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Autumn—when lush orchards, vineyards and gardens are bursting with fresh produce—is the ideal time to visit Colorado’s beautiful North Fork Valley. Here, the Gunnison River’s crystal-clear waters meander lazily through a fertile vale fringed by tall mesas and towering peaks dotted with aspens, which are just beginning to turn orange and gold. With one national and two state parks, plus more than three million acres of National Forest nearby, the area is a paradise for cycling, hiking, boating, fishing and hunting. Plus, Paonia is home to enough art galleries, produce stands, you-pick-it fruit farms, innovative restaurants, and up-and-coming wineries to fill a weekend—or a week. Here’s all that you need to know before you dash out your door.
The Odometer: 228 miles, one-way
Name Game: Paonia is named for the peony flower, whose roots Samuel Wade—one of the area’s first Caucasian settlers—brought with him when he journeyed from Ohio to the North Fork Valley. When the town was incorporated in 1902, he suggested Paeonia, the flower’s genus, as its name. The post office wouldn’t allow such a long string of vowels, so the name was shortened to “Paonia.”
Get Outside: Take advantage of the Western Slope’s fresh air and abundant sunshine by exploring Paonia’s surrounding countryside. The town’s signature hike is the ascent of Mount Lamborn, whose 11,396-foot summit dominates the ridge above town. According to local lore, the mountain was named for a white, supposedly lamb-shaped scar on its north-facing slope. The eight-hour, round-trip outing holds stunning views of the West Elks and the North Fork Valley from its peak. A less strenuous but highly recommended hike is the out-and-back Dark Canyon Trail, which begins in the Erickson Springs Recreation Area, about 20 miles northeast of town. It follows Anthracite Creek through a deep canyon before switch-backing up the “Devil’s Staircase” and crossing the wooded slopes of the remote Ruby Range.
If you prefer your adventures on two wheels, Paonia has several great cycling options. Mountain bikers flock to Jumbo Mountain just east of town to test their mettle on the “Ridge of Doom,” as well as the nearby Outer Rim. Southwest of town, the Wiley Springs and McDonald Creek trails offer other off-road options. Road cyclists can easily commute between wineries, create their own loops, or ride the 24 scenic miles to the entrance of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Living Farms Café
Eat: The reputed birthplace of the farm-to-table movement, Paonia has a thriving community-based (and pleasantly laid-back) culinary scene concentrated in a couple blocks of the historic downtown. Start your day at NOFO Food with “puffy pancakes” made of local corn flour and topped with a peach, pluot, and plum sauce, or savor the bolete-infused gravy draped over flaky biscuits, eggs, and sausage. For unique midday offerings, head to Nelle’s Café, a tiny hole-in-the-wall eatery named for the owner’s oldest daughter. Nelle’s offers hot and iced drinks as well as filling brunch-time fare like Ya-Yas—subs with farm-fresh eggs, potatoes, cheese, onions and soy sausage piled on top of toasted sourdough bread.
For dinner, take a seat on the cozy outdoor patio at the Living Farm Café, where you’ll enjoy ingredients fresh from the owners’ farm creatively combined into mouthwatering and (dare we say it?) healthy combinations like lamb enchiladas or Elk Osso Buco—braised elk shanks with kale, onion, and parmesan risotto topped with a rich demi-glace sauce—along with a large selection of local beverages. If you’re in the mood for Italian, head around the corner to the Flying Fork Café, which serves up crusty artisanal breads, fresh-from-the-garden salads, Neapolitan-style pizzas, and a large selection of tempting pasta and meat entrees.
Sip: Paonia is the core of the West Elks American Viticultural Area, which includes some of the highest vineyards and wineries on the continent. Most offer free tastings from Memorial Day through Halloween. Start by the river at Black Bridge Winery, which specializes in earthy Pinot Noir. Then visit Delicious Orchards, whose tasting room is along the main road—Highway 133—just west of town. Here you can taste (and buy) many local wines, including Alfred Eames’ delicious Sangre del Sol blend, and half a dozen varieties of local Big B’s organic hard cider, including the luscious, semi-sweet Cherry Daze.
Next, head uphill to the trio of wineries perched atop the mesas north of town. Terror Creek Winery, at around 6,400-foot elevation, is the highest-altitude commercial vineyard and winery in the world. They sell Gewürztraminer and other whites, as well as Chalet—an unusual, love-it-or-hate-it blend of Gamay Noir and Pinot Noir grapes. Nearby, family-run Stone Cottage Cellars offers crisp Pinot Gris; spicy, full-bodied Syrah; and a delectable, berry-flavored Merlot. Towards the end of the day, stop by the area’s most unique tasting room, Azura Cellars, where owners Helen and Ty Gillespie showcase their art as well as their wine. Savor a glass of the fruity, well-balanced Yacht Club Red while relaxing on their patio, which has one of the best views in the area.
If you’re looking for a sudsy alternative, visit Revolution Brewing, which uses locally grown hops to brew a selection of varieties, ranging from Miner’s Gold Ale to their smooth, barley-flavored Rye Porter.
Bross Hotel B&B
Stay: For a relaxing escape, book a room (or the yurt) at Agape Farm and Retreat, situated six miles south of Paonia amongst verdant gardens overflowing with cheerful sunflowers and fruitful Pinot Gris vines. The scrumptious homemade breakfast, served on the delightful outdoor terrace or in the spacious kitchen, is a perfect start for your fun-filled day. If you prefer to stay closer to town, check out the historic Bross Hotel B&B, built in 1906 by the town’s deputy sheriff; the quaint Living Farm Inn; or the funky Rocky Mountain Inn, all of which are within a few minutes’ walk of downtown.
Local preserves at Old River Trading Post
If You Do One Thing…: Visit the Old River Trading Post, the heart and soul of Paonia’s tight-knit and earth-friendly community. Part natural foods market, part community center, this bustling hub thrives on a unique, cooperative trade system and regular Sunday midday meals, where—for a donation—you’re welcome to sit with the locals, listen to music, and feast on the North Fork’s bounty.