Durango, Colorado

Durango Is Building the Largest Municipal Bike Park in the USA... and so Much More

Mountain Biking

, by Greg Heil

Photo: Aaron Peterson Studios

The city of Durango, Colorado, is embarking on a trail and recreation expansion that is so big, so audacious, that it feels "overwhelming." Or so says Gaige Sippy, Venue Manager for the Durango Mesa Park Foundation. With 1,850 acres of beautiful open space connecting to two of Durango's most popular in-town trail systems—Horse Gulch and Telegraph Trails—the opportunities for trail expansion are nearly endless.

While Durango has a long and storied history as a mountain bike destination, stretching back to NORBA national championships in the 80s and the first mountain biking World Champs in the 1990s, somewhere along the way, the town "lost [its] mojo a bit" when it came to mountain bike tourism. While the mountain bike race culture is strong—arguably the strongest in the world—the local trail development failed to keep up with modern trail building trends (such as flow trails) that swept across the USA.

"Durango went from being the shiny penny to a little less the shiny penny. Moab really stepped it up, and other areas really stepped it up, and then all at once the Midwest was stepping it up, and now Arkansas has really stepped it up, [and] other communities around Colorado. So we lost some of that cachet, if you will, going into the 2000s and mid-2000s," said Sippy.

That's all going to change with the new trails being built in Durango Mesa Park. Construction is currently underway on what they've dubbed the "Demonstration Project," which will total about 7 miles of mountain bike trails connecting to the popular Horse Gulch Trail System. This will include three downhill-only flow trails of varying difficulty levels, which will be the first-ever downhill-only mountain bike trails in Durango. 

Photo: Aaron Peterson Studios

While this first batch of trails is just a drop in the bucket of what Durango Mesa Park has planned, this first installment—which is currently closed as of press time but is projected to open to the public at the beginning of September—is designed to give the general public a taste of the tremendous potential that the coming trail developments have to offer. "One of the frustrations they were faced with was that this project's been talked about for five plus years, and there's just a lot of design fatigue around it," said Nathan "Woody" Woodruff, President and Founder of Progressive Trail Design. "People in the community had started to write it off and just thought it was never gonna happen. So they wanted to come out of the gate swinging with something cool to bring to the community to be a taster of what's to come."

The Largest Municipal Bike Park in the USA: A "Cycling Stadium"

And what is to come? Among many other things, the Foundation plans to build the largest municipal bike park in the USA... and not just by a little, but by a long shot. Over 80 acres of land have been set aside for the construction of this bike park, in addition to another 300+ acres of bike-only artery trails connecting the park to the greater trail system. 

To put it in perspective, one of the nation's premier municipal bike parks is Boulder's Valmont. With extensive progressive jump lines, skills trails, pump tracks, a cyclocross course, and some singletrack trails, Valmont is often held up as the gold standard by which other parks are judged.

Valmont only covers 42 acres.

We're talking about double that space in Durango Mesa Park for just the bike park portion of the project.

Sippy likes to call this bike park, along with other planned facilities such as a BMX track, pumptracks, dual slalom course, strider areas, world-cup-level XC race course, cyclocross course, and even a possible velodrome, a "cycling stadium." 

Gaige and Woody discussing the plans for the Demonstration Project. Photos: Aaron Peterson Studios

"If you have a junior cycling program already in place that has 800 kids, that's big," he said, referencing Durango's Devo program. "Let's talk about youth soccer. Youth soccer has a lot of kids involved, right? I don't know how many in Durango, but think about how many fields they have to go play on and stands to watch it in. All we do—all of our cycling—trying to fit in on these multi-use trails. We're always sharing. We don't have our own stadium, if you will. So when this opportunity came along, we started coining it a 'cycling stadium' because this is our opportunity to hold events, but also for our cycling kids and athletes to have a facility."

Sippy isn't exaggerating when he talks about how accomplished the local Durango racers are. The medals flowing back into Durango from the national champs, world cups, world champs, and the Olympics never seem to end. As we drove down the street after a visit to the Mesa, Sippy pointed out the window and said, "Hey, that's our latest national champ!" Savilia Blunk was riding down the street with a group of high school kids who were at Fort Lewis College for a mountain bike training camp. During the summer, teens from across the country flock to Fort Lewis to train with a slew of national champs and Olympians, such as Savilia Blunk, Christopher Blevins, and Todd Wells.

