By Will McGough, CNN
Colorado’s famous travel destinations seem to have always existed and we know their names by heart: Vail, Aspen and Breckenridge to name a few, along with Denver, a city that has exploded in the last decade.
For something new, a traveler must venture further west into the state, where an up-and-coming but still relatively unknown region called the Grand Valley has become Colorado’s next must-see destination.
Located on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, four hours west of Denver (which lies on the east side or Front Range of the Rockies), the valley contains three distinct cities: Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita.
These three destinations offer plenty to experience individually and together, including laid-back fruit and wine country, river activities and access to a unique combination of mountain and desert terrain for hiking, biking and scenic drives.
Join us as we break down and explore this up and coming area of Colorado.
Palisade: fruit, wine and agritourism
A horse-drawn carriage zigzags through the rose-lined streets of Palisade, past farm stalls and colorful wine-tasting rooms. The landscape is dominated by peach orchards, vineyards and, depending on your vantage point, an unforgettable combination of mountain peaks and desert canyon cliffs.
James Sanders, a longtime peach farmer, waves to neighbors seated on their porch as he drives his yellow-and-blue forklift loaded with native fruit from his nearby fields to his farmers’ market, the Palisade Peach Shack, just outside the entrance drives into town.
Moments later, he reappears, this time on a tractor, towing a trailer full of smiling guests to his peach orchards for a take-away tour.
It’s just another summer’s day in Palisade, a fruit and wine growing community of just under 3,000 people, where visitors flock to escape city life and enjoy the local food, fields and wines.
“Something about this place,” Sanders said. “Putting your feet up on a porch, sipping on a glass of wine, having sticky hands after eating a peach and knowing that all the farmers and locals are really nice people and easy to talk to. … That’s how we live here.”
Palisade’s fame began in the late 19th century when early farmers planted the area’s first peach trees. Today, Palisade Peach is arguably Colorado’s most famous crop, featured and immortalized in nationwide products like Breckenridge Brewery’s Palisade Peach Wheat Beer.
Apples, apricots, plums, lavender and countless types of vegetables are now growing in abundance. That year, the Palisade Sunday Farmers’ Market ranked third in USA Today’s readers’ poll for 2022 Best Farmers Market, despite being the smallest market nominated.
Motorists and cyclists can explore Palisade’s bounty via the Fruit & Wine Byway, which meanders through the city’s orchards and vineyards.
Summer is the peak season for fruit and vegetables, with peaches coming in July, August and September. Visit Peach Shack, Talbott Farms, Clark Family Orchards or McLean Farms for peaches and Field to Fork or Blaine’s Farm Store for other types of locally grown produce.
The harvest can also be enjoyed at Palisade’s restaurants, integrated with the sophisticated dishes at Pêche, weekend burger night at Maison La Belle Vie, cocktails at Fidel’s, freshly baked breads and sandwiches at Slice O Life Bakery and the sweet treats at Palisade Pies.
Colorado’s Wine Country is “The New Sonoma”
Last year, Food & Wine magazine dubbed Colorado’s Western Slope the “new Sonoma,” with the aforementioned Palisade orchards and nearly 30 wineries taking center stage in the comparison.
As you can imagine, this has caused quite a stir among local residents, who have watched the region’s transition from a conglomeration of ‘pioneer hobby growers’ to a new wave of wine professionals.
“When they started making wine here in Palisade twenty or thirty years ago, it was farmers growing fruit and maybe having a small plot of grapes,” said Joe Flynn, a winemaker at Plum Creek Winery, who owns his own brand market brings. Periphery Cellars, this fall. “They were more of a hobby grower, but they put Palisade on the map as a small wine-growing region, albeit without much fanfare.”
“But as Palisade evolved, we were taken more seriously,” Flynn said. “More people have come and realized that the wine here is on par – if not better – than the wine grown to the west of us, and that Palisade offers a truly unique terrain and growing region that people from out of state can appreciate.” attracts people to come in, pick up where the pioneers left off, refine what they created for us and be a part of this burgeoning scene.”
Hop aboard with Pali Tours for an open-air, “safari-style” wine tasting tour, cruising between wineries on the always-available Palisade pedicab (also nice as a scenic happy hour/dinner taxi service from your accommodation) . or rent a bike from Rapid Creek Cycles in downtown Palisade to explore at your own pace with the Fruit & Wine Byway map.
Must-see stops include Restoration Vineyards, Sauvage Spectrum, Colterris, and Carlson Vineyards, among others.
Grand Junction and Fruita
About 20 minutes southwest of Palisade is Grand Junction, the largest city in the Grand Valley.
Understanding the Grand Junction name requires a historical perspective. Much to the delight of rafters and river rats, the Gunnison River joins the famous Colorado River in this valley.
