Looking for Cañon City’s spin on singletrack glory?

Take a good map and a spare tube and prepare to take your lumps.

Tucked away in a city best known for its barbed wire-encircled prisons is a rugged new draw: 10-plus miles of rocky biking trails packing panoramic views and enough climbing to keep an Olympian’s lungs burning.

The trails at Oil Well Flats wind through a stunning, rough-and-tumble slice of high-desert breaks about 6.5 miles north of Cañon City in a Bureau of Land Management recreation area. Visitors are rewarded with vistas dominated by the Sangre de Cristo range to the south and pine-covered slopes and mesas all around – offering equal incentive for hikers and horseback riders, who are also welcome.

For cyclists, the rewards are many and the riding is rough.

Which is exactly how the locals like it.

Lance Benzel Riding Oil Well Flats - OutThere Colorado
Lance Benzel drops over a rock slab while riding the Oil Well Flats trail area north of Canon City. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

“This is what puts us on the map,” said Scott Eckstrom, a local bike shop owner and Cañon City councilman, summarizing the wave of enthusiasm over the new riding spot.

Experienced mountain bikers will be well-equipped for the relentless rock-hopping on twisting, moderately technical singletrack. Beginners will be sorely tested – even as they’re awestruck by the scenery, which features a striking 200-foot cliff of pitted slickrock, a jog through a shaded patch of woods and an old burn area that’s been transformed into an idyllic, rolling prairie.

And while 10 miles of singletrack sounds modest, the trails are easily knit together into a day’s worth of riding, and it won’t be long before new trails are built, including a 3-mile loop – all the result of a Bureau of Land Management effort to encourage mixed use of the area.

Local riders – who generally call the region Oil Well Flats, rather than the BLM’s preferred nomenclature of “Flat” – call the trail network a shot in the arm for the city’s mountain biking community and a chance to broaden the community’s brand.

Seeking to draw visitors

The region’s cyclists banded together several years ago to create a popular mountain biking spot called Section 13 southwest of town, but until now, Cañon City has lacked a place for sustained rides.

“Now we don’t need to go to Pueblo or Salida to do most of our riding,” said Brian LeDoux of the Lower Arkansas Mountain Bicycling Association, which formed in 2009 as part of an ongoing push to develop a trail network in a series of hogbacks overlooking the city’s Skyline Drive.

But some in Cañon City have their eyes on more than just entertaining the locals: They want to bring in the out-of-towners.

Scott Eckstrom Riding Through Rocky Area on Oil Well Flats - OutThere Colorado
Scott Eckstrom of Canon City rides through a rocky area in the Oil Well Flats trail area north of Canon City. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

Situated in a sunny, protected bowl, Cañon City enjoys unseasonably warm winters, feeding hopes that Oil Well Flats could become a destination for cold-weather riders in search of dry trails or those looking for a little variety from the usual haunts.

Anyone planning to ride the area should check the BLM website for trail conditions. When the gate is down, the trails are closed.

During a recent tour of the area, Eckstrom, a former math teacher who quit his job to open Red Canyon Cycles in downtown Cañon City, rattled off several more projects meant to transform the city into an outdoor recreation hub, including a planned trail network at Royal Gorge Park.

The idea, he said, is to capitalize on Cañon City’s rugged terrain, which already boasts a popular rock-climbing area on Shelf Road, a much-rafted stretch of the Arkansas River and the iconic Royal Gorge Bridge.

The Oil Well Flats system took four years to develop, with the BLM assuming the lead on planning/trail design and rustling up funding for trail-building efforts.

The area, named for an oil well drilled in 1856, has been used as farming and grazing land for more than 100 years, and grazing is still permitted.

It’s also known for Ms. Spike, a stegosaurus fossil discovered in the region in the early 1990s.

To clear the way for the trail network, the BLM banned motorized users, sharply reducing problems related to illegal dumping, said Kyle Sullivan, a BLM spokesman.

Lance Benzel on Oil Well Flats Trail - OutThere Colorado
Lance Benzel of Colorado Springs rides a trail atop the 200-foot cliffs in the Oil Well Flats area north of Canon City. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

AmeriCorps, the Mile High Youth Corps, Volunteers for Outdoors Colorado, Lower Arkansas Mountain Bike Association, Cañonland Walkers and Hikers and the Rocky Mountain Backcountry Horsemen are among the groups that pitched in with sweat equity, Sullivan said.

New trail names to come

Widely credited with leading the charge at Oil Well Flats is Kalem Lenard, a BLM outdoor recreation planner who was hired on at the Royal Gorge office five years ago from a Nevada-based trail advocacy group. Lenard advocated for the multiuse trails, won funding for its various phases and helped marshal efforts of volunteers and advocacy groups.

Lenard offered a good-natured laugh when a reporter invoked the “F” word – as in Fruita, the sleepy, Western Slope ranching community-turned-international-mountain biking mecca.

Could Cañon City, with all its planned improvements, be next?

“Everybody wants to be Fruita,” he said. “I say, ‘Let’s be Cañon City.’”

One notable trail in the area snakes along a cliff of rutted slick rock before plunging down the canyon in a white-knuckle descent.

The locals call it Cat’s Pajamas – and while the name’s apt, don’t expect it to stick.

Among the items on a to-do list is to come up with official trail names, a process for which the BLM is soliciting public feedback.

Trails signs or no, it’s wise to load one of the BLM’s geo-referenced trail maps onto your smartphone before heading out. The area is crisscrossed with fire roads, and the way ahead isn’t always intuitive.

Lenard said the area’s difficulty level should balance out once new trails are constructed, enabling newer riders to get mileage in, too.

“We’re going for the nested trail concept, where the farther you get away from the trailhead the harder it gets,” Lenard said.

In the meantime, locals like Eckstrom will be out enjoying the ride – and waiting for the crowds to arrive.

“This is the best thing that’s happened to mountain biking in Fremont County, ever,” he said. “We can’t believe it’s in our backyard.”

Lance Benzel Riding Over Rock Slab on Oil Well Flats Trail - OutThere Colorado
Lance Benzel of Colorado Springs climb over a rock slab while mountain biking the Oil Well Flats trail area north of Canon City. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock

IF YOU GO

Oil Well Flats is 6.5 miles north of Cañon City along Red Canyon Road. Take the first right onto a dirt road after crossing to the east side of Four Mile Creek. Drive up a quick rise and find the parking lot within less than a quarter mile.

Trails are mostly intermediate, with rocky terrain that will test beginners.

Signs are few and far between, and use a BLM numbering scheme rather than trail names. Riders with smartphones are encouraged to download a geo-referenced trail map, available at the BLM’s website at tinyurl.com/mmuzpm7.

Be sure to check the BLM website for trail conditions before making the trip. As an additional resource for maps, local riding tips and trail conditions visit Red Canyon Cycles at 410 Main St. or call 719-285-8169.

For a 14-mile route that maximizes the area’s singletrack, ride Pebbles to Bam-Bam to Ms. Spike to Cat’s Pajamas. After completing the descent from the ridge, take Fire Canyon east and pick up the far end of Ms. Spike. Take Ms. Spike in reverse and retrace Bam-Bam and Pebbles back to your car.

(Note: Trail names are slated to be changed and you may encounter new signs.)

With cacti and other sharp vegetation at every turn, use tire sealant in tubes and bring a spare. Tweezers could come in handy in case of a crash.

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