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Surrounded by striking land features like the Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat top mountain, Grand Junction is undeniably beautiful—and beyond natural delights, this small city in the high desert has a lot to offer visitors in the fall months. Though it has come to be known as a hub for the oil and gas industry since the 1970s, Grand Junction has long been the heart of Colorado’s fruit and wine producing region—and in recent years, has embraced its status as an outdoor recreation destination. With miles of hiking and biking trails; dozens of wineries, breweries, and innovative eateries; a historic downtown; and a decades-long art installation program, there’s plenty to explore in the Western Slope city. Plus, in late October, harvest is in full swing, the abundant foliage is strikingly colorful, and temperatures are typically warmer than most regions of the state. In short, fall is the ideal time to visit this Grand Valley getaway. Here’s what to do, see, and taste during an autumn excursion.
Get acclimated by familiarizing yourself with the stunning land formations that surround the city. The Grand Mesa is the obvious jaw-dropper, visible to the southeast from just about anywhere in Grand Junction. The Book Cliffs that lie to the north and stretch for 200 miles from Colorado to Utah are the longest continuous escarpment on the globe. Nearby Colorado National Monument, often referred to as a mini Grand Canyon, is one of the most impressive (yet unsung) natural parks in the country. There’s also the Colorado River that runs right through town and the nearby Gunnison River—which intersect to form the confluence for which Grand Junction was named.
Mountain biking is, of course, one of the Western Slope’s most enticing draws. With mild fall temperatures topping out in the 50s to 70s, early morning rides are cool and crisp, and even during the sunny afternoons, the exposed desert trails never get uncomfortably hot. Fat-tire enthusiasts can find thrills on the spectacular trail system lining the Colorado River off of the Loma exit roughly 15 miles west of Grand Junction, as well as the trails off of 18 Road in Fruita. The Tabeguache, however—also known as the Lunch Loops trail system—is a lesser known hub, especially for riders who appreciate a technical challenge. Located near the eastern entrance of Colorado National Monument, the Lunch Loops consist of about 25 miles of trail (excluding the actual Tabeguache Trail, which extends for 150 miles all the way to Montrose). The trails are crafted for intermediate to advanced riders, but beginners can also explore a couple of short, smooth green loops. Most trails feature punchy, short climbs, adrenaline-surging descents with rock ledges and drops, rolling singletrack, and sweeping views from the high points of the plateau.
Road cyclists will relish the 23-mile-long Rim Rock Drive, which meanders the length of Colorado National Monument. The monument, an ethereal expanse of monolithic red sandstone rock formations, also makes for a dramatic scenic drive, as each of the rock formations can be admired from established viewing points. But the best way to experience it is get up close is on foot. Webbing through the park are trails for every ability, from smooth, manicured paths around the visitor’s center to 14-mile-long treks that can take more than a day. Matching the warm colors of the rocks surrounding it, the region’s hearty desert plants glow orange and red throughout the fall. Search for the wild horses that live among the grassy hills and rocky crevasses in the Little Book Cliffs, accessible from I-70 at the Cameo exit, about 15 miles east of Grand Junction.
Colorado Wine Country
Around 30 wineries dot the Grand Valley between Grand Junction and Palisade. It’s impossible to visit them all over a weekend, but it would be wrong to make a trip without stopping for a tasting or two. Two Rivers Winery and Chateau on Broadway ranks among the most picturesque, and its wines have won numerous awards over the last 20 years. Forty-year-old Palisade-based Carlson Vineyards is another standout with a tasting room downtown. Visitors should also stop by the Winery: Housed in a former fire station and carriage house, the fine dining spot has been a fixture in Grand Junction for nearly 50 years and features a fantastic selection of local wines and inspired salads, steaks, and seafood.
Grand Junction Restaurants
Among the Grand Valley’s grape vineyards lie dozens of acres bearing other fruits, including peaches, cherries, apricots, plums, apples, and numerous veggies. Many local restaurants make the most of the harvest, but perhaps nobody is more creative than chef Josh Niernberg, a James Beard Award semifinalist at fine dining haunt Bin707. From tender beet salad to crispy hush puppies to lush red trout, each dish is uniquely delicious. Also located downtown, Niernberg’s more casual venture, Tacoparty, has a line reaching out the door for dinner most evenings. For breakfast or lunch, Café Sol is a standout for farm-fresh sandwiches, soups, and salads. While mountain bikers rightfully flock to Fruita’s Hot Tomato for après-adventure slices, those with a discerning palate for high-quality pie should also check out Pablo’s in downtown Junction.
Across the street from Tacoparty, Ramblebine Brewing has a bustling social scene and variety of taps, including mainstays like the Loki Ice Dragon white stout and Soul Flow hazy IPA, along with a changing lineup of ales. Base Camp Beer Works (formerly Monumental) is situated in an industrial area about a mile west of downtown, but is worth the trip for its unusual brews and massive patio. Visit Rockslide Brewpub, the town’s original brewery, for pub fare that’s arguably more delicious than its suds. Made on a lavender farm, Highlands Distillery gin is one of the most flavorful spirits you’ll find, best enjoyed from the picturesque patio—or the inviting yurt bar, on rainy days.
New to Grand Junction and situated next to Colorado Mesa University, Hotel Maverick offers some of the classiest digs in the area. Whether you stay or not, you must indulge in a cocktail and appetizer—if not, a three-course dinner—at Devil’s Kitchen, home to one of the most stunning rooftop decks on the Western Slope.
If You Do One Thing
Hike the Devil’s Kitchen trail in Colorado National Monument. It’s less than two miles roundtrip and only about 30 minutes to the heart of “the kitchen,” which consists of sandstone towers and structures through which you can wander.