If he’s not mountain biking, teaching theater at a local school, or recording his podcast, you’ll probably find Brock Benson at the bike shop he never intended to own. Benson, 49, grew up roaming his family’s cattle ranch, a sprawling 1,000-plus-acre parcel on the Uncompahgre Plateau in what’s known as the West End of Montrose County. “When I was 11 years old, my dad was content to send me out by myself on a horse,” Benson says, “as long as I had a gun and the dog.” Three years later, though, the Peabody coal mine where his parents worked shut down; the couple split up around the same time. Benson moved to Craig with his mom. After high school, he bounced around Colorado for a few years before landing in Denver. He spent 11 years stage acting and teaching in the Mile High City but always planned to retire to the ranch. Maybe, he thought, he’d even keep some bees.

Brock Benson at his Paradox Cycle shop in Naturita. Photo by Abby Athena

When the world began reopening after COVID-19 shutdowns in 2021, Benson and his partner finally moved back to the West End, where Benson was pleasantly surprised to learn that the local mountain biking scene had blossomed in his absence. Benson had fallen in love with the sport while in college in Grand Junction. (His family sold the coal reserves on their property, and he’d spent his first royalty check on a new bike.) Now, Benson discovered that a group of dedicated cyclists had developed the West End’s trails and mining roads over the previous decade, building some new ones but mostly cleaning up, mapping, and promoting an existing network. “When I saw an entire population working to make this a mountain bike destination, my first thought was, I’ll offer repairs out of my garage,” says Benson, who also worked as a bike mechanic in Denver. “But within a week or two of that, I realized I would need more space.”

Paradox Cycle, the first cycling shop in Naturita (population 485), opened its doors in summer 2022. Outside, Benson flies Colorado, U.S., and rainbow flags; inside, he stocks the former liquor store with bike tools, tire tubes, and cycling backpacks. Some days, a brand-new Salsa mountain bike for sale rests out on the front porch. Other days, it’s a fleet of cruisers or a Strider toddler bike. Business has been “crazy good,” says Benson, who has his hands full tuning his neighbors’ rides, selling new bikes, and donating fixed-up two-wheelers to local kids.

Just under half of his sales come from the growing number of tourists who are beginning to discover the West End. They stop in for gear before exploring the trails or call for a rescue when their mounts break down on the nearby San Juan Huts route.

It’s not just mountain bikers flocking to the West End, though: ATV enthusiasts explore the area’s off-road routes, hunters scope for trophy elk, drive-through tourists follow the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway, and boho van-lifers look for a Burning Man–style experience at a new glamping resort. In many ways, these visitors are exactly what the West End needs. “Tourism will have a really important role in our economy,” Benson says. “But change hasn’t always been viewed as a positive thing.”

Ask any longtime resident of mountain meccas such as Aspen, Crested Butte, Estes Park, or Vail and you’ll likely get an earful about the dark side of popularity, from overrun trails to gapers on the ski runs to sky-high housing prices. But tourism has been the economic driver in those places for decades, and locals are used to the interlopers. In the West End, however, coal was king until only a few years ago, and many residents of the formerly overlooked communities wonder if the tiny towns can evolve into tourist destinations without losing their salt-of-the-earth soul. “I knew that if I didn’t step up and offer a proper bike shop, then somebody from the outside would,” Benson says. “I knew somebody would come in and see the potential. And I don’t know that they would love the community like I do.”

On a map, Montrose County looks like two overlapping rectangles. The eastern one contains the city of Montrose and 95 percent of the total population; out west, you’ll find high-desert scrub, plunging canyon walls the color of Cheetos, the San Miguel River, and the tiny towns of Nucla, Naturita, Paradox, Redvale, Bedrock, and Norwood (which is technically just over the border in San Miguel County). Their combined population: about 1,900.

Hum Images/Alamy Stock Photo

With the West End’s scenic beauty, abundant public land, and location halfway between Telluride and Moab, Utah, it has long been a gem—one that locals preferred to keep hidden. Agriculture has been an important part of the economy from the start of Western settlement in the late 1800s, but underground riches paid the bulk of the wages in the 20th century. First radium, then vanadium and uranium milling and mining operations reigned, supporting an 800-person company town called Uravan just west of Naturita and supplying the Manhattan Project during World War II. But in the mid-1980s, amid concerns over radiation, the federal government demolished Uravan and declared it a Superfund site. (Anyone who’s interested can still drive to the old town, a fenced-in, graveled-over expanse with radiation warning signs screwed to the barriers.)

