I’ve hiked, skied and biked my way all over the fine state of Colorado, but in 25 years of traveling there I’d never stepped foot in Grand Junction.
I fixed that oversight recently when I flew into the city, located just 30 miles from the Utah border and named for the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers.
You don’t have to drive far to plunge into cool activities like stand-up paddling and rafting there, and that’s what I intended to do. Then Mother Nature got involved, winding up a late-season storm that pelted the area with cold, hard rain and served up more than a foot of snow farther east.
No problem. Part of the fun of travel writing is rolling with the punches and formulating new plans when things start to go awry.
I knew as soon as the plane touched down in the triangle created by the world’s largest flat-topped mountain (that would be Grand Mesa), the Little Book Cliffs (where I’d soon meet some of the native residents) and the Colorado National Monument (how did I not know about this?) that the western side of the state wasn’t like the rest.
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The terrain, for one. Replace the mountains and aspen trees you’re probably visualizing with more desertlike, stark terrain. I clambered over cactus, peered into canyons and had to remind myself more than once that this wasn’t the Big Bend region of Texas. The elevation in Grand Junction is only just over 4,500 feet, and it’s situated roughly halfway between Salt Lake City and Denver.
Instead of staying in Grand Junction proper, I parked myself in the cozy town of Palisade, a 15-minute drive away. From there, I could zip into Grand Junction for a fancy meal or two, ride my bike to nearby orchards and wineries, and walk to a nearby park and coffee shop.
First impression? People here love the outdoors. Not everyone in Colorado skis. Biking — especially mountain biking — is huge. The Old West is alive and well.
Home base for me was the Spoke and Vine Motel, a 1950s-era motel that reopened in May in the wine-making hub of Palisade as a hip, casual lodge.
Jeff Snook and Jody Corey bought the place last fall, spent the winter replacing plumbing, ripping out old fixtures and turning something that you’d probably have turned your nose up at into a hot property with a fleet of cruiser bikes at the ready, comfortable beds and a resident cat named Domino. Stop by the office for coffee in the morning (or visit nearby Slice O Life Bakery for pastries) or a glass of wine in the evening and Jeff and Jody will tell you all about how they came out here to ride bikes, spotted the motel and ultimately wound up buying it.
I spent my first afternoon in the area in pursuit of mustangs at the nearby Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area, one of only three ranges set aside as habitat for free-roaming wild mustangs in the United States. I was told I probably wouldn’t see any of the animals, so my expectations were low, but I got lucky, spotting four — three females and a male who was clearly bossing them around.
To reach the preserve, take the Cameo exit off of Interstate 70 and drive about 2 miles down the gravel road to the Coal Canyon Trailhead. I parked, followed a trail up and over a ridge, stepping over a lot of horse droppings along the way. I walked out onto a rocky point, looked down and spotted the horses grazing leisurely a few hundred yards from where I stood.
Experts say between 90 and 150 mustangs live on the 36,000-acre parcel. I sat and watched for more than an hour as the little herd picked its way through a valley, grabbing mouthfuls of grass and ignoring my presence. Only when dark clouds formed did I dash back to my car.
Before returning to the motel, I detoured up a side street in Palisade to get my bearings, and wandered into a place called SunCrest Orchard Alpacas and Fiber Works, where the owner introduced me to a 3-day-old alpaca and then showed me how the animals’ hair is turned into dyed yarn.
I freshened up at the Spoke and Vine, then headed back to Grand Junction, where I strolled through downtown, learned that the city hosts the annual Junior College World Series of baseball, peered in the window of a shop that sold bacon-flavored soda and admired a bunch of bike shops.
Dinner was at trendy Bin 707 (225 North Fifth Street), where I sipped an old fashioned made with local whiskey (read on), shared a charcuterie tray, ate roasted beets, carrots and quinoa, and dove into a scallop sandwich. The bustling and creative restaurant is worth every stellar review it gets; expect to see lots of unusual creations, from beer cheese soup made with popcorn to chicken liver mousse served with doughnut holes.
I planned to spend the next morning hiking through Colorado National Monument with tourism professional Kyle Amann, but those plans got foiled by driving rain. Instead, we drove through the park, which is located just a few minutes from the city, pausing at pullouts to walk down to cliff edges and gaze into fog-filled canyons. Somehow, despite my love affair with national parks, I’d been completely unaware of this place. It’s incredible, like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon melded with the weird eroded rock formations of Arches National Park. The rain might have altered our hikes, but it gave me a rare glimpse of waterfalls spilling down rock faces and added a mystical vibe to a place I can’t wait to get back and explore more carefully.
We headed to nearby Fruita afterward, to fuel up with pizza from the amazing Hot Tomato for lunch. Other than possibly the world’s best stromboli and gooey, thin-crust pizza, Fruita is famous for its dinosaurs and mountain biking paths.
I planned to spend the afternoon pedaling my way from winery to winery back in Palisade, but the rain persisted. Instead, I hitched a ride to Carlson Vineyards, where owners Garrett and Cailin gave me the nickel tour and I got to watch the bottling of this year’s dry Gewurztraminer. After a few samples (yum!), we headed to Peach Street Distillers in town, which made me swoon.
I love bourbon and had discovered Peach Street’s version three or four years ago during a stop in Ouray, Colo. It’s the best, hands down, that I’ve ever tasted. My advice? Get the five-year version, which will set you back about $65 and can’t be found in Austin, and be done with it.
Dinner was at 626 on Rood (626 Rood Ave. in Grand Junction, a 20-minute drive away), where the staff took all the decision-making angst out of the equation and delivered an array of food, including trout, each dish paired with wine. (Let me just say that dessert — some sort of cheesecakey thing with a layer of celery jam — was strange but tasty.)
The trip wasn’t the one I had planned, but I love the unexpected. And now I’ve got reasons to go back.