The Grand Loop - one of the oldest bikepacking routes out there and arguably the original bikepacking race route, linking some of the earliest established long-distance mountain bike routes in the country. The Grand Loop is almost entirely dirt, but there’s very little singletrack or gravel along the way. That being said, the riding is still quite technical on 4x4 tracks and abandoned uranium mining roads, and few of the miles come easily. The Grand Loop’s 360 miles of rough riding straddles the stunningly unforgiving country of the Utah-Colorado borderlands. Making an enormous circuit around and over the massive Uncompahgre Plateau and the La Sal Mountains, the route traverses lowlands and canyons along the Colorado River that bake in the summer heat. And the high coniferous forests and meadows hold snow until late spring. The ideal riding season is short, nestled in the weeks between late spring snowmelt up high and furnace-like summer temperatures down low. The landscape and remoteness along the way are as striking as they are daunting.
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The Grand Loop, one of the most influential and yet somewhat forgotten bikepacking routes in the West. The creation of the Grand Loop was the result of the ahead-of-their-time vision of the individuals behind the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Alliance. This group created three long-distance mountain bike trails in the late 1980s and early 1990s – the Kokopelli, Tabeguache, and Paradox Trails. Forming a 370-mile circuit, this Grand Loop offers a bikepacking experience unlike any other – remote and stunningly gorgeous Colorado Plateau landscapes, canyons, pine forests, badlands, and aspen glades, all linked by challenging riding on mostly 4×4 tracks and abandoned uranium mining roads. Despite the fact that there is minimal singletrack along the way, this is one of the more demanding and legitimate mountain bike routes out there. Don’t even think about bringing a gravel bike. Services along the route are minimal, and water sources are almost all seasonal and relatively widely spaced.
This route is most often ridden beginning in Grand Junction and in a counterclockwise direction. Recreation paths link Grand Junction to Fruita and the eastern terminus of the Kokopelli Trail near Loma. The Kokopelli Trail begins with ~15 miles of singletrack above the Colorado River before a few dozen miles of 4×4 tracks, gravel roads, and two-tracks through badlands and over ledgey mesas before crossing the Colorado River at Dewey Bridge. Stretches can be particularly sandy, but never for too long at a time (and there’s no need for a fat bike). Leaving the Colorado River, the Kokopelli Trail climbs steadily toward the La Sal Mountains. The climb is punctuated by several deep canyons and loose, challenging descents. Camping opportunities with huge views are common, and the only water source between the river and high in the La Sals is the seasonal Hideout Spring.
Reaching the flanks of the La Sals, reliable water can be found at Castle Creek just before the Grand Loop route turns off the Kokopelli Trail and onto the Paradox Trail. The first miles of the Paradox are relatively smooth riding through aspen forests and high meadows on bladed roads heading toward the small Buckeye Reservoir near the Colorado-Utah border. Southeast of Buckeye, the official Paradox Trail stays high above the Paradox Valley on Carpenter Ridge before a hair-raising plunge down Red Canyon to the Dolores River. The route then climbs up the lower slopes of the Uncompahgre Plateau to begin the “Koski Traverse,” a very rugged, remote, and challenging traverse of a series of drainages. This section, along with Carpenter Ridge, can be bypassed via the Bedrock Alternate. This alternate descends into the Paradox Valley and follows gravel roads and pavement past the Bedrock Store and through the incredibly scenic Dolores River Canyon. These two routes rejoin and proceed toward Nucla on narrow roads and then abandoned 4×4 tracks that see minimal use of any sort today. The riding is slow, and hike-a-bike is frequent, but near Nucla, the trail suddenly improves as it enters a local singletrack network! Nucla is just a short spin off route and offers restaurants and a general store. Leaving Nucla, the Paradox Trail ascends to the Uncompahgre Plateau. The climb early on is quite demanding and rocky on 4×4 tracks, then transitions to a rough singletrack across Glencoe Bench (look out for black bears!), and eventually turns onto bladed gravel roads for the remainder of the climb.