Coal mining and the coal-fired Nucla Station power plant were well-established in the West End by the time uranium tanked, and they soon accounted for most of the area’s dependable high-wage jobs. That base, in turn, buoyed the rest of the community, from teachers to health care workers to retail clerks.

But in 2013, the environmental group WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit that targeted Tri-State Generation and Transmission, owners of the mine and the plant, over regional haze rules. The company eventually shuttered the mine in 2017, with the plant following two years later. Although a boon for air quality and the climate, the closures put scores of West Enders out of jobs, leading to more than a 50 percent loss in property tax revenue, which affected the community’s fire department, cemetery district, and schools. Many residents moved away in search of work, and the portion of the population living below the poverty line shot up. (It’s currently about 19 percent in Nucla and Naturita, compared to 9.4 percent for the entire state of Colorado.)

Transitioning to outdoor tourism is common among former mining communities nationwide, which tend to be located in rural, wild, and beautiful places. Once beholden to coal, Gallup, New Mexico, rebranded as an adventure destination with a substantial hiking and biking trail network. Parts of southern West Virginia have begun to compensate for declining coal mining with a booming whitewater rafting industry. Crosby, Minnesota, transformed its iron-mining pits into a popular singletrack trail system. And Moffat County in Colorado’s northwestern corner, another region affected by coal’s decline, is currently developing river access points and a whitewater park on the Yampa River.

Mining history looms large in Naturita. Photo by Abby Athena

“We’re in this really sweet spot,” says Makayla Gordon, executive director of the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC). “You get the arches and the desert and the red rocks, the hiking and the ATVing. You get the skiing and the mountain biking and climbing the mountains. Outdoor recreation is absolutely a part of our strategy.” Besides those attractions, the West End also boasts proximity to a 160-mile jeeping/ATV route called the Rimrocker Trail; the over-100-mile, multiuse Paradox Trail; vast stretches of national forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) terrain open to hiking, rock climbing, and camping; Ancestral Puebloan petroglyph panels on the remote cliff walls west of Naturita; and floating opportunities on the San Miguel River.

“I’ve always thought that the outdoor recreation part of the economy here has never been fully explored,” retired Nucla woodworker Paul Koski says. With the coal industry’s decline, Koski and several others formed the West End Trails Alliance in 2014, which worked to help turn the region’s miles of old, two-track dirt roads and existing singletrack into serviceable bike routes. The group has gone on to spruce up and build more trails, print maps, produce an online trails guide using Trailforks, and launch a new website funded through grant money. They’ve also helped with two new biking events, the West End Gravel Rush and the Grand Loop Race. “The writing was on the wall,” Koski says. “We said, ‘The easiest thing we can do is get some maps printed, try to get people interested in the area.’  ”

That includes people like Renata Raziano. Since moving to Montrose in 2011, the avid mountain biker explored singletrack in all the usual places: Fruita, Gunnison, Crested Butte, Telluride. But it wasn’t until six years later, after meeting Koski through a regional mountain biking group, that Raziano ventured to the West End. In June 2017, she drove an hour and 15 minutes to the Thunder Trail system in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests south of Norwood. The area’s extensive options impressed her, as did the red-rock scenery and distant views of the snowcapped San Juan Mountains. Best of all: “There’s no one here!” Raziano recalls thinking. “It’s the uncrowdedness that makes it special.” She now tries to ride the West End at least twice a year.

Some West Enders moved quickly to capitalize on the influx of tourists. Aimee Tooker, president of WEEDC’s board of directors, and her husband bought a historical building on Nucla’s main street in 2018. “Nucla needed short-term rentals,” says Tooker, who worked for an inn in Telluride in her 20s, “and I had the background.” They converted the space into a homey bed-and-breakfast, decorating the main building’s four rooms according to West End themes, such as Uravan (yellow accents pay tribute to yellowcake uranium) and the area’s original inhabitants, the Tabeguache band of Utes (complete with tribal artwork on the walls). Since opening in 2020, Vestal House has been busy, hosting everyone from out-of-state elk hunters to motorcycle tourists to mountain bikers in town for one of the area’s many rides or races. The business expanded into the building next to it last year, adding an event space and two more guest rooms.

