The Grand Loop

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.

Grand
Junction, CO

Ute lands

39,000'

ELEVATION GAIN

late spring/
fall

riding season

4-6

days out

8

PHYSICAL challenge (1-10*)

3:11:33

women's FKT -
Lynda Wallenfels
(2013; old route)

370

miles

7.5

TECHNICAL challenge (1-10*)

2:05:36

men's FKT -
Kurt Refsnider
(2020)

Stewarded by the Colorado Plateau Mountain bike Association and the West End Trails Alliance

Managed by the GMUG National Forest and Uncompahgre and Grand Junction Bureau of Land Management Field offices

* Following the bikepacking Roots rating scale

route map and download

Disclaimer: This route and associated information is just a starting point for your preparation, and your safety is your own responsibility. Although this route, its GPS track and waypoints, route data, and the route guide were prepared after extensive research, their accuracy and reliability are not guaranteed. Check for current conditions, route updates, detours, use common sense, obey local laws and regulations, and travel with alternative means of navigation. The Backcountry Bike Challenge and its creators and contributors will in no way be responsible for personal injury or damage to personal property arising in conjunction with following this route or utilizing any of the route resources provided on this website or via RWGPS.

General route description

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

additional route information

  • This is the desert. Water is scarce, and many of the water sources are seasonal and vary in reliability from year to year. Most water sources included with the route information are generally reliable in May and into June, but that depends heavily on winter snowpack. Summer monsoons can rejuvenate the water sources for early autumn, but again, that depends on the strength of the monsoons.
  • Carry far more than you’ll need, and never count on the next water source being 100% reliable – just because there is a waypoint for a possible water source does not mean that there will actually be water at that source!
  • A water capacity of at least 5-6 lliters per person is strongly recommended.
  • Services are also minimal along this route. Grand Junction, Fruita, and Nucla are the primary options. The Bedrock Store on the Bedrock Alternate offers an additional resupply option.
  • Livestock are prevalent along the route, so all water sources should be treated.
  • Water filters often clog up quickly due to high clay and silt contents of many Colorado Plateau water sources. Chemical water treatment is recommended.
  • If planning to pull water from the Colorado River, using alum powder to settle out the suspended silt and clay is recommended.
  • Virtually the entirety of this route is on public lands with the exception of the stretch between Grand Junction and the Kokopelli Trailhead near Loma. Any other private lands along the way are small parcels that are typically well marked.
  • Scenic dispersed camping opportunities can be found frequently along the route.
  • In May and June, juniper gnats (AKA no-see-ums) can be quite pesky at the middle elevations along the route and anywhere that there are juniper woodlands nearby. Packing a headnet is strongly recommended.
  • None of note for this route
  • Do not underestimate the difficulty of this route even though there is minimal singletrack along the way. Between the rugged terrain, the amount of climbing, the chunky tracks, and the range of weather conditions likely to be encountered, this is a particularly challenging (and rewarding!) route.
  • The low elevations of this route are scorchingly hot during the summer months. Riding the route during June, July, and August is not recommended.
  • This is a strikingly remote route. Help is not going to arrive quickly if anything goes wrong.
  • Much of the route becomes absolutely impassible when wet due to sticky clay-rich mud.
  • Again, this is the desert. Water is scarce. Carry far more than you’ll need, and never count on the next water source being 100% reliable. A water capacity of at least 5 L per person is strongly recommended.
  • Much of the route is in black bear territory, and some sections of the Paradox Trail (like Glencoe Bench) are frequented by bears. Make noise as you ride, and use safe bear practices at camp.
  • Don’t bust the crust! Be careful of cryptobiotic soil and avoid trampling it, camping on it, etc.
  • Rides can be started from any point on the loop.
  • The route can be raced in either direction, although counterclockwise has been the preferred direction.
  • The main Paradox Trail, rather than the Bedrock Alternate, must be followed.
  • You must ride 100% of the route in accordance with the FKT rules.

history and stewardship of the Grand Loop

The Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Alliance’s (COPMOBA) Kokopelli Trail project began in 1988, and land managers from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service were supportive of the trail concept. The route would connect existing singletrack, 4×4 tracks, and gravel roads. Short sections of new trail required to bridge gaps between existing routes were quickly approved as environmental review and approval processes for trail construction by public lands managers were in their infancy. It didn’t take long to finish the project and pound countless Carsonite posts into the ground to mark the new route – by 1989, it was complete!

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 as our Kokopelli Trail challenge will benefit COPMOBA.

West End Trails Alliance & Colorado Plateau MTB Alliance

your rides on this route

There is no Ride with GPS FKT Leaderboard for this route since you may start the loop at any location!