How a rich vein of recreation could transform former mining communities
At the onset of the pandemic, when Moab locked its doors and closed shop, the desert rats were turned away. Some went home. Others traveled elsewhere. Lucas Johnson first noticed them in Paradox Valley, on routes that usually only attract a handful of climbers throughout the year. Deana Sheriff saw tents and campervans cropping up on the public lands near Naturita and Nucla. Trailheads were suddenly crowded by local standards: more than one or two cars.
By now, we know that pandemic recreation in rural areas was ill-advised, but for better or worse, it did introduce new outdoor enthusiasts to Colorado’s Canyon Country. And local advocates hope they’ll keep coming.
The West End of Montrose County is marked by twisting red rock canyons and distant mountain ranges. It’s a dry and tumultuous landscape with an equally wild history of outlaws, utopian socialists and miners. It comprises the communities of Nucla, Naturita and the now abandoned town of Uravan, which became a Superfund Site in the 1980s. Two rivers — the San Miguel and the Dolores — cut through this remote region, and over 600 miles of old exploration roads crisscross the landscape, offering endless mountain biking and hiking opportunities.
With four seasons of prime recreation weather and vast tracks of public land, ranging in elevation from 4,500 to 9,500 feet, it’s hard to believe this area hasn’t been discovered.
“We have not promoted this area,” said Sheriff, the Executive Director of the West End Economic Development Corporation. “Historically this area was developed around the Manhattan Project and that era of secrecy has remained through the generations out here.”
The region was founded by farmers in the late 1800s, but is defined by its mining history. Uranium brought a wealth of money and new families to the area, but when its market price tanked in the 1980s, hundreds of mines closed. Coal helped bring a resurgence to the area, but recently Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced the mine and power plant would close by 2022.
Now, locals are looking toward outdoor recreation — as well as the area’s inherent solitude — to revitalize the economy.
For years, the old mining roads and trails were mostly accessed by local mountain bikers, hikers and hunters. There weren’t maps or guidebooks to help newcomers explore the area. But a few years ago the West End Trails Alliance (WETA) was formed to promote mountain biking and hiking opportunities in the area.
“It’s a very unique part of Colorado, geologically, we have some of the most beautiful terrain you’ve ever seen,” said longtime resident Paul Koski. “That’s what has kept me here for 40 years — the vast amount of public lands out here.”
Koski helped found WETA and is largely responsible for the development of the Paradox Trail, a 110-mile mountain biking trail that links two other long distance routes — the Tabeguache Trail and the Kokopelli Trail — into the 360-mile circuit known as the Grand Loop.
Through its inventory of local trails, WETA has produced an abbreviated online catalog of hiking and mountain biking opportunities in the area. Maps are now available in local shops and hotels, and the organization is working to produce signage on the more popular trails.
Despite efforts to make recreation more accessible to visitors, the West End is still largely undeveloped. According to Lucas Johnson, Nucla’s “resident climber” as Koski refers to him, adventuring is still an adventure out here.
“Every time the river turns, there’s a band of Dakota sandstone along the rim,” Johnson said. “They’re pretty much all tackled and climbed.”
Many of the bolted routes are older and Johnson acknowledges that some people “blanche” at the hardware. However, he points to the numerous trade routes, as well as the boulders strewn along the main highway which offer a variety of grades.
“The bouldering here along 141, all the way down the Gateway Canyon is incredible,” Johnson said. “It’s very van-livable.”
Most of the routes are on Mountain Project, or if you can get your hands on a copy, Charlie Fowler and Damon Johnston’s out-of-print The Wild Wild West.
Comparing recreation in the West End to the Wild West is kind of appropriate. The isolation paired with limited cell phone service and low population density demands a level of self-sufficiency and experience. In a world of pre-programmed adventure, that’s particularly attractive to a certain subset of travelers.
“We’re redeveloping our brand around being isolated,” Sheriff said. “You can be out here for 12 days and never see another person.”
Promoting isolation feels like a self-defeating endeavor, but Sheriff said it’s unlikely the West End will see unreasonable growth as it’s difficult to access and doesn’t have major attractions like national parks.
“I frequently hear ‘don’t turn us into Moab,’” Sheriff said. “I think our growth is going to be really slow just because we aren’t going to be able to attract that international market.”
Even so, outdoor recreation and tourism appear to be having an effect. A new glamping park and a bed and breakfast are set to open this summer, and a few outdoor businesses are already catering to the small, yet growing number of visitors.
“Any activity is going to help,” Koski said. “We are small towns. We don’t need a huge influx of people to really impact our local economy.”
MARGARET HEDDERMAN writes about the environment, outdoor recreation, and travel. Based in Boulder, Colorado, her work has also appeared in Nowhere Magazine and SIERRA, and has been nominated for The Best American Travel Writing series.