Colorado has no shortage of outdoor destinations, just as it has no shortage of places vying to make themselves known.

All around the state are local ambassadors who’ve taken up a flag, leading a charge for more recreation. While onlookers are quick to overlook their homes, they see potential waiting to be realized — untrammeled lands of opportunity.

And they gain confidence from those before them. Wasn’t Fruita a dusty, bankrupt outpost before mountain bikers made it a vibrant, bustling base? Wasn’t Moab similarly desolate before the climbers?

The revolution continues. We asked around and got a sense of Colorado’s next great base camps for adventure:

Dan Pittz and his son, Tiernan Pittz (right) hike the trail above the Royal Gorge. They were hiking past a beautiful view of the Arkansas River on Thursday, June 20, 2019, on the Royal Gorge Trails System. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

1. Cañon City

The last time we toured the trails with Fremont Adventure Recreation, Ashlee Sack got excited at the sight of a transport.

“We’re the kind of place attracting sprinter vans now!”

A rack of bikes were on the back — nomadic riders feasting upon ever-growing singletrack, courtesy of the nonprofit that’s been building fast since 2010.

And yet the representative we were with that day said Cañon City was still waiting for its big moment. No wonder the sprinter van was surprising to Sack. Here on the north rim of the Royal Gorge, she said she often found herself alone.

“For the most part, it’s pretty quiet up here.”

Surely not for long.

The recently-finished north rim completes a trifecta of trail systems. Along with Oil Well Flats and South Cañon, riders and hikers could spend days in town. The secret is also out on Shelf Road, the vertical limestone that’s become a Mecca for sport climbers.

If you’re still picturing prisons when you think of Cañon City, take another look. Or maybe the world-famous bridge comes to mind. That commercial destination has a lot of (free) competition these days.

FAR has rallied with the local rafting industry to shape a new identity for Cañon. And City Council seems on board, too, recently pledging $160,000 for a project aimed at providing another kind of outdoor experience. Historic train trestles atop the gorge are being redecked for hikers and bikers.

2. Craig

Tom Kleinshnitz was 14 in 1971 when a school bus took him through town. It was late at night. He recalls natural gas blasting flames to reveal Craig’s welcome sign, and the hotel was illuminated that way, too.

In the morning, he laid eyes on the Yampa River.

“Just screaming by. It was just full of water,” he says. “Being a Front Range child, the South Platte never looked like that.”

His love for the area never diminished, that childhood wonder unblemished by Craig’s coal.

Three years ago, Kleinchnitz sold his whitewater outfit and moved here to be Moffat County’s top outdoor advocate, appointed by the local tourism association.

He’s got an old river friend now in charge of the state Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. Ask Nathan Fey about places on the verge of breakthroughs, and he’ll give the same answer as Kleinschnitz.

“Moffat County has world-class topography,” Kleinschnitz says. “A lot of people don’t really know about it, and it’s always been surprising to me.”

Start with the mighty Yampa. Dinosaur National Monument is home to a legendary stretch — what Kleinschitz imagines the Grand Canyon was like “before it was all developed, before it was truly discovered.”

East of town is Routt National Forest, rugged backcountry frequented by elk hunters. North is the Bureau of Land Management’s Cedar Mountain, with singletrack mileage waiting for expansion.

The Yampa Valley Trail runs 100 miles through pinyon and juniper forest, sagebrush desert and Dinosaur’s canyonlands. A local is working to establish it as the site of a foot and bike race.

3. Del Norte

Another place ripe for a breakout in Fey’s view: the San Luis Valley. And in Marty Asplin’s view, the time is now.

He’s been the leading activist in Del Norte, which he and his wife came to in 2002. “The town was kind of like all the towns in the valley,” he recalls. “They were pretty flatlined.”

Farmers kept scratching in the dirt, while Asplin had another idea.

He made his platform on the town board. He built relationships with federal land managers. He rallied players behind the Del Norte Trails Organization, and they went to work.

