In a clutch of scrub pine overlooking the town of Eagle, mountain biker Sam Adams slowed to a halt just long enough to consider his good fortune.
Before him was a panoramic view of the snow-covered Sawatch Mountains, their jagged peaks looming far into the distance above a rolling green valley demarcated by farms, ranches and scattered subdivisions.
Beneath him, the singletrack was no less inspiring – part of a fast, undulating loop built in 2013 to host a state high school mountain bike race, supplementing more than 100 miles of trails and Jeep tracks that wind through the hills on both sides of town.
Yet here Adams was, the only rider in sight. He almost sounded guilty.
“It’s like a secret, man” the 58-year-old Eagle resident said with a grin, breathing hard after a climb up Haymaker Trail, a 7-mile loop accessible from a trailhead just a quick pedal from his garage. “Every summer, you keep expecting to see so many people riding up here. But you go out, and you see two or three.”
A base camp for recreation
That’s the paradox in Eagle: abundant trails, sweeping vistas and precious few visitors to enjoy them.
It’s a state of affairs the town is working hard to address through tourism-driven efforts meant to transform the sleepy Vail Valley bedroom community of 6,500 residents into a new outdoors hub on the Interstate 70 corridor west of Denver.
“We’re trying to capitalize on our position as a recreation-based tourism base camp,” said Eagle Mayor Yuri Kostick, a former competitive skier and avid mountain biker intent on expanding the town’s profile. “Hunting, fishing, rafting, biking, equestrian – we’re the gateway to all kinds of great stuff.”
Located 30 miles west of Vail, Eagle was once the province of farmers, ranchers and miners, but its identity began to shift with the founding of Vail Ski Resort in 1962. Vail was incorporated a few years later, becoming a tourism destination with a national draw, while Eagle grew quietly in its shadow, a residential community for those who live and work in the vicinity.
In a bid to increase the town’s share of tourism dollars moving through the valley, it’s installed new trails, a municipal boat ramp on the Eagle River (built partly with Great Outdoors Colorado funding), and a series of traffic-zapping roundabouts.
Meanwhile, regional collaborations are focused on shoring up trail connections to better link Eagle with neighboring towns and cities, including Minturn, Avon and Vail – collectively known as Up Valley to Eagle’s Down Valley.
Beyond trails, town leaders are working with Eagle County to create a river play park.
“It will have whitewater features, but it’s also a place where people will soak their feet and just connect to the river,” said Amy Cassidy, a town marketing and events coordinator.
Aside from the sheer beauty, Eagle certainly has the climate to attract visitors.
Trails to back up the hype
Perched at 6,600 feet, the town stays mostly dry from April to December, meaning it’s primed for mountain bikers when higher elevations are socked in by snow.
It’s relatively cool when temperatures soar in Western Slope mountain biking meccas. In July, average high temperatures in Eagle top out in the mid-80s – 7 degrees cooler on average than Fruita, two hours west, and 13 degrees cooler than Moab, Utah, 4½ hours west.
It’s also blessed with buzz, with outdoor magazines burnishing Eagle’s “up and coming” credentials and praising a recent initiative to build singletrack sidewalks to get children riding dirt, rather than paved multiuse trails, to schools and playgrounds.
But it’s a work in progress, Kostick said. “We’re still getting the word out.”
Recent trail improvements come from a mix of volunteer efforts, taxpayer support and collaborations with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which manage some of the sprawling public lands that make the trail diversity possible.
The riding is divided between East Eagle, where BLM land supports roughly 30 miles of singletrack – some of it crafted with mountain bikers in mind – and West Eagle, which boasts 80 miles of high-alpine trails and double track with a more natural character.
A smaller trail network can be found between them, near the Eagle Ranch subdivision.
In 2013, Eagle spent $75,000 on Haymaker and another trail in East Eagle, tapping Momentum Trail Concepts to design and build Haymaker according to specifications set out by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
The investment is paying off, advocates say. In October, Eagle will host the Colorado High School Cycling League state championships for the third year in a row, bringing upwards of 500 riders plus family members.
“It probably brings 2,000 people to town for a long weekend,” Cassidy said.
Funding for the trail project came from an open space fund fed by a lodging tax, a $4 per-room fee that also supports marketing efforts.
Great place to ride – and stay
Haymaker is open to the public, and it’s commonly ridden in combination with Pool & Ice, a thrilling descent with carefully manicured turns that snake and corkscrew down steep slopes stuttered with drops and kick-ramps.
“It’s like Winter Park without the lift,” Jon Schoeffel of Denver said of Pool & Ice. “Bermed turns all the way down. The trails are just amazing, and there’s no one around.”
He and his riding parter, Sarah Kreidler of Denver, were among the few out-of-towners riding Eagle’s trails over the July 4th weekend, when Vail and Glenwood Springs were awash in tourists.
They said they first visited Eagle a couple years ago after a friend tipped them off, saying, “There’s some great riding out there.”
Compared to Vail, with its ritzy condominiums and ski town prices, Eagle is easier on the pocketbook, they said.
“It’s a little cheaper to stay over here. You can ride right from the hotel. Down in Eagle, there’s a nice bike path that goes through the neighborhoods.”
Said Kreidler: “Shh. Don’t tell anybody.”
The addition of purpose-built trails in East Eagle helped solve a problem when it comes to attracting mountain bikers, said Charlie Brown, co-owner of Mountain Pedaler Bike Shop, 101 E. Second St. While Eagle has long attracted strong riders, the trails weren’t exactly friendly to visitors, who were prone to become discouraged by the steep grades or confused by poorly marked connections in the town’s mix of system trails, Jeep roads and social routes.
People are more likely to seek out the experience – and to bring their families – to ride trails like Haymaker, which is appropriate for beginners even as it offers roller-coaster terrain and other features with strong appeal to experts, Brown said.
“Easy trails aren’t necessarily boring if they’re done right. They’re playful and fun.”
Free camping near town
Eagle’s trails were demystified with the release of a guidebook, Mountain Bike Eagle. It’s available for purchase at mountainbikeeagle.com, Brown’s bike shop and at the town’s microbrewery, Bonfire Brewing, 127 W. Second St.
Although the trails can be lonely, mountain bikers have certainly taken notice, with an uptick in visitors popping in to solicit ride suggestions, Brown said.
“Front Range guys are walking in my door, like, ‘Hey I’m on my way to Fruita, and I’ve heard a lot about this place,’” he said.
Free camping is available on BLM land near town, including numerous sites on Bellyache Road accessible to passenger cars.
Eagle is looking at finding a spot to build more primitive campsites within town limits, nearer to trailheads, such as those available at Fruita’s 18 Road network, Kostick said.
“I would call it urban camping,” Cassidy said. “People want to be able to camp and ride to coffee, ride to the trailhead, and ride for a beer after.”
Despite plans to connect Eagle to other communities in the region, Adams is among the locals who say they’re unlikely to stray too far from home. “In Eagle, you don’t have to throw your bike on the back of your car,” he said. “You just go.”
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