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What You Need To Know Before Riding The Palisade Plunge in Colorado

Section of Palisade Plunge mountain bike trail in Colorado with epic views over valley and changing aspen leaves

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The Palisade Plunge… The opening of this 32-mile trail above Palisade, Colorado has long been awaited by mountain bikers near and far. The anticipation that it would be a Whole Enchilada-esque descent with amazing views and professional trail-building magic made the two-year wait worth it. Finally, in the summer of 2021, it was finished and ready to ride.

Unfortunately, the initial reviews have not been stellar. It’s been a mixed bag with most riders saying something along the lines of: “it was epic, but I wouldn’t do it again”. Of course, I had to check it out to form my own opinion, so we caught the last shuttle of the season (literally) to make our way down from Mesa Top to the town of Palisade on the western slope of Colorado.

In this post, I share my thoughts about the Palisade Plunge and how to plan your own adventure.

Full transparency: I did not do the upper 11 miles of the Palisade Plunge due to wintery, wet conditions. Our shuttle driver convinced us to start at the Shirttail Trailhead and (spoiler alert) I’m SO glad we did! Read more about that below.

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Palisade Plunge At A Glance

Mountain biker riding on singletrack trail with drop off on one side and high Colorado plateaus in background

Palisade Plunge Stats

From Mesa Top

  • Start: Mesa Top Trailhead
  • Mileage: 32 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,745 ft
  • Elevation loss: 7,730 ft
  • Elevation high: 10,780 ft

From Shirttail

  • Start: Shirttail Point Trailhead
  • Mileage: 23 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,470 ft
  • Elevation loss: 6,591 ft
  • Elevation high: 9,800 ft

Palisade Plunge Map

View the Palisade Plunge route on TrailForks & MTB Project

You’ve probably heard some mixed reviews about the Palisade Plunge and after riding it, I wholeheartedly agree. It’s definitely not a plunge nor is it anywhere comparable to The Whole Enchilada in Moab. That being said, it’s a unique trail and some riders will love it and others will hate it.

Palisade Plunge Frustrations

The switchbacks

The switchbacks… I consider myself a pretty advanced rider and one of my strengths is tight corners. That being said, I rode probably 10% of the switchbacks on the Palisade Plunge.

Most of them are incredibly tight with either a death sentence if you go over the edge or they have ill-placed rocks that make them near impossible to clear unless you have some real trial skills.

The switchbacks are a flow-killer, to say the least, and a real frustration for this trail (in my opinion).

Mountain biker riding down switchbacked trail on Palisade Plunge in Colorado
The steep switchbacked section below Shirttail is nearly impossible to ride

The constant up and down

The fact that this trail is called a ‘plunge’ is very misleading. You will be pedaling almost the entire time with lots of quicks ups and downs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy pedaling, but 22+ miles of this constant up and down – much of it over rocky, technical terrain – was a bit punishing. If you do the entire 32 miles, I can’t even imagine…

It honestly felt like the building of this trail was a bit forced and contrived to be as epic as possible – and not in an ultimately fun way.

The blind technical bits

Not only are there lots of ups and downs, but many of the punchy ups on the Palisade Plunge are blind, making them near impossible to make the first time you ride this trail (and keep in mind that most people will only ride this trail once).

It was really frustrating coming around a corner in a mid or low gear only to find a wall of rock or dirt in front of me.

Mountain biker hiking bike down steep rocky section of trail
This feature was actually pretty cool, but it was near the end when I was more than ready to be done

Palisade Plunge Highlights

The views

The views are INCREDIBLE, especially once you drop down into the last 3/4 of the trail. Be sure to stop and take pictures and enjoy the views. You deserve a scenic break!

The Epicness of this ride

This ride will probably become known for its brutality and epicness. If that’s what you’re looking for, then you will dig it. Just be fully prepared.

(Note: a mountain biker actually died in 2022 from dehydration. Do not underestimate the epicness of this ride)

The work that went into it

The professional trail work that went into building the Palisade Plunge cannot be underrated. It must have taken a TON of hard, manual work to create the majority of stretches on this trail and I can very much appreciate that.

If any trail builders read this – sorry it has gotten such mixed reviews, but thank you for your hard work!

Mountain biker riding down narrow sidehill trail with drop off on right and epic Colorado mesa views in front

Preparing Mentally for your Ride

Be prepared to pedal. A LOT.

The elevation profile for the Palisade Plunge is VERY deceiving. It’s definitely not all down and to call it a ‘plunge’ is extremely misleading. Even though the total descent is over 6,000 ft, I honestly felt like I was pedaling about 80% of the time.

There is exposure with potential for real consequences

The most extreme exposure on the Palisade Plunge is near the end when you make the final switchbacked descent down into Palisade. But that being said, there are sustained sections of exposure throughout the entire trail.

While nothing compares to the vertical cliff exposure on Gooseberry Mesa or The Whole Enchilada, there are definitely places where you absolutely do not want to go over the edge.

If you don’t do well with heights or exposure while riding a bike, this is not the trail for you.

Mountain biker riding down narrow sidehill trail with drop off on right side and Colorado mesa views out front
The closer you get to the end, the more exposure there is

Some features will need to be walked

I’m a pretty good and confident technical rider and I found myself walking several features, particularly the super tight descending switchbacks right after dropping into the trail at Shirttail.

Just be prepared to get on and off your bike, even if you’re a confident rider.

