RANGELY • At the base of a craggy ridge in Colorado’s far western desert, Shawn Morgan parks his souped-up Jeep and eyes his target.
While an outsider sees a cluster of rocks, he sees a driving lane.
“We call this the competition spot, or the playground,” Morgan says.
The competition spot for local enthusiasts like him who rumble burly machines up and down seemingly impossible terrain. The everyday playground for motorhead residents of the dusty, little town down the road drawn to the most extreme fringes of off-roading.
This is the Rangely Rock Crawling Park, the only one of its kind in Colorado, according to the owning Bureau of Land Management. This is 560-plus acres of slopes with jumbled and jagged boulders and steep and deep cracks and crevices that challenge the boldest, gravity-defying drivers.
They’ve left their rubber marks on lines known as Megasaurus, Stegosaurus and T. Rex — nods to the ancient cliffs in view forming Dinosaur National Monument. Another “trail” is called Chain Break. A busted chain dangles as a marker and warning.
“It’s you against the rocks,” Morgan says.
Just the way he likes it, along with about 30 others who competed at the annual challenge here last month. Here and at other events along the worldwide circuit, drivers negotiate obstacles between cones and are scored as they go. They achieve absurd angles, one of them being close to 90 degrees. Sideways and upright, they typically look on the verge of collapse.
Many off-roaders prefer the fast lane — the rock crawling park is actually more popular among dirt bikers and ATVers who zip along the flats — while a minority prefers the slow lane, no less perilous.
“I like climbing rocks,” Morgan says. “I like getting into predicaments where you don’t know how you’re gonna get out of it.”
So he goes. His “buggy” rumbles to life and roars toward the rock wall, where it moans and groans and creaks as it creeps upward, one carefully placed 37-inch tire after another.
Rock crawling is a family affair for Rangely’s niche crowd. As Morgan climbs, his 13-year-old son, Matthew, looks on beside his grandpa, Mike.
“For me, it’s intense fear,” Matthew says.
“It’s good for the heart,” Mike jokes. “It gets the heart rate up all right. It scares you to death.”
It was a larger interest group in the early 2000s, says Jeff Rector, who led the charge in establishing the rock crawling park back then. He started a group that would fundraise and work alongside the BLM to develop routes. Two decades later, that group isn’t nearly as active.
“People shifted and went to different machines,” Rector says.
He saw rock crawling lose its appeal as technology whirled. Ragtag crawlers tinkered in their garages, beefing up rigs, while the industry forged ahead on machines that were lighter, faster, more accommodating and more affordable. Side-by-sides covered several miles in an afternoon while rock crawlers managed only so many feet. And drivers of those side-by-sides weren’t nearly as sore and exhausted at the end of the day.
Rector understood. After a competitive crawling career dating to the 1990s — inspired, like many others, by the scene in Moab — he too shifted. He finally got to thinking, he says, that some of what he was doing was “absolutely insane.”
But the Rangely native and county commissioner would hate to see the rock crawling park overlooked. “That park is a jewel for this community,” Rector says.
The community is counting its jewels in an increasingly volatile economic landscape. Gas and oil has historically spelled booms and busts for Rangely, and the cycle lately has been the latter.
“It’s in the tank right now,” Morgan says here at the rock crawling park.
Not 50 yards from his vehicle stands an idle pumpjack. The imagery is not lost on Morgan, a board member of the local chamber of commerce: one symbol of the past perhaps, and another of the potential future. Analysts have recorded substantial growth in the off-roading market — globally valued between $14 billion and $15 billion in 2020 — with steady growth projected for years to come.
“It’s pretty neat we have world-class rocks right here in Rangely that are five minutes away,” Morgan says. “The rocks and the formations here are as good as anywhere you’ll find anywhere you go.”
But Rector wonders: How far are people willing to come? Rangely sits at the end of a high, twisty road, about 90 miles north of Grand Junction. “Discover Rangely,” reads the banners posted along the main drag.
“The problem is the road to Rangely leads to nowhere, unless you specifically want to come to Rangely,” Rector says.
And then there’s the waning interest he’s observed. Other than visitors at the annual competitions, rock crawling seems for a select bunch in town. For families like the Morgans.
Atop this crawl, young Matthew takes in the view of his hometown below.
“That’s part of the fun,” he says. “Some of the best views you get are from rock crawling.”