The high-desert town of Fruita, Colorado, became a stronghold for singletrack in the 1990s, and is now making a comeback
It’s 5:45 a.m. I stand with my mountain bike at the top of 18 Road, an iconic collection of singletrack 11 miles north of Fruita, Colorado. Behind me, a citadel of desert buttes rises more than 1,000 feet above the grainy trails. On the cliffs in front of me, gravel aprons fan outward resembling the fabric folds in a long skirt. A series of rolling trails follows the southbound contours of those mounds descending from the bottom of the bluffs.
Beyond the trails, Grand Valley farmlands and Fruita’s rooftops fill the distance. The skyline is held by McInnis Canyons, which are lit by the rising sun. The uppermost sandstone tiers radiate a warm watermelon hue.
My hands tingle with excitement for this dawn patrol. Below me, Joe’s Ridge is a continuous 2-mile rollercoaster plunge that’s punctuated by punchy uphills and short, stomach-raising descents. The ride should take all but 15 minutes to pedal. I lock my eyes onto the smooth, narrow route and gleefully drop in. By the end, I’m grinning ear to ear and my quads are shook — the track does not disappoint.
I spend the rest of the morning taking laps down PBR, Kessel Run and Zippity Do Da. Between each downhill, we ascend Prime Cut, the uphill-only trail. It’s hard to believe that just yesterday my partner and I road-tripped a few hours from our doorstep in Crested Butte to check out this mountain biking paradise. We quickly decided one trip is not enough — we’ll definitely be back for more.
Fruita’s Ancient Landscape
Fruita is home to nearly 134 miles of singletrack between 18 Road and Kokopelli Loops, the two core areas for mountain bikers. The broader region offers even more miles of designated trails including the networks of Grand Junction and Rabbit Valley, which is open to motorized vehicles. There’s also the acclaimed 144-mile Kokopelli Trail from Fruita to Moab. To top it off, this high-desert town — population 13,000 — is surrounded by 1.6 million acres of public land and geological gems.
Along U.S. Route 50 between Grand Junction and Fruita, the Colorado National Monument fills the roadside views to the south. The steep canyon walls are a mix of vermillion and almond tones, and they’re spotted by piñon-juniper woodland. Closer to Fruita, the monument indiscernibly transitions into the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, a treasured landscape full of pictographs, petroglyphs and the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness: a 75,000-acre expanse with the second largest concentration of natural arches in North America. The Colorado River carves through the northern wilderness boundary, where Fruita’s famous technical trails — the Kokopelli Loops — boast a bird’s-eye view of the refreshing, steel blue water against the arid, rocky terrain.
To the north is Fruita’s hive of smooth singletrack: 18 Road, which abuts the Book Cliffs, a geological uplift with steep terraces of sandstone and shale. The entire range stretches 215 miles from Palisade, Colorado, to Castlegate, Utah. It’s the longest continuous escarpment in the world. Compared to Kokopelli Loops, 18 Road offers more beginner-friendly trails with limited exposure and technical features.
Raucous Parties and Cattle
After day one at 18 Road, my partner and I hop on cruisers and pedal a few minutes from the historic Sagebrush, a 114-year-old ornamental vacation rental, to Hot Tomato in downtown Fruita. The quaint restaurant’s mustard yellow facade and metal bicycle sculptures are inviting, and the fenced-in patio area is shaded by a giant cottonwood. This famed pizzeria is spotlit in the documentary, Life of Pie, and received the “Best of the Rockies 2020” award from Elevation Outdoors Magazine. Lucky for us, Hot Tomato owners and life partners Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller join us for dinner. The four of us sit at an outdoor picnic table, share the Granny’s Pesto and Noni pizzas, and chat about the history of Fruita’s mountain biking.
Zeuner and Keller met in Moab. Site unseen, Keller had relocated to Moab for a bike guiding gig. Eventually, she worked at the Chile Pepper Bike Shop, and Zeuner walked into the store one day. She recently retired from professional mountain bike racing, was working for a sunglasses company, and moved to Moab from Durango, Colorado. Soon after, Keller invited Zeuner to go mountain biking in Fruita. That day changed their life trajectory.
