Thomas J. Story
Getting to the Grand Valley
The city of Grand Junction is about 240 miles southwest of Denver on I-70. There are direct flights to Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT) from Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. INFO visitgrandjunction.com
With its miles of cattle ranches and fruit orchards, the Grand Valley once had a reputation among Coloradoans for being—how to put this diplomatically?—well, boring. But that rep is on the outs these days as day-trippers from Denver and Boulder drift west along Interstate 70 to discover a drop-dead gorgeous valley that’s a mini Napa-meets-Boulder-meets-Moab.
The trio of towns here—Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita—have it all. Vineyard-striped wine country? Check. World-class mountain bike trails? Check. Great food, shopping, and shows? Check, check, check. And you’ll have it to yourself now that summer crowds are gone, with the bonus of cooler temps. Here, our guide to a slam-dunk Grand Valley weekend.
3 DAYS IN THE VALLEY
You’ll know you’ve hit Palisade when you see rows upon rows of vines that break only for the Colorado River. There are more than a dozen wineries to explore, but we love Carlson Vineyards, where the tasting room is a shaded shed overlooking the vineyards, and owner Parker Carlson could be the one filling your glass. Try the tropical-tinged Laughing Cat Gewürztraminer. Free tastings; 461 35 Rd.
Check in at the tiny town’s central hotel, the Wine Country Inn, a Victorian underneath the craggy purplish Book Cliffs mesa. Rooms are no-frills, but the spa and afternoon wine are nice perks—and it’s a great jumping-off location to the rest of the valley. From $129, including breakfast
Walk off the wine buzz in downtown Palisade, a small square with several homey restaurants. Red Rose Cafe somehow makes Vietnamese and Italian work together (egg rolls and wild-mushroom risotto? Why not?), and it has live music (Fri–Sat). $$; 235 Main St.; 970/464-7673.
Saturday: Palisade and Grand Junction
The inn serves breakfast, but for something a little more decadent, take your pick from the glass cases filled with homemade iced doughnuts, chocolatines, rhubarb bars, and coconut Hello Dolly bars at Slice O’ Life Bakery. $; closed Sun–Mon; 105 W. Third St., Palisade; 970/464-0577.
If you didn’t bring a bike, pick one up at Rapid Creek Cycles (from $35/day; 317 Main St., Palisade; 970/464-9266). An easygoing 3-mile ride takes you on a pretty loop from downtown to North River Road, past orchards and wineries. Along the way, we like Canyon Wind Cellars (free tastings; 3907 N. River Rd., Palisade) for its crisp, dry rosé, best enjoyed on the tree-shaded lawn with Grand Mesa as a backdrop.
Drive the 12 miles into Grand Junction for lunch; the new Dream Cafe is a townie favorite for portabella mushroom or grilled cheese sandwiches. $; 314 Main St., Grand Junction; 970/424-5353.
Grand Junction, by far the biggest of the valley’s towns, pumped more than $2 million into renovating its Main Street, packed with shops, cafes, theaters, and blocks of unexpected street art. Stroll down Main and check out the sculptures—frogs, mermaids, even a charging scrap-metal bull—in front of just about every storefront. Duck into Benge’s (closed Sun; 514 Main; 970/242-3843) for designer handbags and Dansko shoes; Razzmatazz (closed Sun; 552 Main; 970/245-8318) for dresses and jewelry; and Toys for the Fun of It (519 Main; 970/248-3511), where the kids will get a kick out of owner Mike Allen’s juggling skills.
Il Bistro Italiano remains a date-night mainstay, one of those casual Italian fixtures that seems never to serve a bad meal. $$; 400 Main St., Grand Junction; 970/243-8622.
Check the blue neon marquee at the Mesa Theater & Club; you never know when your favorite band from the ’80s or ’90s is going to show up. 538 Main, Grand Junction
The leisurely bike ride in Palisade was a tune-up for Fruita, 12 miles northwest of Grand Junction and known as single-track heaven for every kind of mountain biker. Start your day with the cyclists and grab breakfast at Camilla’s Kaffe. $; 206 E. Aspen Ave.; 970/858-7950.
Over the Edge Sports (202 E. Aspen) is the unofficial capital of Fruita, serving as mechanic and trail guide for clumps of cyclists. Adventurous riders might consider tackling part of the famously treacherous, 142-mile Kokopelli’s Trail. Beginners who’d rather focus on the views should try Rustler’s Loop for a mostly flat 4-mile loop.
Have more time? Head here
- 13 miles northwest: Visit Dinosaur Journey to watch paleontologists analyze fossils; it makes the statues of Dilophosaurus, Allosaurus, and the rest seem just a bit more real. $7; 550 Jurassic Ct., Fruita
- 17 miles northeast: It’s hard to explain the feeling of walking along a quiet trail in the woods and seeing wild horses suddenly appear in front of you: 140 bays, sorrels, palominos, and others gallop and graze on the 36,000-acre Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range. Free; near the I-70 Cameo exit
- 6 miles southwest: Think of the Colorado National Monument as a mini Grand Canyon, filled with massive red rock formations and striped mesas. The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive is a must—you can bike or drive—with sharp switchbacks and scenic overlooks. $7 per vehicle