Durango has been represented in every Olympics since mountain biking was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1996. And as I pen this article, six road cyclists from the USA are competing in the final days of the 2023 Tour de France. Of the six Americans, two of them call from this tiny town of 20,000 in the middle of nowhere Colorado home.

"We want them to have a clubhouse up there," said Sippy referring to the Devo program, one of the largest youth cycling programs in the country. "We want a Fort Lewis College cycling clubhouse up there, so they're basing their operations out of there. We can continue to train some of the finest athletes, not only in the country but in the world. And our college has an exercise science program that fits nicely into that."

Stealing the Bentonville Playbook

In order to plan a project of this unprecedented scale, Sippy and others have been traveling across the nation and around the world to figure out what different destinations are doing well, what they did wrong, and how they can learn from them. And one destination that they've gone back to again and again is Bentonville, Arkansas. 

With tens of millions of dollars funneled from the Walton family into the mountain bike trails in Bentonville, this community is one of the only places in the country that has completed municipal trail projects on a larger scale than what Durango is currently attempting. The Durango Mesa Parks Foundation has learned from Bentonville's success and challenges over the years, and they plan to steal pages (many pages) out of their playbook as the trails on the Mesa are built over the coming years.

Along with the playbook, they also stole/hired one of the aces that Bentonville had up its sleeve: Progressive Trail Design (PTD), a local Bentonville trail building company that is now known as one of the best in the world. PTD is building the first phase of the trail development on the Mesa, is already deep into the design phase of the bike park, and will continue to build out many of the future phases that are planned on the Mesa. While PTD builds any and every kind of trail, they are particularly renowned for designing and constructing some of Bentonville's best flow trails, which are arguably some of the best flow trails in the world.

"There's virtually zero flow jump trail in Durango," said Woody. "There's probably 300 miles of sweet singletrack all around Durango and the surrounding area, but there's nothing like purpose-built flow trails. So that was the biggest need. We reacted to that by designing three different flow trails varying in skill level." Those flow trails comprise just the first Demonstration Project, with many more to come. 

So much more than just trails.

The Durango Mesa Park will eventually be a massive recreation and arts facility that serves not just mountain bikers but the entire community. Multi-use singletrack trails that are open to hikers and trail runners will spider throughout the park (and aren't included in the acreage statistics mentioned above for the bike park). The entire fairgrounds will be moved up to the Mesa, and equestrian-only trails will branch out from there. You'll find ball fields, a disc golf course, a campground, and more. But most notably? 

An amphitheater. 

Durango Mesa Park wouldn't exist without the exceedingly generous philanthropic donation from Marc Katz. Katz co-founded and eventually sold Mercury Payment Systems, an online credit card payment processing company. Katz purchased the parcel of land now known as Durango Mesa Park for an undisclosed amount in a multi-million dollar deal and then gifted it to the Durango Mesa Park Foundation to manage it. 

Katz's vision was to protect the land from development but also to provide a recreation and arts resource for the community. And from day one, a music venue was a part of the vision. 

"Marc's a music buff—he loves going to concerts and things of that nature," said Sippy. "He would love to see an amphitheater or a music venue here that would compete with Telluride. The view from the Mesa is incredible!" There are even rumors that they want to build a venue that could compete with the fame of Denver's Red Rocks—a tall order, indeed. 

The road is long, but the goal is worth it.

A project of this scale doesn't happen overnight. While Katz purchased the land in 2015, PTD didn't break ground on the first trails until 2023. By best estimates, it will take at least a decade before the full vision outlined above will be completed—although trail development and the bike park are core to the first few phases of development. 

While it might seem to some locals that the process has taken too long, the Durango Mesa Park Foundation is dedicated to getting this right. "If you don't do a good job building it and managing it and maintaining it, it's a waste of money," said Sippy. "We're really trying to be focused on every component that goes into this thing."

The "components" in a project of this scale seem nearly endless. The Foundation has had to navigate infrastructure challenges, the needs of multiple stakeholders for the area and the land, ongoing funding for the many facilities they are building, and processes to handle the maintenance of trails and other facilities. 

While there are many stakeholders and factors to consider, it's clear from talking to Sippy and Woody just how much thought and care have gone into this project, even before the first shovels broke ground. While the trails won't be built overnight, when the Durango Mesa Park project is complete, it will completely redefine the scale and vision of what is possible for municipal trail development in the USA.

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