Atop the Uncompahgre Plateau awaits the Tabeguache Trail, the final segment of the Grand Loop. The riding on the Tabeguache is notably less demanding than that of the Paradox. A few miles of singletrack lead to an ATV trail descent and the slow Roubidoux Mesa traverse, the toughest part of the Tabeguache that includes the crossing of ~10 drainages of increasing size. Flowing streams are often found in a few of the drainages, and the views are well worth the effort. Beyond Roubidoux, the trail climbs back up to the crest of the Uncompahgre on better roads, then follows the gravel Divide Road with sweeping vistas. A long rolling descent becomes progressively rockier as it drops into Unaweep Canyon before an equally rocky and challenging climb right back out of the canyon. The final miles of the Tabeguache roll through badlands and small canyons on 4×4 tracks before finally reaching the Lunch Loops singletrack system on the outskirts of Grand Junction.
The Grand Loop is very easy to underestimate. Mile-for-mile, the route has slightly more climbing than the Colorado Trail, the riding is incredibly taxing, water is scarce, the temperature extremes can be draining, and miles rarely come easily. But the bikepacking experience is unlike any other out there, and there’s a reason many of the riders who have ridden this route over the years have returned to ride it again.
What kind of bike is ideal for the Grand Loop? It’s a mountain bike route, and a rough one at that. Any mountain bike will do fine out there – it’s definitely not gravel bike country, and a fat bike is not necessary. Given the loose and rocky nature of many of the trails, knobby tires in the 2.3-2.8″ range will be appreciated, and use ample sealant in the tires (goathead thorns are common in some areas).
Photos by Kurt Refsnider and Aaron Couch
The following year, COPMOBA set their sights on another 140-mile-long route connecting the Colorado towns of Montrose and Grand Junction – the Tabeguache Trail. The trail would climb out of the broad, dry Uncompahgre Valley to the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau at 10,000 feet among aspens and fir trees before meandering along the crest and rugged east slope of the plateau. Toward its northern terminus, the trail would drop into Junction near Colorado National Monument.
The Tabeguache Trail is named for the group of Northern Ute who traditionally spent part of the year in the area, the Tabeguache, or “People of Sun Mountain” (the peak known to the Tabeguache as Sun Mountain was later named Pike’s Peak by settler-colonists). The Tabeguache and other Ute (Nuu-ciu) bands in the area were forcibly removed from Colorado and sent to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northern Utah. The Tabeguache Trail was completed in 1990 and required nine miles of new trail construction. Additional sections of singletrack along the route have subsequently been built by COPMOBA.
The Paradox Trail concept had been pitched a couple years earlier, and the local West End community advisory board supported it. The trail was named for the Paradox Valley, a geologic peculiarity in which the Dolores River flows out of one canyon, across the narrow valley, and into another canyon; most rivers prefer to flow down valleys. Economic diversification was needed as the mines had all closed, and outdoor recreation was one possible avenue to pursue. The BLM and Forest Service were again supportive of the project, and by 1995, the route was approved and then dedicated. A few years later, a new and demanding section called the “Koski Traverse,” was created to get the route off the roads of Paradox Valley. Over the past decade, new singletrack has been built in the Nucla area by the West End Trails Alliance and incorporated into the Paradox Trail, and a lengthy reroute was required to get around 800 feet of private land. More sections of single track will be added to the Paradox in the coming years.
Bikepacking on the Grand Loop began in the late 1990s with the first through-ride being completed by Gary Dye and Omiah Travis. The first very loosely organized event took place in 2001. The event grew in popularity until the late 2000s and inspired the creation of events like the Arizona Trail 300 and the Colorado Trail Race. The final running of the Grand Loop Race was in 2009, and since then, the loop has only seen occasional use by bikepackers.
Today, COPMOBA stewards the Kokopelli and Tabeguache Trails, and WETA stewards the Paradox Trail. We’re asking Grand Loop riders to join or donate to WETA.