At the time the area was established, the Colorado River had a different name: the Grand River. (It was officially changed to the Colorado River in 1921). Hence the names Grand Junction – confluence of the Grand and Gunnison rivers – and Grand Valley.
Bike along the Riverfront Trail to watch the rivers flow together. Board at Las Colonias Park and head downstream until you end at Connected Lakes. Want a closer look? Jump on the river by renting a paddleboard or raft from Grand Junction Adventures at Las Colonias Park.
Then, visit Main Street and the surrounding downtown area to browse a plethora of locally owned shops, including big antique collectors (A Robin’s Nest); outdoor-oriented thrift stores (Gear Junction); Breweries (Ramblevine); and restaurants (The Hog and the Hen for charcuterie and fresh market sandwiches, Bin 707 for seasonal Colorado fare, and Devil’s Kitchen for steaks and rooftop views, to name a few).
If you’re looking to roll, head to Grand Junction Western Wear or Boot Barn for cowboy hats, boots and clothing.
In the evenings, catch a glimpse of what’s going on at area music venues like the Mesa Theatre, Avalon Theater or Las Colonias Amphitheatre. The latter sits right on the Colorado River and often draws big national acts (including Snoop Dogg and 311 this year).
At the far western end of the valley, just 19 miles from the Utah border, you’ll find Fruita, a small town known for its world-class mountain biking, including the Zippity Loop in the northern Fruita desert. Hikers should head to the Devil’s Canyon Trail System to hike its cliffs, canyons, and creeks.
Families will love the Dinosaur Journey at Fruita, home to more than 15,000 fossil specimens, interactive exhibits and a paleontology lab. The museum also offers half-day and full-day trips with a professional paleontologist, where kids can dig for bones in a working quarry. Find other dinosaur sites nearby such as the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway and the family-friendly Dinosaur Hill hike.
Where the mountains meet the desert
As well as the confluence of rivers, the Grand Junction nickname also stands for another natural merging, very good news for outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore a variety of terrains.
Located on the northeast corner of the Colorado Plateau, the Grand Valley is where the Rocky Mountains converge with the desert canyons of the Southwest, offering the adventurer easy access to drastically different landscapes through hiking, biking, and scenic drives. An outdoor enthusiast can hang out in a red rock gorge in the morning, a pine forest trail after lunch, and a river in the afternoon.
Between Grand Junction and Fruita lies Colorado National Monument, whose high desert landscape is dotted with red rock canyons, towering buttes and juniper trees.
Begin your journey at the East Gate in Grand Junction and take the Rim Rock Drive west, stopping at hiking trails and viewpoints such as Devil’s Kitchen, Ute Canyon and the Independence Monument lookout along the way.
Exiting the west gate at Fruita offers sweeping views of the Grand Valley. Then, do as the locals do and top yourself off with beer and the best pizza in the Grand Valley at Hot Tomato in downtown Fruita.
For a dramatic change of scenery, take Interstate 70 towards Grand Mesa National Forest. The Grand Mesa Scenic Byway entrance is an hour’s drive from Fruita (and even closer to Grand Junction and the Palisade).
This high alpine mountain resort area east of the Grand Valley is home to dense pine forests, aspen groves and more than 300 lakes. Reputed to be the tallest flattop mountain in the world, it offers countless campgrounds, cabins, and hiking and biking trails.
For the legendary Grand Mesa experience, tackle the Crag Crest Trail and enjoy panoramic views. To see a range of backcountry lakes, hit the short but scenic Land O’ Lakes Trail; and spend the night in a mountain cabin at Alexander Lake Lodge or Mesa Lakes Lodge, where you can rent canoes, kayaks, or fishing gear.
Cool off on those longer summer days on the Colorado River and drift your way through Palisade, Grand Junction or Fruita on a rafting, tubing or paddleboarding tour from Paddleboard Adventure Company or Centennial Canoe. End your day with a drink at The Sneak Line in Palisade to swap stories with fellow river visitors.
Overnight stay and arrival
Main Street in Grand Junction has a selection of point-collector chain hotels (including two Marriott properties), and similar, familiar lodgings can also be found in Fruita.
But if you’re looking for local accommodation with personality, Palisade is the place.
For wine country bed and breakfast vibes, stay with Dave and Michelle at the historic, antique-filled Wine Valley Inn (adults only) or enjoy a resort experience at the Wine Country Inn just up the road.
For bikers and outdoor adventurers, the choice is easy: The Spoke & Vine Motel, where locals meet for drinks every Monday. do you want to camp Grab a campground or cabin at Palisade Basecamp, which sits right on the Colorado River.
To get to the region, fly into Grand Junction Airport (GJT), voted Colorado Airport of the Year for 2021.
Despite its location in remote western Colorado, most people in America can reach the Grand Valley with just one connection. There are direct flights from major hubs such as Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
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