Natalie Binder seated outside a cabin at her West End glamping resort, CampV. Photo by Abby Athena

Natalie Binder, a hospitality entrepreneur based in Telluride and the West End, also saw the region’s potential. In 2017, she snapped up Vancorum, a former uranium mining company town. Within four years, Binder transformed it into a glamping, arts, and music complex called CampV. With its rehabbed miners’ cabins and safari tents, stargazing tower, sculpture installations, and events ranging from music festivals to film screenings to therapeutic ketamine retreats, CampV has become a destination unto itself, attracting guests from around the world. “People are searching for the next undiscovered place,” Binder says.

Then came the pandemic. Nervous out-of-towners realized social distancing was easy in the remote West End, and suddenly, campers and boondockers inundated BLM land on the outskirts of town. “We became everybody’s secret gem,” WEEDC’s Gordon says. “People came during COVID, and now they come back every year.”

Jane Thompson has seen her share of booms and busts in the West End. She grew up in Uravan in the 1960s and ’70s, back when the little town had an elementary school, a public swimming pool, and a lighted baseball field. Thompson, who is Tooker’s aunt, left the West End after she married a Navy man, but they returned to Nucla in 1994 when he retired. Although the area was still recovering from the loss of Uravan, she found it an ideal place to raise her youngest son, an adopted nephew, and three grandchildren. The kids played peewee basketball and golf and rode their dirt bikes and four-wheelers around the family’s two-acre property. “The boys, especially, as long as it had a motor on it, they were happy,” she says.

However, Thompson—president of the board of directors of the Rimrocker Historical Society of Western Montrose County—has been watching the uptick in tourism warily. She’s enjoyed meeting travelers at a historical society–managed campground called the Ball Park (built over Uravan’s old baseball field) but would like tourism to remain a small slice of the area’s economy. “We can all remember when Telluride was little, when Moab was little. Now, you go to Telluride and see the mass chaos and confusion. You go to Moab, it’s the same way. You’re just sitting in traffic.”

Former mining towns themselves, the West End’s mega-popular neighbors—who now teem with $17 martinis, overcrowded trailheads, and 5,000-square-foot vacation houses—serve as a cautionary tale for many who live here. Some of that concern is purely practical. The aging water and sewer systems in Naturita, Nucla, and Norwood are at capacity, Gordon says: “Growth is a little scary considering our infrastructure isn’t up to par yet.” (Some of those systems are undergoing upgrades, funded in part by grants from the Colorado Office of Just Transition, a five-year-old state government entity dedicated to helping coal communities rebuild and diversify.) Plus, she says, “We don’t currently have enough beds for people to come down and stay in hotels.”

But much of the angst is existential. Tooker recalls her last few visits to Telluride, when passersby on the streets ignored her cheerful good-mornings. “You will not find that in Nucla and Naturita,” she says. “People are friendly. They ask you how you’re doing. That is lost in [Telluride and Moab]. Those places have exploded so much. That’s not what we want to be.”

Tourist-wary Jane Thompson of the Rimrocker Historical Society of Western Montrose County. Photo by Abby Athena

Thompson has listened to local ranchers complain about cyclists leaving cattle gates open and trespassing on private land. She’s also read about the recent controversy in Routt County over the highly popular SBT GRVL gravel bike race, which starts in Steamboat Springs before winding through rural areas outside of town. Last fall, scores of local ranchers packed a county commissioners’ meeting to share their frustrations about the annual event, including clogged roads, disruptive noise, garbage left behind on the course, and cyclists relieving themselves on private property. The SBT GRVL attracts 3,000 riders, while the largest West End event caps participation at 200—but the potential for discord still worries her. “The farmers and ranchers there felt very disrespected,” Thompson says. She hopes visitors to the West End will be more courteous—and notes that cyclists do seem to be responding to the concerns of locals.

Benson doesn’t fully understand his neighbors who are reluctant to embrace tourism. “For a community that doesn’t want new people around, I feel like this is a good fit,” he says. “Mountain bikers come, they spend some money, they leave.” But Benson, with his family’s mining background, can also sympathize. He understands longtime residents are still reeling from the loss of a way of life. “As mining has collapsed, it’s put [the community] in a position of scarcity and fear. I don’t think the rest of the world understands the personal and dramatic impact that has had on everybody. Houses used to be filled with people who made a decent wage, and now those wages and those families are gone. We’ve got this poverty situation. People are depressed because the reality of the situation is that the economy sucks, and opportunity and jobs are gone.”

Experts believe outdoor recreation can indeed help rebuild a coal community’s economy, but it doesn’t play as significant a role as one might think.

