Intro to Grand Valley Trail Running

Photography by  Robb Reece

Photography by Robb Reece

“The Western Slope of Colorado is just ripe with so many trails,” says local runner Karla Nephew.

“We are truly blessed to have what we have here in our backyard.”

    Ten years ago, Nephew weighed 200 pounds and it hurt her to run. This and a family history of diabetes motivated her to lace up her shoes and hit the road, but a 2014 move from Wisconsin to Mesa County transformed Nephew into a trail runner.

    Now the president of the Mesa Monument Striders running club, Nephew has become an enthusiastic ambassador for one of the best ways to explore the Grand Valley’s stunning and abundant trails. Few sports are easier to start.

    “If you have a pair of shoes, you can run anywhere,” says Robb Reece, a Grand Junction photographer who has been running for 37 years. A former professional runner and coach, Reece notes beginners don’t need fancy shoes to get going. Trail-specific styles are readily available, but he prioritizes fit, comfort, and budget over design. Online retailers like Running Warehouse and Altra, with their generous return policies for even worn shoes, make finding the right pair achievable despite a lack of local running specialty stores. 

    Reece recommends starting slowly, perhaps 20 minutes at an easy pace on a relatively flat trail with a forgiving surface — grass, shallow sand, or even a little bit of snow (as long it’s not slippery). Start with short loops and gradually increase the time, distance, and difficulty of terrain as you become more confident and fit. 

    “Don’t be too concerned with speed,” advises Matt Ozanic, a Colorado State Patrol captain from Fruita, who started running to relieve stress. He recently completed The Bear, a 100-mile trail run, despite having trouble making it around the block four years ago. “Just enjoy what’s around you.”

    Recognizing the differences between road and trail experiences will increase the likelihood of success. Road runners don’t walk, jokes Nephew. But obstacles and inclines make walking acceptable, even occasionally necessary, on a trail. Rocks and varied surfaces demand a shorter stride and more intense mental focus, as well.

    Activity-monitoring mobile apps or a running watch that tracks mileage and time can be helpful. Reece likes Suunto’s Movescount app. Garmin, Strava, and others are also popular. These tools offer an easy way to track progress, set goals, download maps, and document the trails you’ve ticked off the list. They also serve as a mileage journal, which is important, given that most people are due for new shoes after about 200 miles of running. 

    Some people, Reece among them, love the solitude trail running offers. Others, like Nephew, find it perfectly suited to socializing. Mesa Monument Striders offers regular group runs, guidance, and support for those who fall into the latter category. 

    Whatever your preference, our part of Colorado offers some of the finest trail running around, even if you’re a newbie. “Don’t wait until you think you’re fit,” Nephew urges. “You don’t have to be good at it. It’s just all about having fun.”

The Trails

Colorado’s Grand Valley has no shortage of beautiful trails prime for running, with a wide range of difficulty levels. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) app and websites like are good resources for researching trail options. If you’re a new trail runner, consider starting with one of these less difficult, but no less enjoyable, local trails. 

Devil’s Kitchen 

Located near the east entrance to the Colorado National Monument, Devil’s Kitchen is an out-and-back trail with a gradual ascent to the midway point. Total distance is approximately 1.5 miles; mostly sandy soil makes it easier on the body. 

Flume Canyon 

A 5-mile desert loop that starts at the Pollock Bench trailhead within McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and crosses through the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area. 

Rustler’s Loop 

This gorgeous stretch of canyon country along the Colorado River offers a few challenges and spectacular views. The 3.7-mile loop was designed as an instructional trail for beginning mountain bikers, but runners are welcome. Access the Kokopelli Trail system just south of Interstate 70 between Loma and Mack.

Tabeguache Trailhead 

Although the well-known Lunch Loop trails tend to be challenging, the more recently added Three Sisters area adjacent to the main parking lot offers good beginner terrain close to town. The trailhead is located on Monument Road about 1.6 miles south of Broadway.