“Moab has amazing singletrack now, because they’ve really devoted a lot of resources towards it,” Keller said. “But at the time, in ’99, they just had jeep roads. You could ride Slickrock Trail, Amasa Back jeep road or Poison Spider Mesa, which sucked. Fruita was where the trails were.”
“I remember thinking, when I moved to Moab, ‘There’s no mountain biking — it’s all doubletrack!’” Zeuner said. “Then, Anne took me to Fruita, and I was like ‘whoa.’”
They moved to Fruita a few years later in 2002. Zeuner and Keller both worked at Over the Edge Sports before opening Hot Tomato in 2005. Developing a town pizza shop was partially inspired by their bike shop customers, who often vocalized that they needed a place to tell stories and eat good food. At the time, Fruita was pretty quiet with shuttered stores and a dusty Aspen Avenue full of potential. In 1982, a historic oil shale bust had shattered the Grand Valley economy. By 1987, nearly 10,000 jobs had been lost.
Around that time, a group of mountain bikers started to build trails. The Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association (COPMOBA) was founded and completed their inaugural project in 1989 — the Kokopelli Trail. The following year they constructed Mary’s, the original circuit at Kokopelli Loops. At least a portion of Fruita’s earliest trails were inspired by cattle paths.
“Locals started riding on cow trails,” said Fruita City Manager Mike Bennet. “Then they started building trails. Today, people still have grazing permits for their cows (in riding areas),” which explains the occasional lines of petrified hoof prints and patties that decorate the wooded singletrack at 18 Road.
One pioneer who helped spearhead Fruita’s grassroots trail development was Troy Rarick, cofounder of Over the Edge Sports.
“Like 50 hardcore mountain bikers would always show up and give a lot of effort on trail days,” Zeuner said. “Not everybody was digging. Some people had food on the grill or beers in the cooler, and others watched the kids. It was very community-oriented and tight-knit. Everybody would camp out.”
And in 1995, Rarick launched the Fat Tire Festival and 18 Hours to Fruita events, which brought folks together and stimulated the industry.
“Troy deserves a lot of credit,” Keller said. “He certainly put Fruita on the map for mountain biking and he’s always been a fantastic community builder. He pulled all types of people to the Fat Tire Festival — from surly guys from Minneapolis to different bike companies like Kona Bikes.”
The Fat Tire Festival is now a family-friendly, low-key event. But back in the day, the festival was a whiskey-shooting, beer-drinking, donut-gulping rowdy time with no rules and no helmets. Sans regulations, the raucous gathering grew in size and became a liability.
“Guys would smoke cigarettes and ride their single-speeds everywhere in their jean shorts and cut-off flannels,” Zeuner said. “A dude in overalls would wave the flag during the Clunker Crit race — a dude who doesn’t even own a bike, and he’d also be the first one to come out with his tractor and help us do trail building. It was brilliant how Troy could bring people together. And it was a really fun time.”
We devour the savory pies and bike the few blocks back to the Sagebrush. My partner and I take a seat on the wrap-around porch to watch the peach and strawberry colored sunset. Countless cyclists, cruisers and mountain bikers of all ages roll past. It’s pretty clear, bicycling is embedded into this place.
“If you only have one day to ride in Fruita, ride Horsethief Bench,” Zeuner said. “It’s technical and beautiful.”
So, we head straight to Kokopelli Loops in the morning. We warm up on Rustler’s, a non-technical, pebble-strewn and fairly level loop across a dry mesa top. Blonde tufts of sand-grass, cactus and sagebrush are scattered throughout the soil around us. The trail
is completely exposed. We spin into the southeast corner and the bluff drops two-hundred feet to the aegean Colorado River.
We close Rustler’s and head toward Horsethief Bench. We throw our bikes over our shoulders to hike the infamous drop-in segment that connects the canyon rim to the bench below: a gnarly, exposed descent full of 2- to 4-foot drops.
“When we first moved here, the drop-in was not as consequential,” Keller said. “It started as a dirt road for ranching access. The dirt road had a rock ledge and there was one drop at the bottom that was 1.5 feet tall. It was steep enough that the sand on rock eroded over the years. It became this nightmare.”
At the bottom, we drop into the singletrack along the edge of the canyon wall and roll down a lengthy slickrock slab. After a string of technical drops through the piñon pines, the trail reaches the edge of Horsethief Canyon with expansive views of the Colorado River. The meandering trail is peppered with enough rocks and slopes to require my attention, though I steal glances of the fast-flowing current below.
