Palisade, Colo. (CNN) — Colorado’s iconic destinations have seemingly been around forever, and we know their names by heart: Vail, Aspen, and Breckenridge, to name a few, along with Denver, a city that has exploded in the past decade.
For something new, a traveler must head further west in the state, where a burgeoning but still relatively unknown region called the Grand Valley has become Colorado’s next must-see destination.
Located on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, four hours west of Denver (which is on the east side, or Front Range, of the Rocky Mountains), the valley contains three distinct cities: Palisade, Grand Junction, and Fruita.
Individually and collectively, these three destinations offer much to experience, including a laid-back fruit and wine region, river activities, and access to a unique combination of mountain and desert terrain for hiking, biking, and scenic drives.
Join us as we break down and explore this up-and-coming area of Colorado.
Palisade: Fruit, wine and agritourism
A horse-drawn carriage winds its way down Palisades’ rose-lined streets, past farm stands and wine tasting rooms bursting with color. The landscape is dominated by peach orchards, vineyards and, depending on how you look, a memorable combination of mountain peaks and desert canyon cliffs.
James Sanders, a longtime peach farmer, waves to his neighbors sitting on their front porches as he drives his yellow and blue forklift piled high with local fruit from nearby fields to his farm market, the Palisade Peach Shack, located just outside the entrance. to town.
Moments later, he reappears, this time on a tractor, towing a trailer of smiling guests to his peach orchards for a u-pick ride.
It’s just another summer day in Palisade, a fruit and grape growing community of just under 3,000 people, where visitors come to escape city life and enjoy local food, fields and wine.
The peach is a unique crop in Colorado’s Grand Valley. It is also a wine region.
Julia Cavalieri/Tropical Disco Media
“There’s something about this place,” Sanders said. “Putting your feet up on a porch, having a glass of wine, having sticky hands after eating a peach, knowing that all the farmers and locals are very nice people and easy to talk to… That’s the life we live here.”
Palisades’ recognition began in the late 19th century when early farmers planted the area’s first peach trees. Today, the Palisade Peach is arguably Colorado’s most famous crop, featured and immortalized in nationally available products such as Breckenridge Brewery’s Palisade Peach Wheat beer.
Apples, apricots, plums, lavender and a myriad of vegetables also now grow in abundance. This year, Palisade’s Sunday Farmer’s Market took third place on USA Today’s 2022 Best Farmers Market Readers’ Choice list, even though it was the smallest market nominated.
Summer is prime season for produce, with peaches arriving in July, August and September. Stop by Peach Shack, Talbott Farms, Clark Family Orchards or McLean Farms for peaches, and Field to Fork or Blaine’s Farm Store for other types of locally grown produce.
The harvest can also be enjoyed in Palisades’ restaurants, incorporated in the refined dishes at Pêche, the weekend burger night at Maison La Belle Vie, the cocktails at Fidel’s, the fresh bread and sandwiches at Slice O Life Bakery, and the sweet treats at Palisade Pies.
Restoration Vineyards is a family-owned operation on East Orchard Mesa, across the Colorado River in Palisade.
Colorado’s wine country is ‘the new Sonoma’
Last year, Food & Wine magazine anointed Colorado’s Western Slope as “the new Sonoma,” with the Palisades’ aforementioned orchards and nearly 30 wineries at the heart of the comparison.
As you might imagine, that created quite a buzz among local residents, who have seen the region transition from a collection of “pioneer hobby growers” to a new wave of winemakers.
“Twenty or thirty years ago, when they started making wine here in Palisade, there were farmers who grew fruit and maybe had a small plot of grapes,” said Joe Flynn, a winemaker at Plum Creek Winery who is launching his own label, Peripheric Cellars, this fall. “They were more hobby growers, but they put Palisade on the map as a small wine region, albeit without much fanfare.”
“But as Palisade has evolved, we’ve been taken more seriously,” Flynn said. “More people have come in and realized that the wine here is on par – if not better – than the wine grown west of us, and that Palisade offers a truly unique terrain and growing region that is luring people from overseas to come in, continue where the pioneers relax, refine what they created for us and become a part of this forward-thinking scene.”
Hop on board with Pali Tours for an outdoor “safari-style” wine tasting tour, cruise between vineyards with the always-on-call Palisade Pedicab (also great as a scenic happy hour/dinner taxi service from your accommodation) or rent a bike from Rapid Creek Cycles in downtown Palisade to explore at your own pace using the Fruit & Wine Byway map.
Must stops include Restoration Vineyards, Sauvage Spectrum, Colterris and Carlson Vineyards, among many others.
The Colorado River flows through Palisade.
Julia Cavalieri/Tropical Disco Media
Grand Junction and Fruita
About 20 minutes southwest of Palisade is Grand Junction, the largest city in the Grand Valley.
Understanding the name Grand Junction requires some historical perspective. Much to the delight of rafters and river rats, the Gunnison River flows into the famous Colorado River in this valley.
