Catch a sweet spring breeze cycling through Colorado fruit country.
Rows of flowering peach trees fan out beneath the Book Cliffs, framing the mountains with pinkish-white blooms. It's a spring day in Palisade, the first one mild enough to coax me out of long sleeves. Like the orchards' fair forms, I, too, am savoring the kiss of sunshine on my limbs as I pedal across East Orchard Mesa.
Countless times, I've welcomed spring by cranking my mountain bike around the celebrated single-track near Grand Junction and Fruita. But this year my husband, Ben, and I also loaded up our road bikes so we could pedal the Fruit Loop Cycling Tour: a 16- to 30-mile tour that follows quiet country roads through the orchards and vineyards surrounding Palisade. Here, fruit trees usually start flowering in mid-April, and we figured if people go gaga over D.C.'s cherry blossoms, then Colorado's mix of cherries, peaches, apricots, apples, and grapes ought to put on a decent show.
But on that bluebird day, as my wheels hummed along East Orchard Mesa, I realized we had miscalculated. The flower display isn't just decent—it's dazzling. Seas of white and rose-tinted blooms surrounded us as we biked, the cocoa-colored Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa's snow-capped summit looming above the petals. It reminded me of cycling past rows of sunflowers in southern France, but the flat-topped mesas of the Western Slope signaled that this was unmistakably Colorado.
Compared to world-famous Fruita, Palisade's cycling scene gets a lot less attention, partly because road biking is the main attraction. The low-traffic, paved lanes winding through area orchards are perfect for beginner and intermediate cyclists, since the flat terrain never demands Lance Armstrong-level lung capacity. That friendly topography, combined with the pastoral beauty of fruit country, makes Palisade a swell place to click in.
To help get that message out, the town launched the Palisade Bike Festival in 2005. The daylong cycling celebration includes a mountain bike race, a bike rodeo featuring highly technical stunts, and the Fruit Loop ride, which is offered in three lengths: a 16-mile "easiest" route, a 20-mile "challenging" course, and a 30-mile "advanced" circuit. Generally, the festival—which is on May 9 this year—coincides with the trees' peak bloom.
We couldn't make the actual festival, but we drove into Palisade and had no trouble finding the local bike shop: The old-timey downtown comprises about six square blocks. We strolled along covered sidewalks, which looked right out of a spaghetti western, until we came to Rapid Creek Cycles and Sports. A stack of free Fruit Loop maps sat next to the register; we grabbed one, bought a few extra tire tubes, and headed out.
The "easiest" route mostly cruises around town; the "advanced" one includes a few spurs to far-flung wineries; we followed the "challenging" course because its blue line traced a jagged route all around Palisade. Pedaling across the Colorado River, we hung a right after the bridge and plunged immediately into pale-petaled orchards so pretty I hooted with happiness. Then I switched to a pant: The route's only hill—a set of switchbacks that climbs some 500 vertical feet—greeted us just a few minutes into the ride. But after gaining the top of the mesa, we were rewarded with blown-open views of blossoms and mountains.
The route was easy to follow—dirt lanes sometimes peeled off the main drag, but we always stuck to the paved road—and I was struck by how rural the area felt despite its proximity to Grand Junction. This isn't Napa, with its manicured châteaux and snobby ambience: Here, dirt-caked guys leaned on dented trucks bleached by the sun, and the farmhouses looked not shabby but certainly utilitarian. Sometimes the landscape was dotted by junky cars or rusty tractors that had long been laid to rest.
A roadside sign announced Alida's Fruits, a local produce stand, and here we parked our bikes for a break. Stepping through the shop's doors, we scrounged for a snack. Come summer, Alida's produce tables would be piled with just-picked apricots and peaches. But in April the shelves were loaded with preserves made from last year's bounty. We munched on a bag of chocolate-covered dried cherries, sipped a bottle of juice from the cooler, then pedaled on to complete the loop.
We crossed the Colorado once again, and as we neared Palisade we rolled past cute Victorians surrounded by vines planted in tidy rows beneath Mt. Garfield. We passed within a block of the Palisade Brewery, which seemed a worthy reason to deviate from the official Fruit Loop, so we hopped off the bikes and parked ourselves at one of the tables clustered outside on the brewery's loading dock. And there, tipping back pints of Red Truck IPA, we ended our tour. Technically, a few blocks of the loop remained to be ridden, but they could wait. For now, there was beer to be quaffed, and spring's unripe breezes hinted at the warmth summer would soon bring.
Kelly Bastone is a contributing writer for 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].
If You Go
Rapid Creek Cycles (317 S. Main) in downtown Palisade rents bikes and distributes Fruit Loop cycling maps. For additional information or to register for Palisade Bike Festival events, contact the Palisade Chamber of Commerce (970-464-7458).