No matter which direction you go from Grand Junction, you find awesome country. Grand Mesa rises to the southeast, towering 4,000 feet higher than the 7,000-foot Uncompahgre Plateau, which is immediately to Grand Junction's southwest. Vineyards and orchards dot the valley floor east of the city, alongside the Colorado River. And if you drive two hours north from Grand Junction, you end up at Dinosaur National Monument.
A trip to Grand Junction feels most rewarding if you spend time in the surrounding territory. Go to Colorado National Monument for red-rock desert canyons, or make the hour-long drive to Grand Mesa if you prefer alpine lakes. Afterwards, you can enjoy the rewards of the town itself.
Colorado National Monument
Inside 20,000-acre Colorado National Monument (tel. 970/858-3617; www.nps.gov/colm), runoff has carved four 800/ to 1,000-foot-deep canyons into the northeast edge of the 7,000-foot Uncompahgre Plateau. You can enter the monument from either Fruita or Grand Junction on Colorado 340, but either way, you climb 2,600 vertical feet from the valley floor to the top of the plateau. Inside the National Monument, Colorado 340 becomes Rim Rock Drive, which skirts the northeast edge of the plateau for most of its 23 miles. The drive passes 18 overlooks of the four canyons. From the overlooks, you can see balancing rocks, spires, arches, and other unusual landforms. During breaks from your journey on Rim Rock Drive, try the following:
Go to the Visitor Center. The Rangers here will answer your questions, and you can purchase maps and books. A 12-minute video flaunts stunning pictures of the surrounding landscape and offers almost no information. (The message seems to be "Feel good about nature.") The visitor center is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Take a short rim hike. The National Monument has six short, well-marked trails on or near the canyon rim. Start with the Canyon Rim Trail, which goes from the Visitor Center along the rim for ½ mile, affording views of Wedding and Monument canyons.
Hike down into a canyon. Aside from the rim hikes, there are longer, more demanding trails (or routes) that descend into the canyons. Though less panoramic than the rim walks, these trails let you see the rock formations up close, feel the scratchy desert vegetation, and smell the sun-baked soils. Plus, they take you farther away from the crowds. You can walk the Monument Canyon, Liberty Cap, and Ute Canyon trails all the way to parking areas in Grand Valley or climb back up to the rim. Remember: Be sure to discuss your plans with a ranger before hiking into a canyon and carry plenty of water.
Camp. The first-come, first served Saddlehorn Campground has sites with picnic tables and grills, and access to drinking water and restrooms. The cost per site is $10.
Colorado National Monument is on Colorado 340 between Grand Junction and Fruita. Admission, valid for seven days, costs $5 per car, $3 for individuals on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle. It's free from October through March.
Drive through the park at sunset for a breathtaking, movie-like display of colorful light and shadow as the reddening sunlight plays on the sandstone, and the sky deepens from azure toward blackness and stars. It's one of those little moments that will illuminate your whole vacation and make it unforgettable.
The Mesa and Plateau
Other than being flat-topped and near Grand Junction, Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau have little in common. With an apex over 11,000 feet, Grand Mesa is higher by more than 4,000 feet. Because of its lofty elevation, it's much wetter. Unlike the mostly arid Uncompahgre Plateau, it has 300-some lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. Grand Mesa's forests of pine and aspen belong to the mountains and not the desert. Even the rock layers are different. Grand Mesa has a cap of erosion-resistant lava atop shale and other soft layers; the Uncompahgre Plateau consists mostly of hard sandstone. You can drive up and over Grand Mesa on Colorado 65 as you go from Cedaredge to Mesa. When you reach the top, stop at the Grand Mesa Visitor Center (tel. 970/856-4153; open Memorial Day through Labor Day daily 9am-5pm). The rangers there can point out places for fishing, picnicking, boating, and hiking. One premier hike is the Crag Crest National Recreation Trail, a 10⅓-mile loop that climbs 1,000 vertical feet to an 11,000-foot razorlike ridge -- the highest area on the mesa. You don't have to do the whole loop to reach the ridgeline. Just park at the west trailhead, near Island Lake, and follow Trail 711 to the crest.
When you need a break from the hiking, fishing, and boating of Grand Mesa, try one of the many other relaxing and enjoyable activities in Grand Valley.
