We breezed through Grand Junction during a family road trip in the summer of 1996 with a quick drive in Colorado National Monument and an overnight stay at a local hotel before continuing on to Moab, Utah.
That cameo appearance 25 years ago hardly qualifies as a proper visit, so we made a point to pay a proper visit to Grand Junction during our fall 2021 road trip.
With only three items on the ‘must do’ list, it was a relaxed (and delightful) visit:
- Visit Colorado National Monument
- Drive the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway
- Sample local wines in nearby Palisade
We also had ample time to take advantage of unplanned sight-seeing opportunities, including the excellent Museum of the West in downtown Grand Junction.
Grand Junction (elevation 4,600 feet) is located 250 miles west of Denver, in the area of Colorado known as the Western Slope. With 65,000 residents, it’s the largest city in the state west of the Continental Divide and the regional hub for commerce and health care between Denver and Salt Lake City. The area is also a magnet for mountain bikers (which we’re not), with hundreds of miles of fat tire trails.
First Up – Colorado National Monument
“Colorado National Monument preserves one of the grandest landscapes of the American West. Bold, big, and brilliantly colored, this plateau-and-canyon country with its towering masses of naturally sculpted rock embraces 32 square miles of rugged terrain.” (Source: National Park Service brochure)
Indeed. Although the park has a relatively small footprint, it took us the better part of two days to tour the visitor center, check out the scenic overlooks and hike a few short trails. Enough said – let’s take a look.
First, a few more photos featuring big canyon views.
The Devils Kitchen hike was short and moderately steep with a big payoff at the end.
We encountered plenty of other giant rocks as well, a few with names.
Other giant rocks didn’t seem to have an official name but were equally worthy.
For geology buffs, the rock layers on display in the park range in age from 1.7 billion years old (Precambrian) at the bottom of the canyons to a mere 95 million years old (Cretaceous) at the top, with at least 11 distinctive and colorful demarcations in between. Honestly, I can’t wrap my head around the numbers, but I can certainly appreciate the results.
And finally – a few wildflowers and wild critters.
Colorado National Monument is a gem! If you go, allow time for leisurely exploration, and keep in mind that the colors change dramatically depending on the angle of the sun and the amount of cloud cover (or lack thereof). That’s the main reason we went back for day 2.
Grand Mesa Scenic Byway
The Grand Mesa (11,332 feet elevation) is advertised as the biggest flat-top mountain in the world, stretching for 40 miles between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers and encompassing 500 square miles.
The Grand Mesa Scenic Byway is a 63-mile segment of Colorado state highway 65 that traverses the Grand Mesa. The highway provides convenient access to year-round recreational activities, and for lookie-loos like us, showcases the beauty of the area.
This view from the Land’s End visitor center was spectacular.
As a bonus, we hoped to see a little fall color during the drive. Approaching the climb, we got a nice preview.
And WOW – the drive provided a continuous feast for the eyes with a different view around every corner.
We checked out a lake – one of 300 on the Grand Mesa – that was close to the highway . . .
. . . and a couple in the distance.
It was a super fun day!
In short, the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway is a ‘must do’ if you’re in the Grand Junction area – allow a full day if you like to stop and explore along the way.
We enjoy sampling local wines as we travel, having done wine-tastings in seven foreign countries and eight U.S. states. But not in Colorado. In fact, we didn’t know anything about the wine industry in our home state, and it was time to learn.
Coloradoans love the delectable peaches that come from Palisade (just a few miles east of Grand Junction) – they are uber-sweet and uber-juicy. Seriously, if you don’t live here, Palisade peaches are a good reason to come for a visit in August. And for those who already live in Colorado, it’s an equally good reason to stay home.
It turns out that the same conditions that produce those great peaches also help to grow grapes that are good for wine-making. The Grand Valley AVA (roughly the area around Palisade) is home to ~25 wineries and accounts for 90% of the state’s total grape harvest.
A couple of recent accolades for the local wine scene:
- The Grand Valley made Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2018 list of the top 10 wine destinations in the world.
- In 2017, the annual Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade was voted the best wine festival in the U.S.
We visited a few local wineries on a beautiful Saturday afternoon – all had lovely outdoor spaces where guests were encouraged to relax and enjoy the wine-tasting experience.
We took a few bottles to enjoy later.
Could’ve bought more – especially at Maison La Belle Vie – but decided to exercise restraint. Now that we’ve learned a little more and found wines we like, I expect we’ll be back.
McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area
It sounded promising: 123,400 acres of “rugged sandstone canyons, natural arches, spires, and alcoves carved into the Colorado Plateau, through which runs a 24-mile stretch of the Colorado River.”
We knew many of those features were only accessible via very long hikes, mountain bike trails, or 4WD roads, so we searched for trailheads that could be reached in a regular vehicle. Unfortunately, the BLM website had been down for several days, so we had to rely on piecemeal information we gleaned from hiking apps and random blogs. Eventually we settled on the McDonald Creek Canyon trail – 3.7 miles (roundtrip) along the creek through a canyon to the Colorado River.
There were two problems with our plan. First, the access road was not 2WD (or even AWD) friendly – our Subaru is not a high clearance vehicle. So we decided to park at a nearby campground and hike to the trailhead. But the bigger problem was . . . we never found the trailhead!
No trail, no creek, no canyon. Just the dusty and unremarkable road that we followed for another couple of miles before turning around and retracing our steps. Part of the “road” was also the Kokopelli Trail, a 130-mile mountain bike trail that stretches from Fruita CO to Moab UT. We saw four bikers.
Oh well, we got a good workout, at least. But we didn’t totally give up – we decided to give it another go on our travel day from Grand Junction to Moab. Just not the same trail – in fact, we did two short hikes.
The first was called Dinosaur Hill – a quick loop that was more interesting that I expected. In 1900, a paleontologist named Elmer Riggs discovered dinosaur bones that turned out to be a 70-foot, 30-ton Apatosaurus. A year later, his team returned to Colorado, excavated the bones and shipped the skeleton to the Field Museum in Chicago, where it has been displayed since 1908.
The Trail Through Time hike passes an active dinosaur fossil quarry, although we didn’t see any signs of activity. The interpretive placards provided interesting information about the area, including three fossils still embedded in rock.
More pics – rocks and views
Nice hike – short and sweet.
Other Sights Around Town
The town of Grand Junction has two outstanding features – its vibrant downtown and the 24-mile paved Riverfront Trail that follows the Colorado River all the way to Fruita and beyond.
In addition to an interesting variety of shops and restaurants, the downtown area features over 100 sculptures as part of the Art on the Corner initiative that began in 1984. I’ve included a few in this article, but hands down, this one was my favorite:
“Dalton Trumbo was one of Grand Junction’s most famous artistic exports. . . . He was an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, author, playwright, erudite firebrand, and black-listed member of 1947’s infamous Hollywood Ten.”
Mr. Trumbo reportedly did a lot of writing while sitting in his bathtub, and the sculpture is based on a photo taken in 1967.
With that, I will leave you to peruse a selection of other sculptures (shown in the gallery below) from our walk through downtown Grand Junction.
Our visit to Grand Junction was a solid two-thumbs up! Now we look forward to spending our next few weeks in the beautiful state of Utah. Click here to see where we are headed.