Yes, tourists generate tax revenue through their hotel stays, gas tank refills, and camping fuel purchases. Outdoor-related jobs, such as those created by the bike-shop-slash-pizza-parlor that opened across the street from Paradox Cycle in 2023, help lower the unemployment rate and feed the region’s diminished budget through property taxes. But outdoor businesses probably won’t create enough new jobs to replace the ones that have been lost. Plus, those types of gigs aren’t exactly known for high paychecks, and they’re often seasonal, meaning for six or more months of the year, they might not exist.

Where outdoor rec can really help, though, is by attracting businesses that have nothing to do with trails, snow, or whitewater. “More and more, what people are looking for is a community that’s got some character,” says Mark Haggerty, a Montana-based senior fellow in energy and environment at the Center for American Progress who has studied coal town transitions. “The recreation economy isn’t just the transactional part of it, where people stay in hotels and go to restaurants. It’s people who move to your community because they want to live in a place with good recreation access. Then they open a business that’s not related to the recreation economy. That’s amenity migration. The recreation economy serves as a driver of growth in other sectors.”

Sandpoint, Idaho, stands as a case study for this kind of transition. Primarily a timber town until the 1980s, the Sandpoint area began to attract growth through its recreational blessings—the surrounding Selkirk and Cabinet mountains, the nearby Schweitzer ski resort, and its shoreline access to Lake Pend Oreille. Tourism then fueled the founding of businesses in everything from specialized screw manufacturing to marketing software to salad dressing. (Litehouse Foods employs more than 300 people.) “We talked to the leadership of nine companies in the area,” says Megan Lawson, an economist at the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana, “and every single one of them said they chose to either move their business or open it there because they’d first visited as a tourist and fell in love with it.”

The West End is only beginning to witness the seeds of amenity migration. Galit Korngold moved to the West End from Montreal in 2017, after looking for a property with ample space for her dogs. She missed her former city’s eclectic food scene and eventually opened a health food store, called Wild Gal’s Market, in 2019. The folks beginning to visit and even relocate to the area—“They’re healthy, outdoorsy people,” she says—have been a boon for business. Last fall, Korngold moved the store and her four part-time employees from Nucla to a bigger space on Naturita’s main drag, largely to tap into the growing traffic there.

With diversified growth in mind, WEEDC has been working on broader business development throughout the West End. The nonprofit is organizing expert-led courses for small-business owners in everything from QuickBooks to regenerative agriculture, trying to develop a meat-processing plant by creating a turnkey business plan for prospective companies, and providing grants for commercial building improvements. “We’re not interested in putting all our eggs in that one basket,” Tooker says. “Recreation is obviously going to be a part of our growth. It’s not going to be all of it.”

Cedar Bowl, located just outside of Nucla. Photo by Abby Athena

While many West End leaders recognize the overgrowth problems faced by other tourist towns, they aren’t considering the same kinds of control policies those places are beginning to implement, such as limits on short-term rentals. “We’re conscious of it,” CampV’s Binder says, “but when you have businesses in town that are saying, ‘I don’t know if I can make it,’ I don’t know that that’s the problem we have right now.” Instead, locals are left to hope that outsiders will appreciate the region’s character for what it is, even as growth inevitably means change.

Benson sees himself as a kind of bridge between the community that raised him and the West End of the future. At Paradox Cycle, he offers a free bicycle-maintenance workshop to local students and organizes free family movie nights in a Naturita park during the summer. He also is helping develop Nucla High School’s outdoor recreation program. “Instead of expecting the community to support the bike shop, [my programs] are a way for the bike shop to support the community,” he says. “That’s the door I needed to open so people would be supportive of cycling. As new people move in, I’m kind of the gatekeeper. I can be very vocal about what our culture is like and what we don’t want. If you have a dream, if you have the means to buy some property, you could still come here and work really hard and make a life for yourself.”

And it could be a very good life. During Saturdays in the West End, a handful of mountain bikers spread out on trails, rarely spotting anyone else for hours. Families gather for pizza or burgers at restaurants. Nucla High School basketball fans pack the school’s gymnasium. Chickens cluck in yards. Drivers cruise unhindered by a single stoplight while enjoying aspen stands lining the roadway. From the top of the hill on Nucla’s main street, the view encompasses a vast, open bowl bordered by the San Juan Mountains in one direction and the Uncompahgre Plateau in the other. “I feel like the mainstream problems that the rest of the world gets swept up in don’t really have a home out here,” Benson says. If the West End has its way, they never will.