A mile later, we turn away from the precipice and ride into a side canyon. The boulder-filled trail delivers several exposed drops until we reach a notoriously narrow ledge that we both walk. This is Dead Cow canyon. Cattle are allowed to graze in this area and two have died from falling off this cliff since Keller and Zeuner moved here.
“You can’t really get a cow out of there,” Keller said. “Riders would go by and put stuff on their stiff body, like a bike helmet.”
Fruita’s mountain bike community of yore was quirky, unique and full of passion, as the sport’s early adopters, Keller said. Although, the culture change and business growth have brought a wave of positives. Recreation tourism, with mountain biking at the helm, has created a sustainable economy for the locals.
Furthermore, many of the area’s first trails were developed illegally without permission from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which led to a halt of development and decommissioned trails. The Icarus pizza on Hot Tomato’s menu is named after the Flight of Icarus, an illegally-built, formerly popular trail that was shut down shortly after Keller and Zeuner moved here. During that clash between locals and land managers, surrounding areas like Moab took note.
“Other communities saw an opportunity to create a development plan — they didn’t want to fall into what was happening here,” Zeuner said. “We had all of these amazing trails, and then we had nothing for years.”
Despite said hiatus, the trails here offer plenty of variety, challenge, coasting and scenic adventure. As my partner and I continue to grind up the canyon, the gravel and sand beneath our tires becomes a light violet stone. The waffle-thin rock steps remind me of scalloped potatoes. The trail threads us through towering petrified sand dunes that alternate between honey and blush colors. The cliff band is full of weathered arches, caves, spires and towers. It feels like a window into a historic world.
Growth on the Horizon
Mountain biking, gravel riding and road cycling are all on the rise in Fruita. The growth is supported by a strong cooperation that now exists between the locals and land management, which has been cultivated over the past two decades.
“Mountain biking is a legitimate industry that employs people and generates revenue to make the town viable,” said owner of Colorado Backcountry Biker (CBB) Kevin Godar. “I give a lot of credit to the BLM, City of Fruita and COPMOBA for working together. They’ve been instrumental in building the trails, infrastructure, maintenance and managing visitors.”
The CBB hosts three weekly community shop rides: a mountain bike meet-up at 18 Road, a gravel ride and a road ride that starts at the downtown store. Fifty riders usually show up to each one.
“In Fruita, you can be out on the farm roads and out of traffic in a couple of blocks,” Godar said. “The road biking is great.”
Furthermore, seasonal tourism has leveled out, which the local bike shops and restaurants began to notice about six years ago. Now, Hot Tomato can keep their employees on staff year-round. That said, spring and fall are still the most popular seasons. It’s not really possible to mountain bike in Fruita in the winter because the soil contains bentonite and doesn’t dry fast. But the cold-weather road biking is decent, Zeuner said.
Up ahead: In January 2021, the city will introduced an additional 3% lodging tax for short term rentals and hotels which will fund trails, parks and open space projects in and around the city, as well as business development. The current 3% lodging tax, which is used for the city’s marketing and promotion, raised nearly $128,000 in the last two years.
Based on that data, an average of $64,000 per year will be collected to support the expansion and maintenance of Fruita’s outdoor spaces. In addition, a master plan was recently approved to add new trails at 18 Road.
“Additions will include a pump track, 30 miles of new trails and 100 new campsites,” Bennet said. “We received a grant from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which will cover the environmental studies. The city will fundraise the funds to complete the plan.”
During our final evening in Fruita, my partner and I approach 18 Road for a closing sunset session on our favorite trail, Joe’s Ridge. I look around and can’t imagine what the upcoming trail expansion will be like when it’s finished. But based on the current arrangement and design, the new trails will be rhythmic, playful and exciting. I can’t wait to experience Fruita’s next phase. In the meantime, we have plenty of classic trails to keep us entertained.
MORGAN TILTON is an award-winning travel and adventure writer for close to 60 publications. She lives in the Elk Mountains, where she scrambles and ropes-up for rock ascents, ties into trail running shoes, clicks into skis or bike, and clips into a snowboard or splitboard.