Del Norte’s outdoor profile is boosted by Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to the east and powder-packed Wolf Creek Ski Area to the west. Above, a skier drops into Alberta Face on the first day of skiing for the 2018-2019 ski season at Wolf Creek. CHRISTIAN MURDOCK THE GAZETTE
Del Norte’s outdoor profile is boosted by Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to the east and powder-packed Wolf Creek Ski Area to the west. Above, a skier drops into Alberta Face on the first day of skiing for the 2018-2019 ski season at Wolf Creek. CHRISTIAN MURDOCK THE GAZETTE

They started with Lookout Mountain, laying paths on the town’s icon. They moved on to Penitente Canyon, long known for climbing and now for a series of epic loops. They next created the Stone Quarry system, where explorers share space in more high canyons. From there they looked south to a scenic ridge near 8,600 feet. Running 9½ miles, the Pronghorn trails were finished in 2016.

Del Norte’s outdoor profile is boosted by some pre-existing gems: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to the east and powder-packed Wolf Creek Ski Area to the west.

Every year, writers and trade people are invited to discover it all, staying for free in the Windsor Hotel. That’s one amenity Asplin sees as realized through the outdoor renaissance. A brewery has gotten popular. A film center is in the works.

Recently, a developer expressed interest in building housing units for young people.

“We had to go back and write new codes,” Asplin says. “We had no codes for that sort of thing, because we figured it’d never happen here before.”

4. Delta County

Sven Edstrom had settled his family on inherited property in Hotchkiss. But seven years ago, “I was going crazy,” he says.

He wanted to move to Flagstaff, Ariz, or keep it in state with Gunnison or Durango. He wanted to pedal from his house and find himself on marvelous singletrack.

But moving plans weren’t working out.

“I just stopped,” Edstrom says. “I gotta make something change.”

So he’s trying with Delta Area Mountain Bikers. They have a strong foundation with Sidewinder, zipping almost 20 miles in rocky desert — not for the faint of heart.

“It’s gnarly, and a lot of us love it,” Edstrom says. “But there’s people in our group that are older saying, ‘We need some beginner and intermediate stuff.’”

Enter what DAMBers call their two marquee projects.

One is centered on Smith Mountain in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, about 7 miles east of Delta.

The vision: 30 miles of multiuse trail in phase one construction.

Edstrom draws a lofty comparison from Fruita. “What I tell people is it’d be 18 Road on steroids. The terrain is there.”

The potential for off-roading, camping, fishing and rafting in the Gunnison River is there, too.

Thaddeus Smith raises his fist triumphant during a ride on Smith Mountain. A rising number of cyclists around Delta want to see the mountain become a renowned destination. Photo courtesy Sven Edstrom, Delta Area Mountain Bikers
Thaddeus Smith raises his fist triumphant during a ride on Smith Mountain. A rising number of cyclists around Delta want to see the mountain become a renowned destination. Photo courtesy Sven Edstrom, Delta Area Mountain Bikers

About the same distance from town in the other direction is the Escalante Triangle, another rugged realm in another conservation area, boasting views into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The BLM is planning trails there, the scope similar to that of Smith Mountain.

But nothing yet appears imminent. With the low-income county more in tune with energy extraction as an economic base, and with travel on two wheels fairly taboo, Edstrom feels he has some philosophical work to do.

He hopes leaders see what he sees: cars driving by with bikes in tow. “I’m like, man, how do we get those cars to stop?”

5. Eagle

Momentum has been rolling here for a while now. Still, Eagle doesn’t have the buzz of Interstate 70 hubs on either ends: Glenwood Springs to the west, Vail and Summit County to the east.

That’s probably OK among locals. Not that they aren’t welcoming to visitors, thousands of which show up for the Eagle Outdoor Festival every summer, showcasing the limitless possibilities here.

Yes, surrounded by the White River National Forest, it seemed Eagle had it all. Then last year a climbing gym opened. Then this summer a river park debuted, offering a new wave for the kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. The Eagle River runs through town and beyond, calling, too, to anglers everywhere.

Also in town is a BMX park, a nice warmup for more off-roading in the wilds above. Also in town, they have singletrack sidewalks.

No, mountain biking is nothing new here. Elite trail runners have made Eagle home, and it’s no wonder with the alpine training courses they have to choose from out their back door.

In the winter, it’s a quick commute to the slopes — at least compared with those who endure much longer I-70 traffic.

The golf course is groomed into a Nordic course. And that’s just the start of snowshoe trails.

The industry has taken notice, with outfits and shops moving in. And the migration might only be beginning, says Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership.

“It’s two hours to Denver, two hours to Grand Junction, 30 minutes to Vail and Beaver Creek. Add to that a tight-knit community and recreation literally in your backyard, it’s probably a unique combination of factors that not a lot of communities have.”

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