The Unexplored “West End” of Montrose County

October used to be “Moab Season” for me. At least once a year we’d pack the car with camping gear and mountain bikes and head to the desert outdoor recreation mecca that Moab has been for the past 20 years or so. With stunning red canyons, sheer cliff faces, arches, fantastic mountain biking and wild camping in the desert, what’s not to love?

Over the years more and more people got the same idea and today on a spring or fall weekend it’s tough to find a spot to camp. The popular trails can become so crowded they’re almost no fun anymore.

Last spring Arches National Park had to be close briefly due to traffic congestion.

Last spring Arches National Park had to be close briefly due to traffic congestion.

 

So last weekend when I had the chance to get away for a couple of days, I decided to head “out west.” Not as far west as Moab, but almost to the Utah-Colorado border. Home to the tiny towns of Nucla and Naturita, there’s no way to access the area via a paved road without leaving the county. Either by dirt roads across the Uncompahgre Plateau or by going the long way around through Ridgway, it’s over two hours from Montrose.

With similar elevation, climate, and topography to southeastern Utah, the West End is a fantastic destination for those looking to get off the beaten track.

History

Like Utah, the area owes much of its early development to mining. Some gold was mined, but the main industry was uranium and vanadium. These two minerals gave the now-defunct town of Uravan it’s name. Mines cling to the cliffs overlooking highway 141 as it winds its way through the canyon. One company even hung a man-made canal off the side of a cliff to bring water to a mine.

The hanging flume was started in 1887 and operated for 3 years before the mine it served went bust.

The hanging flume was started in 1887 and operated for 3 years before the mine it served went bust.

Mountain Biking

I came primarily to mountain bike and got some recommendations from a local. Mountain biking here falls more into the “adventure” category, with most trails following old mining two-tracks through the rough wilderness. Scenery abounds though, and if like me you enjoy canyon country you’ll be right at home.

Even on a fall weekend with perfect riding temperatures in the mid 70s, I had the trails to myself. Not mostly to myself, I mean I was completely alone. In six hours in the saddle I saw not a single other rider. Or hiker, or ATVer for that matter.

The trails themselves are not well worn in. I could see tire tracks from other bikers, but none seemed recent. As is to be expected on old mining roads, there is some hike-a-bike as the roads were designed to reach mining areas, not for recreation. To me this just added to the sense of adventure.

At the entrance to Red Canyon. The trail climbs about 5 miles into the canyon following old two-track.

At the entrance to Red Canyon. The trail climbs about 5 miles into the canyon following old two-track.

At the head of the canyon the trail climbs steeply up to the top of the mesa.

At the head of the canyon the trail climbs steeply up to the top of the mesa.

Views into the Paradox Valley with the La Sal mountains in the background make the climb worthwhile.

Views into the Paradox Valley with the La Sal mountains in the background make the climb worthwhile.

 

The Y-11 loop features some fun, fast, and technical singletrack. At times the trail clings tenuously to narrow benches high above the canyon floor.

The Y-11 loop features some fun, fast, and technical singletrack. At times the trail clings tenuously to narrow benches high above the canyon floor.

Camping

Established campgrounds can be found on the Uncompahgre Plateau, but this time of year I wanted to stay at lower elevations. There is a semi-developed campground near the old Uravan townsite known as the “ballpark” with picnic tables and portable toilets. It’s also easy to drive a short distance up one of the side roads off the highway and find a secluded spot to bed down for the night.

Finding a secluded campsite is no problem. And for star gazers, the skies don't get much darker.

Finding a secluded campsite is no problem. And for star gazers, the skies don’t get much darker.

Motorized Fun

With it’s maze of rough dirt roads, the area is perfect for exploration by dirt bike, ATV, or 4×4. The recently inaugurated Rimrocker Trail is a 161 mile long back country route linking Montrose with Moab. The trail is meant primarily for ATVs, but could be used by mountain bikers as well.

So the next time you’re in need of some solitude in the desert, head south from Grand Junction and explore this little known secret.

Colorful fall aspens on the Uncompahgre Platea

Colorful fall aspens on the Uncompahgre Plateau

 

 

 

 

 

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