The West End of San Miguel and Montrose Counties, and the southwestern portion of Mesa County, are located within the Colorado Plateau, a land of mesas, mountains and canyons. Elevations range from about 4,500 ft (1,370m) at Gateway to more than 9,500ft (2,895m) along the crest of the Uncompaghre Divide. The climate is temperate, with mild to moderate winters, and occasionally hot summers. Precipitation (snow in winter, rain other seasons) varies from about 12 inches to 20 inches (30 to 50cm) per year, increasing with elevation. Summertime monsoon rains are common. Vegetation also changes with elevation, from sage and cedar flats in the lowlands, through pinion-juniper and ponderosa pine-oak brush in the mid-elevations, to aspen, fir and spruce in the high country. Rivers and canyon bottoms are marked with native cottonwood trees. Wildlife abounds, depending on season and location. Occupied by diverse Native American populations over the millennia, Euro-centric people began arriving in the early 1870s, looking first for metals, and then later for ranching or farming land. The area towns (Norwood, Naturita, Nucla, Bedrock, Paradox and Gateway) were all founded between the 1880s and 1910s. Nucla is a bit different, as it was started by a group of socialists inspired by the Progressive movement.
The current population density is very low and the area is widely considered to be “Frontier”. Tourism is now becoming a significant contributor to the local economy. Big game hunting is a common fall activity (be sure to check hunting times and wear orange when appropriate). While ranching and farming continued at a steady pace, intermittent radium, vanadium and uranium mining booms added people and wealth during boom times, which then dwindled during the bust years. Oil and gas explorers were active during these times as well, up to the most recent drop in oil prices. Before the passage of the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976, reclamation of surface disturbance on government land was not required. The result of all these pre-FLPMA activities is a network of mostly abandoned, overgrown and eroded exploration roads throughout much of the West End. These roads, along with the historic cattle trails, form the backbone of our trail system. The vast majority of the land is owned by the Federal Government, with some interspersed State and Private land. Private land is usually found where there is (or was) water, farming, or minerals.