I’ve lived in Colorado since I was 14, yet had never visited the Western Slope, as we call it. The city of Grand Junction, the largest metropolitan area there, was always just a petrol stop on the way to the National Parks in Utah. This past autumn, my husband and I decided it was high time to explore the region. If you’ve limited your Colorado trips (or potential trips) to Denver and the ski resort towns, you’ve missed a side of Colorado that we want to visit over and over again.In just over 4 hours, we drove on Interstate 70 from Denver to Grand Junction, enjoying brilliant golden aspen tree displays. Mid to late September is the peak aspen season, but it’s a dramatic drive any time of year. There is also a full-service airport in Grand Junction with connections from various U.S. cities as well as non-stops from Denver and Dallas which are probably the most convenient cities for visitors from the UK.
The lush, fertile region known as the Grand Valley has many award-winning wineries, succulent peaches and other fruits, and dramatic western high desert landscapes. We discovered that this foodie-friendly area has outstanding dining (with mostly locally sourced and grown products,) wines and meads, hand-crafted Enstrom’s (a locally-owned candy maker ) chocolate-covered toffee, a micro-distillery, craft brewery, lavender farm, and charming neighbourhoods just perfect for relaxing strolls. Oh, and those late summer Palisade peaches – they’d rival any from Georgia, and they are served up in every way imaginable, from ice cream to baked goods to peach salsas to salads.
While Enstrom’s does not offer tours to the public, its cosy cafe has huge picture windows and visitors can partake of excellent coffees and teas, ice creams, pastries and naturally, chocolates and toffees while observing the toffee-making process now four generations old. If you do stop in a weekday, check out the rather incongruous, but beautiful and enormous tropical fish tanks in the Enstrom’s office building just next door.
The Colorado National Monument, part of the National Park Service, is a gloriously beautiful wilderness park with 20,500 acres of striped orange and red rock wonderland, towering monoliths, staggeringly steep cliffs and drop-offs, and high-desert drama, replete with plenty of wildlife. As we left the park, lamenting sorely that we had run out of time, a group of bighorn sheep crossed right in front of us.
I think the monument is sadly misnamed – leading many to think it just a building, rather than the spectacular park that it is. Just fifteen minutes from the west side of Grand Junction, this is a “must-see” and definitely rivals the magnificent national parks in Utah which are so much more famed. Two of the favoured hikes are Canyon Rim Trail or Devil’s Kitchen which local rangers say are popular among visitors due to the lovely views and well-marked trails. But if don’t fancy heading out on your own you could opt for the ranger-guided hikes which occur daily for no charge.
By the way, before you get to the monument take a diversion to the Two Rivers Winery & Chateau, a destination in itself, as it is a winery (with tasting room) as well as an events centre. Apart from the appeal of wine tasting, you will be surprised to see that the place really does look a French chateau – a little unusual in this American landscape.
Grand Junction’s downtown is full of unique shops and bistros, lined with pavement cafes with colourful umbrella-topped tables and sculptures everywhere! Art on the Corner (AOTC) is a year-round outdoor sculpture exhibit and is one of the first of its kind in the U.S. The display includes more than 100 sculptures in a variety of mediums and styles. Established in 1984 by local sculptor Dave Davis, Art on the Corner has become a cultural icon. The program has been recognised and mimicked in communities across the world and is currently celebrating its 31st year. The collection consists of permanent sculpture and an annual temporary exhibit. A giant chrome bison, “Chrome on the Range”, caught our attention and not just for the pun, while children love scampering through the fountains which are to be found on many corners.
Palisade and its environs are known as Colorado Wine Country as it contains two-thirds of the state’s vineyards. This is not like California’s Napa or Sonoma – here, most samplings are free, and a full 13-wine tasting costs just US$6!
The wineries, open year-round, are friendly and unpretentious and staffers are eager to chat. The multi-award-winning Plum Creek, the oldest in Colorado, started in 1984 Plum Creek was a pioneer in making premium wines from grapes grown only in Colorado. The wines include Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, dessert wines and more. Most wineries are close together, so that folks often visit them by taking a bicycle tour or renting one; even electric bikes are available.
Palisade is a delightful little town well worth a stop; we found a hidden rose garden and even the town library sports a grape arbour. The Springs & Sprouts Lavender Farm here showcases one of Colorado’s newest industries. The farm’s gift shop has a wide variety of lavender products as well as other locally produced foods and wares.
This getaway is a world away from the Front Range, a local expression which is the term used for the foothills of Rocky Mountains which are nearest to the metro Denver area bustle and offers visitors a Colorado well worth knowing. It’s also within easy distance of other destinations, such as Moab, Utah; Aspen, Telluride and Montrose.
NB – Remember that 21 is the minimum age for drinking in the USA not 18 as in the UK and Ireland.
For more about Colorado, click here.
Images © Mark Rush Photography