Grand Junction, Colorado: Western Charm and Mountain Splendor
By Marjorie Asturias-Lochlaer
If you've heard of Grand Junction, chances are you're either an avid mountain biker headed for neighboring Fruita, or you're a rock climber on your way to Moab.
Still, travelers bypassing this little speck of civilization in the middle of the high desert mountains of Western Colorado do so at their own peril. Grand Junction offers much more than traveler's facilities and truck stops.
Those willing to veer off I-70 and into the heart of Colorado's Wine Country will be surprised to find that not all the attractions in this part of the state center around single-track trails and vertical cliffs.
Main Street Days
Start with the town's annual Farmers' Market, which takes place in the streets of its historic downtown.
Every Thursday evening from early June through mid-September, artisans, local farmers, bakeries, artists, nonprofit organizations, ice cream parlors, pizza joints, political parties, musicians, and all manner of creative individuals and businesses set up shop along several blocks of Main Street.
The Mennonite community's famous $5 green chili burritos have long been everyone's favorite Farmers' Market food, with lines that begin to form as soon as the market opens at 5 pm.
My favorite, though, remains their steaming roasted almonds covered in a sweet, hard shell of hot sugar. Handed to you in a warm paper cone, it's a summertime favorite and a great snack to munch on while perusing the rest of the market's dozens of offerings.
The Grand Valley boasts a number of delicious fruits and vegetables, most of which can be seen on display at the annual Farmers' Market.
Businesses often stay open late during market days, so make sure that you pop in to any of a number of antique shops that line the street's wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.
One of my favorites is the Haggle of Vendors Emporium on 510 Main Street, one of those old, friendly shops packed with history as well as goods.
You don't come in here to find anything specific; rather, this is place is all about discovery and the joy of the hunt.
Dusty, cloth-covered books of a hundred-year vintage compete for space with tiny Japanese plates and old World's Fair memorabilia, not to mention flapper dresses, beaded jewelry, World War II posters, and hammered metal decor.
Got a raging sweet tooth? Head a block south of Main on 7th Street to Enstrom's Candies. Their large, well-lit coffee house has free Wi-Fi and Internet access, not to mention their world-famous almond toffees. Try a few pieces from their ever-present sample boxes while you sip some of their fresh-brewed coffees.
One thing that Grand Junction residents love to do is hang out at their favorite coffee shops and catch up on local gossip with their friends and neighbors. I could stay for hours at Coffee Muggers, one of the best cafés in town and located near the corner of Main and 7th.
Try their fruit smoothies or house chai. They also offer delicious Italian sandwiches in partnership with the La Paninoteca deli, so you can slake your thirst and satisfy your hunger as well.
Main Street Bagels on 5th and Main is yet another downtown institution. Open six days a week for breakfast and lunch, the café remains the favorite hangout of many downtown businesspeople, students and journalists.
They offer a large selection of hot and cold sandwiches, not to mention premium coffees and delectable, fresh-baked pastries. Try any of their signature bagel sandwiches, including the enormous, packed-to-the-rim peanut butter bagel.
Traders, with two locations in the Valley, offers free Wi-Fi, lots of small tables conducive to work or chat, and standard café fare. Even more popular than Starbucks in our town, its Patterson location is the place to see and be seen.
If you prefer your beverage to be grape-based and fermented, head straight for any number of wineries scattered throughout the Valley.
Every September the region's best winemakers gather for the hugely popular WineFest, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Association of Vintners and Viticulturists.
Located just outside of Grand Junction in the bucolic town of Palisade, the Colorado Mountain WineFest draws thousands of visitors from around the world, all of whom come to participate in everything from “grape stomps” to hands-on winemaking workshops to winery tours to, of course, wine and chocolate tastings.
One of my personal favorite wines comes from the Two Rivers Winery & Chateau, located in the Redlands area in the the shadow of the Colorado National Monument.
My husband and I visited the winery last winter and had a chance to take a tour of the facilities. Afterwards we retreated to the Old World ambience of the tasting room and enjoyed samplings of their various varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Port.
We ended up taking home a bottle each of the Cab and the Port, neither of which didn't last long in our wine-welcoming home.
Of course, this wouldn't be an article about Colorado without mentioning the huge variety of outdoor activities in which you can participate. Despite the state's reputation for world-class skiing and the proximity of the classic Powderhorn Resort, most sports enthusiasts come to Grand Junction primarily for the hiking and mountain biking.
Colorado National Monument dominates the southern and western horizons of the city and provides ample opportunity for budding athletes and everyday jocks alike to indulge in the great outdoors.
Serpent's Trail is the most popular hiking route; although it's a straight upward slope for 1-1/2 miles, it's a very well-developed, wide trail that attracts power walkers, joggers and hikers alike. Bring your camera for breathtaking shots of the Valley, the Bookcliffs, and Grand Mesa.
If you continue along the 23-mile Rim Rock Road that snakes through the park, you'll find lots of lookouts where you can view some of the world's most gorgeous rock formations, including the imposing Independence Monument.
Afterwards, pay a visit to the Visitor Center and watch the fascinating 12-minute videos shown every fifteen minutes that highlight the geological history of the Monument.
Like every other National Park in the country, the Center also offers plenty of gifts and souvenirs that showcase the history and beauty of the park.
Mountain bikers will find plenty of excellent, well-maintained routes on adjacent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) trails. Unlike the National Monument, entry into BLM land is free.
The nearby town of Fruita, Colorado, is mountain-bike central in the Grand Valley. Visit Over the Edge Sports in Fruita and learn all about where to stay, where to eat, and more importantly, where to ride.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
The city loves visitors, and the wide range of comfortable, affordable lodgings is a testament to that enthusiasm.
Willow Pond Bed & Breakfast offers a charming rural retreat for those wanting something a little different from the usual chain hotel experience.
One of the most unusual aspects about this popular B&B is its commitment to promoting area artists and musicians.
The common areas double as a gallery for local artwork, and concerts featuring local and international musicians are offered to the inn's guests and the public throughout the year.
If you prefer to stay in the downtown area, try the Hampton Inn and Hawthorn Suites, both of which are located just at the end of Main Street and are excellent jumping-off spots for antique shopping, cafe-dwelling and just hanging out. Budget-minded folks will note that room rates for both chains include hot breakfasts.
Eating won't be a problem if you're staying downtown. Il Bistro consistently offers the best homemade Italian meals in the city. Start with their mouth-watering bruschetta, then get the Gnocchi ai Funghi (Mushroom Gnocchi) before they run out.
The atmosphere is warm and casual, and when the summer sun is high in the sky, you can still take advantage of the al fresco dining by taking refuge under their wide, sturdy awnings.
For breakfast try the Crystal Cafe, located just down the street from the two hotel chains. Grand Junction residents flock to this place, so you may have to wait awhile for a table, but it's worth cooling your heels here for a chance to try their scrumptious quiches, omelets and pancakes. Check out the local art displayed on its cheery walls while you sip your iced tea and wait for your entrees.
Another popular downtown restaurant is 626 on Rood, located – where else?? – on 626 Rood, a block north of Main Street. This upscale bistro offers modern American cuisine as well as the one of the best wine lists in town.
Be prepared to try something new every time you visit, as the menu changes with the season and at the chef's discretion.
Like many establishments downtown – including Il Bistro – 626 on Rood tries to use local and organic ingredients as much as possible.
When my husband and I visited the restaurant last winter, I enjoyed the roast rack of lamb, while he ordered the vegetable crepes. Both were unparalleled, and with the romantic, candle-lit atmosphere, the restaurant offers the perfect setting for your last night in this unique city.