At the time the area was founded, the Colorado River went by another name: the Grand River. (It was officially changed to the Colorado River in 1921). Hence the names, Grand Junction – the confluence of the Grand and Gunnison rivers – and Grand Valley.
You can see the confluence of the rivers on a bicycle via the Riverfront Trail. Hop on at Las Colonias Park and cruise downstream, finishing at Connected Lakes. Want to take a closer look? Hop on the river by renting a paddleboard or raft from Grand Junction Adventures in Las Colonias Park.
Next, visit Main Street and the surrounding downtown area to see an abundance of locally owned shops, including major antique collectors (A Robin’s Nest); outdoor-oriented thrift stores (Gear Junction); breweries (Ramblevine); and dining options (The Hog and the Hen for charcuterie and fresh sandwiches, Bin 707 for seasonal Colorado fare, and Devil’s Kitchen for steaks and rooftop views, to name a few).
If you want to dress the part, stop by Grand Junction Western Wear or Boot Barn for cowboy hats, boots and outfits.
At night, you can see what’s happening at the area’s music venues, such as the Mesa Theatre, Avalon Theater or Las Colonias Amphitheater. The latter is located right on the Colorado River and often draws major national acts (including Snoop Dogg and 311 this year).
A mountain biker rides the Kokopelli trail system near Fruita, Colorado.
Dave Grossman/Confluence Image/E+/Getty Images
At the very western end of the valley, just 30.5 kilometers from the Utah border, you’ll find Fruita, a small town with a big reputation for its world-class mountain biking, including the Zippity Loop in the North Fruita Wilderness. Hikers should head to the Devil’s Canyon Trail system to hike the cliffs, canyons and streams.
Families will love Dinosaur Journey in Fruita, home to more than 15,000 fossil specimens, interactive exhibits and a paleontology lab. The museum also offers half- and full-day excursions with a professional paleontologist, where children can dig for bones in a working quarry. You can find other dinosaur sites nearby, such as the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway and the family-friendly Dinosaur Hill tour.
Where the mountains meet the desert
In addition to the meeting of the rivers, the name “grand junction” also means another natural merger, one that is very good news for outdoor enthusiasts who want to explore a variety of terrain.
Located on the northeastern corner of the Colorado Plateau, the Grand Valley is where the Rocky Mountains converge with the desert canyons of the Southwest, giving the adventurer easy access to drastically different landscapes via hiking, biking, and scenic drives. An outdoor enthusiast might be in a red rock canyon in the morning, a pine forest trail after lunch, and on the river to end the afternoon.
Colorado National Monument features red rock canyons near Grand Junction.
Start your journey at the east gate of Grand Junction and take Rim Rock Drive west, stopping along the way at trails and overlooks such as Devil’s Kitchen, Ute Canyon and the Independence Monument lookout.
You’ll get expansive views of the Grand Valley as you exit the west gate of Fruita. Then, do as the locals do and top off with beer and the Grand Valley’s best pizza at Hot Tomato in downtown Fruita.
This high alpine recreation area, east of Grand Valley, is home to dense pine forests, aspen groves and more than 300 lakes. It is considered to be the largest flat mountain in the world and boasts countless campsites, cabins and hiking and cycling trails.
For the iconic Grand Mesa experience, tackle the Crag Crest Trail and enjoy the panoramic views; to see a number of backcountry lakes, drive the short but sweet Land O’ Lakes Trail; and spend the night in a mountain cabin at Alexander Lake Lodge or Mesa Lakes Lodge, where you can rent canoes, kayaks or fishing equipment.
On the longer summer days, cool off on the Colorado River and float through Palisade, Grand Junction or Fruita on a rafting, tubing or paddleboarding trip from Paddleboard Adventure Company or Centennial Canoe. End the day with a drink at The Sneak Line in Palisade to swap stories with fellow river-goers.
For lodging with personality, the Wine Valley Inn in Palisade is a good choice.
Will McGough/Wake and Wander Media
Where to stay and how to get there
Main Street in Grand Junction offers a selection of chain hotels for points collectors (including two Marriott properties), and similar, well-known accommodations can also be found in Fruita.
But if you’re looking for local accommodations with personality, Palisade is the place.
For wine country bed and breakfast vibes, stay with Dave and Michelle at the historic, antique-filled Wine Valley Inn (adults only), or enjoy a vacation experience at the Wine Country Inn just up the road.
The choice for bikers and outdoor adventurers is simple: The Spoke & Vine Motel, where locals gather for drinks every Monday. Do you want to camp? Grab a tent or cabin at Palisade Basecamp, located right on the Colorado River.
To access the region, fly into Grand Junction Airport (GJT), which was named the 2021 Colorado Airport of the Year.
Despite its location in remote western Colorado, most people in America can arrive at the Grand Valley with just one connection. There are direct flights from major hubs such as Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Phoenix.