Accept that this is still a relatively new trail

The Palisade Plunge opened in the summer of 2021, so it is still a new trail and as such, it will be a bit rough. Don’t expect there to be clear lines through technical sections or a super packed down trail.

Hopefully, as the years progress, this trail will become more established, more rideable, and more enjoyable…

How to Prepare Physically

Opt-out of the upper Palisade Plunge section

We did not do the upper 11 miles of the Palisade Plunge and I’m VERY glad we did not. The weather was a bit cold and wintery and the night before it had dumped buckets of rain, so our shuttle driver convinced us to start at Shirttail. Thank G*D! Adding another 11 miles of pedaly, rocky trail to the Palisade Plunge would have made the ordeal miserable instead of just ridiculous.

Unless you’re very fit and a very experienced mountain biker, I highly recommend starting at Shirttail. Also, keep in mind that the trail gets more challenging and technical toward the end, so you need your wits and stamina to still be in relatively working order.

Think twice about riding after heavy rain

We rode the Palisade Plunge after a big rainstorm in October and holy moly the mud! Like lock-up-the-rear-wheel mud on some sections. It was ridiculous, we were slipping and sliding all over the place. Thankfully, the worst of the mud wasn’t near any life-threatening exposure.

Definitely reconsider riding if there’s been a lot of rain in the area or else the epicness will be amplified. (Although, thanks to the rain we didn’t experience the deep sand near that end that many other riders have complained about, so there’s that).

Mountain bikes hanging on vertical rack on back on van caked in mud
This doesn’t even do the mud justice. Our bikes (and bodies) were caked!

Give yourself at least 5-6+ hours

We stopped to snap a lot of photos, eat snacks, take breathers, and shuck mud off our tires and it took us about 5 1/2 hours to get down. That wasn’t including the upper 11 miles of pedaly trail. Give yourself plenty of time and daylight to get back down to Palisade.

If you’re shuttling yourself, get an early start (like 7 or 8am).

Tell someone where you’re going

Bail-out options on the Palisade Plunge are very limited, so always tell someone where you’re going. It’s also a good idea to carry a GPS communication device like the Garmin inReach Mini.

Make sure your bike is in great working order

This could save your life, literally. Make sure your bike is in GREAT working order before attempting the Palisade Plunge. It would really suck to have a mechanical on the trail and have to walk out, or worse, have a mechanical that lands you in the hospital.

  • Make sure brake pads still have plenty of life left in them
  • Bleed brakes if needed
  • Check chain and cassette wear
  • Tighten bolts and pivots
  • Replace tires if worn
  • Add tire sealant if needed
  • Make sure hubs are in good shape and there’s no play in the bearings

Pack everything you might need – including LOTs of water

Cell service is limited on the Palisade Plunge and bail-out options are even more scarce (there’s really only one bail-out point and that’s on Land’s End Road about 3 miles after dropping into the Shirttail trailhead).

You will need to bring everything you might need with you including the mountain bike pack essentials, snacks, a first aid kit, medications, and LOTS OF WATER. And maybe get a new, bigger pack if yours doesn’t hold much.

If you ride the Palisade Plunge in mid-summer (ie July or August) be prepared for HOT temps. We rode on a very cool/chilly October day and I almost went through 3 liters of water. A mountain biker in June 2022 died from dehydration.

Do not underestimate this ride.

Should You Attempt the Palisade Plunge?

That depends. If you’ve read through this post and you’re still up for a full backcountry mountain biking experience with a little (or a lot) of suffering and don’t mind a bit of ridiculousness, then sure – give it a go. It’s worth doing once.

But if you’re expecting a mostly downhill 32-mile scenic cruise, then you may just be in for one of the worst days of your life.

Would I do it again? Probably not. But I’m glad I did it once.

Mountain biker stopped on trail looking out over scenic view on Palisade Plunge in Colorado

Shuttle options for the Palisade Plunge

There are four commercial operators that have gotten legal permits from the USFS to shuttle riders on the Palisade Plunge. They are:

  • Powderhorn Mountain Resort (who we used)
  • Rapid Creek Cycles
  • Absolute Prestige Limousine
  • Grand Junction Stand Up Paddle

You can also shuttle yourself if you have two cars, but keep in mind that it’s an hour+ drive up and you’ll need to retrieve your vehicle after you’re done.

The roads to the trailhead are well-maintained, so you don’t need a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle.

Mountain biker standing in front of shuttle bus waiting for shuttle up Palisade Plunge in Colorado

Have you ridden the Palisade Plunge? What did you think? Were you prepared for such a challenging trail? Give us the details of your experience in the comments below!

Learn everything you need to know about mountain biking the Palisade Plunge trail in Colorado including shuttles, maps, trail tips, and more.
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2 Comments

  1. I’ve ridden the Plunge twice now. The 1st time from Shirttail, and the 2nd time the whole thing. The 1st time was harder. Like you, the exposure and climbing surprised me and wore me down. The 2nd time, I left VERY early, took 4 liters of water, stopped to take a lot of pictures, and had a great day. I’ll probably ride the whole thing once a year going forward if I can. It’s just such a epic ride–like hiking into the Grand Canyon or climbing a large mountain. It’s NOT easy, but it’s totally worth it.

    1. Totally agree. When it first opened many people (including me) expected it to be a ‘plunge’ so were surprised with how challenging parts are and how much climbing there is. Glad you had a great second run!

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