Find a perfect peach. Grand Valley not only has two rivers, it sits atop artesian wells that provide extra irrigation water for fruit and grape growers. The sunny days, dry air, and cool nights also help fatten the fruit. If you're taking I-70 through Grand Valley during summer, check to see what the farmers are selling in Palisade (I-70, Exit 42), 13 miles east of Grand Junction. Look for cherries in June, apricots in July, peaches in August, and apples in September.
Get in the van and start "wining." Palisade is home to seven of the eight Grand Valley wineries. All offer free tastings and sell wine by the bottle. (The eighth winery, Two Rivers, is in Grand Junction proper.) You can pick up a free guide to area wineries at the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Center, 740 Horizon Dr., in Grand Junction (tel. 800/962-2547 or 970/244-1480; www.visitgrandjunction.com). American Spirit Shuttles (tel. 888/226-5031 or 970/523-7662) offers custom tours of area wineries for a minimum of $130 (or $25 per person for groups of six or more). They also offer regularly scheduled group tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays (cost: $25 per person).
Brave the Jurassic Robots. Dinosaur Journey Museum, 550 Jurassic Court (off I-70, Exit 19), in Fruita (tel. 888/488-DINO or 970/858-7282; www.dinosaurjourney.org), has some dinosaur skeletons, but the real attractions are its robotic dinosaurs. They look realistic, move convincingly, and, except for an occasional metallic clunking noise, make all the shrill cries and howls that people in the Age of Spielberg have come to expect of dinosaurs. Later, you can shift your attention to a simulated 5.3 magnitude earthquake. It's open May through September, daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and October through April, from Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors 60 and over, and $4 children ages 3 to 12.
Dig it. The Museum of Western Colorado (tel. 888/488-DINO; www.dinodigs.org) lets visitors participate in one-day (cost: $99) and three-day (cost: $695) digs alongside real paleontologists at a site west of Grand Junction. You can get information about these digs at the Dinosaur Journey Museum (see the preceding item).
Savor sidewalk sculpture. Long before Denver created its 16th Street Mall, Grand Junction converted its Main Street (between Second and Fifth avenues) into a pedestrian-friendly shopping park. Besides having restaurants and shops, the park is home to Art on the Corner md 26 permanent and 28 loaned sculptures that brighten the downtown sidewalks. You can purchase the loaned sculptures at prices ranging from $400 to $30,000. The many whimsical pieces make any trip downtown (and off of the interstate) special. Call the Downtown Development Agency at tel. 970/245-9697 for more details.
At less than 5,000 feet, Grand Junction is one of the low spots in western Colorado and a prime area for year-round, snow-free sports. If you're fixing to freeze, you can always drive to Grand Mesa, more than 6,000 feet higher than the Grand Valley. Otherwise, consider these options:
Cross-country skiing: The Grand Mesa Nordic Council (tel. 970/434-9753) grooms up to 35 kilometers of track for free skiing on Grand Mesa. Some trails are regularly maintained, others are groomed sporadically. There's also an extensive network of forest roads that are packed down for snowmobiling. For information on winter sports atop the mesa, contact the Grand Mesa Visitor Center at tel. 970/856-4153.
Golfing: Golf Digest named the Golf Club at Redlands Mesa, 2325 West Ridges Boulevard, in Grand Junction (tel. 970/263-9270), one of the nation's best new affordable courses. Greens fees for 18 holes are $69.
Hiking: Great hikes await both atop Grand Mesa and inside the Colorado National Monument. If you simply want a convenient, pretty place to walk, ride, or inline skate, head for any of four Colorado Riverfront Trails, which range in length from ½ mile to 4 miles. One easy one to find is the Watson Island/Old Mill Bridge Trailhead, at the intersection of Seventh Street and Struthers, where the city's Botanic Garden is located.
Mountain biking: Abundant public lands, a dry climate, and a mixture of forest and desert combine to make this one of the nation's newest mountain-bike hot spots. If you want to go really far, perhaps even with vehicle support, you have two good options. The Tabeguache Trail, a mix of double track and some steep, technical single track, drifts 144 miles from Grand Junction south to Montrose, climbing as high as 9,500 feet on the Uncompahgre Plateau. One trailhead is on Monument Road south of Broadway. Ruby Canyon Cycles, 301 Main Street, in Grand Junction (tel. 970/241-0141), rents mountain bikes and can tell you more about area trails. To get your bearings, pick up a free copy of Biking Guide to the Grand Valley at visitor centers and bike shops around town.
Join the discussion on our Colorado Message Boards today!