Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
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Nestled amongst Colorado’s western slope, the Grand Junction area is close to the state border and about equidistant from Denver and Salt Lake City. Many people breeze by en route to Moab or elsewhere, but that’s a mistake. Flanked by both the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains, the area is an outdoor lover’s dream, but the bigger draw is Colorado’s largely unknown agricultural region.
A true hidden gem, Palisade, Colorado’s wine country, makes for a cozy couple’s retreat or raucous girlfriend getaway. Downtown Grand Junction is also a designated creative district teeming with galleries, outdoor art, and performance venues, ensuring there’s plenty for adventure enthusiasts, culture vultures, and foodies alike. Here’s how to see the best of the west on this surprising weekend trip from the Mile High.
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Virtually four hours straight west, Grand Junction is the last major stop in Colorado before you cross the Utah border. You’ll take I-70 through high country, so pause in Breckenridge or Vail if you need to stretch your legs or can’t pass up the scenic overlooks.
If you leave early enough, you’ll arrive in time for lunch and have the afternoon to explore. Stretch out on the patio at Spoons Bistro & Bakery, which is the place to fill your stomach and appease your soul with tasty bites and good juju. A humanitarian food venture, all proceeds benefit HopeWest, a local nonprofit dedicated to aging, illness, and grief. Their rosemary chicken isn’t half bad, either.
It’s been a long morning in the car, but you can’t not see Colorado National Monument. With twisty red outcrops and deep sandstone towers, it’s often described as the little Grand Canyon. Teeming with wildlife, natural history, and
unique geological formations, the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive will take you to awe-inspiring views, but if you’d rather get some exercise, the two-mile Serpent’s Trail or half-mile Otto’s Trail are popular places to take in the landscape while stretching your legs.
For the best sunset spot, head up to Grand Mesa National Forest, where the aspens are a brilliant yellow in fall. The largest flattop mountain in the world, the area is home to endless forest and more than 300 high alpine lakes. Spend some time hiking around or head back to the hotel to freshen up. In winter, there’s cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling on the Grand Mesa or downhill skiing at nearby Powderhorn Mountain to soak in the setting.
When you’re ready to fill your belly, Bin 707 Foodbar features seasonal Colorado cuisine with the area’s farm-fresh roots on full display. There’s everything from burgers and tacos to game meats. Tuck in early and rest up because you have a long day of sipping and swirling ahead.
Grab a coffee and fill up on scratch-made pastries at Slice O’ Life Bakery because you’ll need something in your belly for a long day of wine tasting. The Palisade Fruit & Wine Byway boasts 25 stops of vineyards and winemaking tours. The most popular way to explore is by renting a bike and following one of the 5-25-mile routes. If you’d prefer to cover more ground, don’t like cycling (guilty), or are worried about getting tipsy on two wheels, you can also charter a limo, shuttle, open-air safari vehicle, pedicab, or even a horse and buggy to get around.
Each winery has its own vibe and varietals with many of the tasting rooms free or less than $10. A few not to miss stops include Varaison Vineyards & Winery for their rose garden and hard ciders, Talon Winery, which is really three-stops in one with St. Kathryn Cellars and Meadery of the Rockies’ sweet honey wines and fruit pours, and Restoration Vineyards, which breaks up the day of drinking with complimentary cheese pairings.
If a liquid lunch isn’t cutting it or your liver needs a break, swing by Palisade Café 11.0 for a quick bite. Farm-to-table fresh, they have rotating sandwich specials, burgers, or salads with a slight Spanish influence. Another good midday recovery stop is Suncrest Orchard Alpacas and Fiber Works, where you can make some fuzzy new friends. Alpacas are hilarious creatures you can feed or take for a walk before touring the mill and shopping for handmade yard and woven souvenirs.
Locals know Palisade Brewing Company is the place to unwind after a day of drinking. Smoked meat platters (hello jalapeño cheddar brisket) and fried foods are just what the doctor ordered to ensure you sleep good tonight. They regularly have live music, which generally turns into a patio party. And if by some chance you’re still thirsty, they’re right down the block from Peach Street Distillers, which you can also tour.
When you finally pull yourself out of bed, it’s off to Dream Cafe for hangover brunch. There are Bloody Marys and mimosas for a little hair of the dog, or stick to carbo-loading. Appease your appetite with the baked avocado benedict, pineapple upside-down pancakes, or breakfast pot pie.
For one last adventure, marvel at the wild mustangs. The Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range is one of just three in the western U.S. where wild horse herds roam. Thirty thousand acres of open space, you can go on a trail ride, hike, mountain bike, or hop on a 4×4 before hitting the road. At any given time, there are 80-120 mustangs galloping and grazing, which makes for a pretty magical morning in the mountains.
On the way out of town, be sure to snag some peaches (Palisade’s other claim to fame) to bring home with you or for a car snack from one of the roadside fruit stands or farms.
WHERE TO STAY
The good news is nothing is particularly expensive in Grand Junction, as it’s mostly motels and cozy bed and breakfasts. Spoke and Vine is one of the nicer accommodation options, albeit they very clearly state, don’t expect the Ritz.
For a more memorable retreat, you can stay right in the vineyards at the Colorado Wine Country Inn. The boutique 80-room property is Colorado’s first wine-themed hotel and features afternoon tastings set amongst 21-acres of sprawling vines. The Chateau at Two Rivers Winery is another that lets you sleep amongst the grapes with elegantly appointed French touches.
WHEN TO GO
Autumn is the best time to visit as the colors on the Western Slope are stunning. There are festivals virtually every weekend in spring and fall, but summer is also a busy time at the u-pick orchards, farmer’s market, and for floating the river. While snow could complicate winter explorations, winter is milder than elsewhere in Colorado if you’re looking for somewhere to escape the cold.