Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
For over two decades, my wife, Jen, and I have driven through Grand Junction, Colorado, en route to nearby Fruita and Moab, Utah, to the west; Jackson, Wyoming, to the north; and Telluride and Durango, Colorado, to the south. This mining and ranching town was always just a waypoint for us, a place to fuel up. Last summer, however, we finally visited an old friend who’d moved to Junction, as the locals call it, a couple of years ago and were instantly dumbfounded by what we’d been missing. This quaint little crossroads in western Colorado has cycling, boating, hiking, and camping to rival any of those adventure towns we’d always been rushing to—and in some ways, it’s now more appealing than all of them because it’s relatively uncrowded.
Part of the reason Grand Junction gets overlooked so often is the notoriety of its neighbor, Fruita, just 20 minutes west on Interstate 70. Back in the mid-nineties, a rider named Troy Rarick put the then unknown town of Fruita on the mountain-biking map when he began building trails in the desert, opened a shop called Over The Edge Sports, and started the Fruita Fat Tire Festival. Because of its proximity to Colorado’s Front Range and its halfway location for weekend trips to Moab that so many people from Boulder and Denver were already making, Fruita became the international riding destination while Grand Junction was just a place to speed past.
And yet Grand Junction’s trail network has existed since the mid-1950s, with major development taking place in the last 20 years. “The economy here has been largely built around extraction and mining, so tourism, especially adventure sports, just wasn’t ever that big a priority,” says Steve Jozefczyk, deputy director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. “That’s changing, especially with the influx of money and people that has pumped up Colorado’s economy over the past decade.”
Grand Junction and its neighbors are now marketing themselves as one greater entity; called the Grand Valley, the region encompasses Fruita, Grand Junction, and Palisade to the northeast, all of which have impressive outdoor appeal. If you add in the top of the surrounding mesas, with 10,000-foot plateaus that allow for adventuring in summer when the desert is sweltering, as well as Powderhorn Mountain Resort, a family-friendly ski area just 45 minutes east of town, the greater Grand Junction area has as much for adventurous travelers as anywhere in the state.
Jen and I returned in October and found the town draped in golden cottonwood trees and in prime riding condition. We also spent some time in the cute downtown, which is abuzz with new restaurants and businesses. And yet we found the camping easy to negotiate, the trails relatively empty, and residents friendly and unassuming. Grand Junction may not stay like that forever, but for now it has earned a spot on our regular annual rotation.
The Grand Valley is an agricultural corridor surrounded by red-rock cliffs and towering mesas on every side. Outside the farmlands, including some well-regarded wineries around Palisade, the majority of the land in and around Grand Junction is public, meaning that finding camping is a cinch. Before we arrived, our plan was to spend a week on the Grand Mesa, a national forest high above town, but an early-season storm dropped three feet of snow and sent us scrambling. Instead we ended up at Rabbit Valley, a BLM open space south of I-70 by the Utah border. Camping is permitted in designated sites only, a nod to the increasing number of people using this land, though we also found excellent and secluded dispersed options on the north side of the highway, with views over the Book Cliffs. Another scenic option just 30 minutes from downtown is the Saddlehorn Campground in Colorado National Monument. And northeast of town, there are riverside sites at the Island Acres Section Campground in James M. Robb Colorado River State Park. All of these are great choices, but we’ll definitely be back next year for the dispersed camping on the mesa.
The Grand Valley is synonymous with riding in Fruita, mostly the 18 road trails on the north side of the highway, which were some of the first to be developed. These are largely fast and flowing trails with big views. Across the highway to the south, the Kokopelli Loops have more technical trails, ranging from green to double black. Of note is Moore Fun, which must be considered a masterpiece of slow-rolling, rock-crawling, old-school riding—sadly, they just don’t make trails like these anymore.
The most exciting riding for me was everything close to Grand Junction that I had never ridden before last June—in particular, the Lunch Loops. There are probably 100 miles of trail here, all a quick enough pedal from town that you can, well, ride during lunch. The terrain is rocky, dusty, slippery, and constantly engaging, with thigh-high step-ups, nice drops, and high-consequence lines if that’s your thing.
Half an hour northeast, the Palisade Rim Trail puts you on a high bench above the eponymous town and the Colorado River and delivers views that rival those atop the Lunch Loops. It’s a technical and brutal climb, but once on top, you’ll be glad you huffed up there.
And while the mountain is incredible, don’t leave your road bike at home. Rimrock Drive, a 22-mile odyssey through Colorado National Monument, has to rate as one of the finest stretches of pavement in the country to pedal. The asphalt is glassy, the turns have perfect radii, the traffic levels are low, and the sandstone walls and towers are so astounding that you want to slow down and appreciate the views.
But Grand Junction has more to offer than just pedaling. The region’s star attraction for climbers is the national monument, which offers lots of single- and multipitch desert sandstone including Sentinel Spire, a freestanding tower with several classics, a quick jaunt from the visitor’s center. Half an hour south of Grand Junction, Unaweep Canyon has thousands of routes and boulder problems on Dakota sandstone.
The area has scores of good hikes, too, with some of the best at Pollack Bench, south of Fruita. In particular, Rattlesnake Canyon boasts the highest concentration of natural arches in the U.S. outside Arches National Monument. Meanwhile, DIY boaters and paddleboarders will find calm water on the Colorado River between Fruita and Palisade.
Downtown Grand Junction still has the slightly sleepy feel of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, which I found refreshing, but it’s clear from the growth of hip spots that this is a town on its way up. More than one person told me that Bin 707, a trendy downtown eatery that serves locally sourced fancy comfort food and fine cocktails, has anchored the town eating scene since it opened seven years ago. In any case, it’s worth a nosh after a ride or hike. A few blocks over, its sister restaurant, Taco Party, serves refined Mexican food (think duck-confit pozole) and plenty of local brews. On the more casual end of things, Café Sol is the spot for breakfast pastries, homemade soups, salads, quiches, and fresh smoothies. The best coffee I found in town was at the Kiln Coffee Bar, which served up a mean macchiato. Finally, if you’e in Fruita for a day of riding, you can’t pass up a stop at the Hot Tomato, owned by cyclists and feeding hungry riders for a decade with wholesome pies and a dozen local beers on tap.