Nestled between Colorado’s San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges, the 8,0000-square-mile San Luis Valley is a slice of off-the-radar Colorado waiting to be discovered.

Penitente Canyon

Brink Messick and Mick Daniel are surveying a desert landscape from the saddles of their mountain bikes looking for input from a group of riders they’ve led into the canyons and mesas outside of Del Norte, Colorado. Though better known for rock climbing,  mountain bikers have taken interest in the rugged terrain over the last few years. All are part of a movement to develop new recreational opportunities in the San Luis Valley in hopes of bringing some attention to one of the most economically challenged regions in the state.

To Messick, it’s all about providing access to public lands.

“Access to hiking, hunting, running, watching, biking,” he said. “Access to forests, streams, mountain-tops, desert rocks, access to public lands and open spaces, yours, mine, ours.”

The valley isn’t exactly on the top of the list when it comes to iconic Colorado, but it should be. Crowned by soaring peaks and laced with desert ecosystems, a variety of landscape and culture gets concealed from the blitz of recreational tourism that has enriched much of the state. But that might all change.

Not long ago, Del Norte, population 1,600, was a stop on the road to elsewhere but these days groups like the Del Norte Trails Organization, San Luis Valley Great Outdoors , and Great Outdoors Colorado are turning things around. And it’s not just the visitors they are trying to sway. It’s the residents too.

Mountain bikers taking a well deserved break on the Middle Frisco Trail, outside Del Norte Colorado. Terrance Siemon

“If we can help our communities build trail and outdoor recreation infrastructure, hopefully our residents will begin to take advantage of it being so close to home,” said Daniel, fresh off a quad-busting gravel grind bike race in Kansas. Daniel is director of SLV GO, a nonprofit working to enhance the San Luis Valley’s recreational opportunities. “The research is showing really strong benefits to time spent on dirt in natural areas.”

The research also shows that towns with healthier economies have higher health and wellness scores, according to Daniel.

“So how do you combine these items to build stronger communities,” he said. “I think that is really where we are trying to head here.”

A historic church sits between Penitente Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains under an autumn sunrise. Terrance Siemon

The Secret is Out

Aside from being a ripping mountain biker, Messick, conservation outreach and project manager with the Colorado Mountain Club, spends free time trail building in the San Luis Valley. He has boots on the ground and is thinking of the bigger picture.

“At this point the economic benefits of trail development and trail based recreation are no longer a secret,” said Messick. “Rural communities all over the country are looking at nearby public lands, their natural and recreation resources with dollar signs in their eyes.”

Daniel agreed. “(We’re) improving the communities’ health and wellness and also attracting tourists to those area,” he said. “Businesses catering to those tourists will benefit and hire more people and pay more tax, pumping dollars back into a community.”

San Luis Valley potato farmer Jeff McCullough reaps what he sows on trails outside Monte Vista in an area known as Bishops Rock, where he has been trail building with other local mountain bikers for the past few years. “This place is just a newborn, it’s an infant as far as the possibility of what’s here and what it could be,” he said. Terrance Siemon

Pay Dirt

One example is just over the mountains in Leadville, Colorado, a mining boomtown that derailed in the 1980s. Community forerunners established a series of mountain biking and trail running events to boost a fading economy. What started in 1982 with 45 runners brought $15 million of revenue to the community in 2012.

Kristi Mountain Sport’s Del Norte location.Brandon Mathis

The San Luis may not be the next Leadville, but that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be. Just getting people within reach of the outdoors is a solid start.

“It is difficult to value and appreciate something that can not be observed and experienced first-hand,” Messick said. “I consider the biggest benefit of trails and trail development to also be one of the principal functions of trails themselves, access.”

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