finish the ride due to our mechanical issues, Buecheler called to make sure we were safe and waited at the shop until he heard from us that we were back in town.

Ride duration

According to Winans, the average rider can expect the entire route to take 6 to 7 hours to complete. Some riders take 12 hours for the whole route. Racers might be able to ride the entire route in less than 4 hours.

Water sources on the ride

Start the ride well-hydrated. During the ride, we drank electrolytes and brought a water filter to top off our bottles and bladders from the trail’s only reliable water source: Whitewater Creek, mile post 16. We each carried close to 5 liters between our bikes and packs.

Where to stay

For a comfortable overnight stay (with air conditioning) that’s a short walk or ride to the restaurants of downtown Palisade and Palisade Cycle & Shuttle, you can’t beat the renovated
Spoke and Vine Motel. What you trade for the unbeatable location and hip in-house cocktail bar is … coziness (at least, if you travel on a smaller budget like ours). The single queen room has enough space for a yoga mat on either side of the bed, and no more. Don’t expect to keep your bike in there, too. The motel aptly labels the room “small A.F.” and it is. (Other rooms are more spacious; you may want to spend more. Regardless, you’re unlikely to spend more than $210 a night.)

On-site bike storage is available, which is accessible when the hotel concierge is available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We needed to leave earlier than 7 a.m. for our shuttle, so it helped that we had a bike rack with integrated locks, so we could safely leave our bikes outside at night. Our favorite touch: The motel offers a light breakfast in bed with coffee or tea, homemade granola from the local Slice O Life Bakery, and Greek yogurt, which we enjoyed the day after our ride. The morning of our early shuttle pick-up, we ate cold oatmeal and drank electrolytes — there was no microwave in the room, and we didn’t feel like using our camp stove.

Where to eat

The night prior to our big ride, we walked from Spoke and Vine to Peach Street Distillers, which has a relaxing ambiance and a carrot-topped pico de gallo guacamole we still think about. The carne asada bowl was filling and simple. Post ride, we celebrated with a high-end culinary experience at Pêche. We started with the decadent fois gras and finished with the flavor-rich Moroccan lamb and melt-in-your-mouth grilled chicken entrees and would order it all again. Our only regret is that we didn’t have enough room to eat the hot peach cobbler for desert. Be sure to make a reservation.

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