The newest, grandest and gnarliest mountain bike trail in Colorado is the Palisade Plunge. It ribbons along the Grand Mesa and cuts into the Grand Valley near Palisade, CO like barbed wire, taking mountain bike thrill seekers on a 33.8-mile semi-perilous journey through the desert in some of the most remote and exposed terrain one can ride in the country, if not the world. Suffice to say, it’s not for the faint of heart. And that’s the fun part.
The hard part of this devilish trail is where things really get interesting. Spencer Rugland, Project Manager of Singletrack Trails, lived that hard part on and off for almost two years in the grizzled backcountry of the Grand Mesa. The hard part was grueling two to three mile hikes in with hundreds of pounds of equipment and camping gear to start your Monday. The hard part was fending off mountain lions and bears at night on a semi-regular basis as you camped miles away from nowhere. The hard part was spending weeks out of touch from family and loved ones pounding away at rocks while the world continued on without you. All that, just so people can ride their fancy bikes down a mountain on the weekend?
Hell yeah. You see, that’s what Rugland and the rest of the team do at Singletrack Trails, one of the premiere trail building companies in the United States. They’ve built mountain bike trails in Grand Junction, built up Wyoming State Parks with the Conservation Corps and created Black Mountain Ski Area near Denver among other projects. They currently have a handful of small teams dotted across the country on different builds, all with their own nuanced problems of remote access, stretched supply chains and the hard tack life of living in harsh environments for weeks and months on end. It’s a headache and a half with a bad back, but it sure beats the hell out of cubicle.
Moving rock and cutting trail is as elemental and basic a job as you can do, dating back to the time of miners and pioneers of the 1800’s. But Rugland (named 2015-2016 Terrain Park Master of the Year by Colorado Ski Country) and Singletrack Trails do it with the ingenuity and conservation efforts of the 21st century, with an artistic eye towards giving users an engaging and fulfilling experience in places that are at the very fingertips of civilization’s grasp. All across the country they’ve seen a canvas where others have seen treacherous, impassable terrain.
At the end of the of the day, Rugland knows he’s contributed to hundreds of miles of trails and earthen networks that’ll last beyond his great-grandkids, providing escape and solitude for generations to come. He’s built a lot of something out of a lot of nothing. If you ask him, that’s the fun part.
The following is a conversation with Spencer Rugland. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your initial takeaway from working on The Plunge?
It was a super unique experience with The Plunge. It was really remote and we were camping Monday through Thursday every week for pretty much five months. No showers and we were getting harassed by bears and mountain lions daily, so we had to be super careful with what we were eating. It was some OG cowboy shit. It was wild and crazy, but I’m grateful that I got to experience that, it was a once in a lifetime thing.
Trail building is such a weird, underappreciated career choice but it’s something that has obviously been going on for generations. Is there a foundation or understanding of the history of people who built trails in the past, dating back to the 1800’s even?
There’s just a level of respect. Building a trail is the same concept as it was 100 years ago. You are putting a flat spot where there wasn’t a flat spot. But realizing what kind of resources we have available now puts it into perspective of how rough and tough it used to be. We get to use hydraulic shovels, and it makes you think, it’s the same as 100 years ago but we are doing it much more efficiently. Back in the mining days they were men’s men. They had no option, if they wanted money and provide for their family they had to do this to access the places they needed to get to. It makes us feel like prima donna’s because we do it to ride our fancy bicycles (chuckles).
The principles of trail building have changed some, we definitely do it more sustainably now. The idea behind building a trail has a more artistic feel than a utilitarian necessity. But even then, we have to tip our hats to the guys that were doing this 100 years ago. We do it to provide an experience in an environment, or providing something to ride their bikes on and tune into what’s around them. I think a lot of people could use that these days.
How do you build trails in an “artistic” way, which is alluded to in Singletrack Trails’ mission statement?
Our company “why” is that we believe in the synthesis of connection. We all get so sucked into our daily lives with Instagram and phones and work or whatever and what we try to do at Singletracks is provide an experience in a trail. It’s not just something to ride your bike on, it’s an experience to do it. We’ve all ridden a boring trail that’s in a cool area and what we try to do is really engage with a user. I never want to have a straight piece of trail. It should be going down, up, left or right in some fashion. As soon as you are through one turn, I want you to be looking up and anticipating the next turn or roller or jump.
Every trail builder has a different eye. You could get 10 guys to build the exact same line in the same area and you would have 10 different trails with different feels, it would never ride the same. Each person leaves their own mark and a piece of themselves with it. How I see this rock or dip or gulley is going to be different then how the next guy sees it. It’s that human interpretation of the land and how you want to engage who will be riding it.
What are you thinking about in trail building that people might not realize is very important in making successful trails?
The number one thing is drainage and shedding water. That seems self-explanatory, but the joke around the company is that if this doesn’t last through my grandkids’ lifetime, we did a crappy job. How we make a trail and shed water is different than how we did it back then. They would dig a ditch or water bar and every so often it would push water off. We want to do that in a natural way where you don’t notice there will be drainage there, the trail will do it on it’s own. That’ll make trails last for long lengths of time because the number one thing is making sure it sheds water as quickly as possible. That way you can control where the water goes and when. When you do that, you can control the trail and how long it lasts.
Some of the things that make trails fun are there for necessity, before enjoyment. We can do it in such a way that we can make it seem like part of the trail. One common theme you might not notice is there is always a roller before a berm and after a berm. It’s so your turn stays dry. If you’ve got a big 180 switchback built up real big, there’s a good chance the roller before and after are in line. That way you are consolidating water at that first roller and it can shed it off the trail. As it flows down and you finish your turn, on the downslope at the second roller, that water will follow the same line. The next time you ride a sweet flow trail, I guarantee you’ll notice it.
What do you feel has been an underappreciated aspect of Palisade Plunge that hasn’t gotten talked about in all the press and attention it has gotten in the runup and unveiling of the trail?
I think there are two things there. The first one is how many different agencies that worked together. The county, private land owners, BLM and the City of Palisade had to come together to make it happen. There’s something to be said for that and should be recognized because it really took an enormous amount of people and work to get it all coordinated and in agreement. That’s a huge piece of the puzzle and it’s worth reiterating.
The second piece is how remote most of this trail is, the sheer logistics behind making it happen from a builder’s standpoint. Once you drop in off of Land’s End Road there is really no other way out unless you finish the trail. There is one spot that crosses a road, but even that road is miles and miles and miles until you get back to civilization on it. From a builder’s standpoint, there were times we were hiking ten gallons of diesel in for two or three miles. It’s great to have a machine in there, but there were serious logistics involved with keeping things going on a daily basis.
We had a 45-minute side-by-side drive up this nasty road with all of our camping gear for a week, and then we’d hike two miles into where we were building. It was a lot of work just to get there. To have everything we need to build a trail takes so much work to get it in there. If the machine breaks down we have to hike all the replacement parts in. There are countless small nuances that go with it.
What’s the part of the trail or experience where you felt the most gratification?
For The Plunge it was a pretty emotional experience for me to walk away from it. There was a little bit of wrap up stuff here and there, but I remember the day I finished everything on my part of it, which was two days before they opened the bottom half. We had all put in so much time and so much effort, literal blood into that trail. When they say “blood, sweat and tears,” that was literal for two years. That’s an emotional experience.
I had my camper parked at the bottom of Land’s End Road when they opened it. Seeing the shuttle vans and truck loads going up the next morning was extremely fulfilling and satisfying. There was so much hype about it and I was watching people go experience this for the first time. It was super, super cool and I’ll never forget that day as long as I live.