Cities across the nation have found that recreation-based tourism can pump life into a stagnated economy. The towns of Nucla and Naturita, Colorado, sitting between the mountain bike heavy destinations of Cortez and Durango, Moab, and Grand Junction and Fruita, might be the next area to open the valve on a new stream of revenue. Trail advocates have a master plan for over 50 miles of new trail and hope to break ground in the next two years.
Naturita and Nucla are neighboring towns situated just a few miles apart. Moab is an 80-mile drive west, or a 105-mile ride via the Paradox trail. Neither town has beckoned much attention in the past, even amongst Coloradans. But situated in the high desert of the Western Slope with mesas, canyons, juniper trees, buff dirt, and slickrock, the terrain holds a great deal of potential for mountain biking.
“This area is just so unique. A very unique part of Colorado,” says Paul Koski, a mountain bike advocate and 42-year resident of Nucla. Koski started mountain biking 30 years ago and was on the board of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association for 25 years. He co-founded the West End Trails Alliance (WETA) and wants to pump new life into the area and take advantage of the terrain for sustainable recreation tourism.
Nucla’s population currently sits around 700 and Naturita’s at around 500. Historically, the economies have been based around resource extraction — coal and uranium — though coal mining jobs in Montrose County have declined as the New Horizon coal mine and Nucla coal-fired power plant closed in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Koski says that’s where new trails come in.
“So that’s a big part of my initiative here on the Western End Trails Alliance; to promote the area, develop the trail systems that we do have and then build more.”
WETA’s new plan, which they worked with C2 Recreational Consulting on, proposes 54 miles of new singletrack for the area, comprised of new cross-country trails, bike-optimized gravity and flow trails, and multi-use and hiking trails. The trails would sit next to Naturita, utilizing the town center as a hub of sorts.
The mileage would be divided between the Sawtooth area and the Naturita Flats area with Camp V, a boutique private camping and RV park sitting between the two. The owners of Camp V have agreed to lend the property to trail use. The Sawtooth area sits on a high ridge along the southern edge of the Paradox Valley and has many slickrock sections. Naturita Flats has significant elevation along its northern edge before it drops into Naturita.
According to the proposal, the Naturita Flats area would have at least 15 to 20 miles of the trail “with the capacity for substantially more.” The Sawtooth area would be about 34 miles based on a stacked loop system and hub design originating from trailheads on the south side.
The trail advocates seem to know what’s at stake as they push for these trails. “Rider experience is king” states the trail plan, aware that today’s trail users are more likely to express their opinions over social media about destinations than ever before.
But it may still be a while before WETA breaks ground on the majority of these trails. Koski says that it could be up to two years before the Bureau of Land Management can review their proposal, even though they have the trails flagged and cultural surveys completed. The wildlife surveys will need to be completed just ahead of putting shovels in the dirt.
“My goal is to have as much stuff done before the BLM has a chance to look at it. Then hopefully it will shorten that period of time when we can actually start to throw dirt and start construction.”
Currently, there are about 3.5 miles of trail at the Nucla Range loops and the long-distance Rimrocker and Paradox point-to-point routes. Just southeast of Nucla in Norwood lie the Thunder Trails, a 20-mile system, and another system of about eight miles of green- and blue-rated trail.
Still, Koski says part of the magic of the West End is what they don’t have: hordes of people and over development. It’s easy to ride and not see anyone else for hours and camping is abundant, though the new trails would have the potential to attract more. Koski says that four new lodging establishments opened recently, including Camp V, along with two new bike shops, an organic grocery store, and new short-term rental properties. Could Naturita/Nucla someday be the next Fruita or Moab?
“Our mountain bike destination vision will always look very different than those places like Crested Butte or Moab. We don’t need thousands of people flocking here every weekend to make a meaningful financial impact on our small communities.”
The estimated cost for building 54 miles of trail, according to the plan, is just under $2 million. The dry and rocky terrain can be difficult to work with, adding costs, but new trailheads, signage, and a new campground factor into the total as well. WETA used a Colorado Parks and Wildlife grant for the proposal as well as funding from the Telluride Foundation, the West End Pay it Forward Trust, and the San Miguel Power Association. They’ll look at more project funding through Go Outdoors Colorado and maybe even a GoFundMe campaign.
As WETA waits for the BLM to evaluate their proposal, they plan to start trail construction on the Camp V property and will add another two miles or so of singletrack to keep their momentum, and possibly expand the Thunder Trails system in Norwood. Koski will continue looking to other trail advocates and surrounding organizations for advice since working with land management agencies can “discourage the impatient and non-motivated. You cannot be either when putting in new trails on public lands. My motivation comes from a love towards my communities and the public lands. I successfully raised three daughters here in Nucla who taught me patience.”