The first gleam of sunlight hit the walls of Wedding Canyon in Colorado National Monument like they had been splattered with a bucket of orange paint. I smiled and squinted as I climbed higher into the desert, enjoying the momentary coolness of the air. It would get unbearably hot, but right now the temperature was perfect.
Grand Junction, a city of 65,000, takes its name from the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers, and is growing as a destination for travelers — not just hikers and cyclists. For example, I had heard of the many wineries in Mesa County (30 at last count), but knew nothing of the many craft beer options in town until my last trip west. I spent the night at the Grand Junction KOA, but until this last visit I had never stayed at one of its newer hotels. I drove part of Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument, but never walked deeper into the park than a few scenic lookout points. It was time to change all that.
I’ve always considered the Colorado National Monument, near the Utah border just south of Interstate 70, to be one of Colorado’s best kept secrets. It’s a veritable “mini-Grand Canyon” that you can see from the highway but which most people don’t give a longer second look. It’s time to stop thinking of this area as a pit stop on the way to or from Moab. It’s time to dig a little deeper – both in the national monument and in Grand Junction itself.
That’s how I found myself drinking in the dawn sun, approaching the top of Wedding Canyon. The Monument Canyon Loop is a 4.7 mile, two hour tour, which I hiked early to beat the heat and crowds. I saw signs of bighorn sheep that live along this loop, but none showed up. Saw lizards and bees and red rock spiers and other amazing formations. Then I drove 15 minutes to Grand Junction and went straight to octopus coffeefamous locally for their breakfast burritos, homemade pastries, cuban breves and their “happy hiker” sticker, which I stuck on my coffee mug.
My options for the rest of the day included a self-guided tour of the city’s 115 sculptures and murals, a tee time at one of three year-round golf courses, or a day of mountain biking or off-road adventures. road. There is even a botanical garden worth exploring. There are also a few air-conditioned museums in town – a great option if you have kids with you (West Museum Where Eureka! Science Museum in Grand Junction and the Dinosaur Travel Museum in Fruita). If you have a dinosaur-obsessed kid with you, plan to hike the 1.5-mile Trail Through Time. Or, I could head back to the Maverick Hotel, a modern four-story affair on the edge of the University Colorado Mesa campus, where I could soak in the hot tub or enjoy a coffee and a slow morning after the hike. I went for the latter.
Food + Wine Magazine recently declared Grand Junction and surrounding area “the new Sonoma with charming wineries and stellar restaurants.” I would add to that “and its burgeoning beer scene”. Brewery options include the handlebar faucet house, especially popular with mountain bikers, with a patio, rooftop seating, an extensive burger menu, and 24 rotating beers on tap (plus Peach Street Distillery cocktails and canned Colorado wines). There is also Ramblebine Brewery, known for its sours, but also for its God Hammer Red and the Hellyah Blonde. Another beer garden worth noting is Mousse & Folly Brasserie & Taproomalso with a large interior space adorned with works of art.
I landed on the top floor of my hotel at Devil’s Kitchen, the on-site bar and restaurant with a long view south toward Colorado National Monument, whose cliffs turned peach-blossom pink as the sun set. . Couldn’t pass up a stop at the rooftop bar. Devil’s Kitchen was named after a rocky feature in the national monument, accessible via a 2 mile round trip hiking trail. He was hidden somewhere in the folds of this pink rock. Maybe that’s where I would walk the next morning. At the Sunrise.
If you are going to: Hotel Maverick (rooms from $139, depending on season) is modern, with a rooftop restaurant and bar, and lovely common areas, both indoors and out.
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