By Jenny Willden
Sun baked my shoulders as I pedaled past vineyards and orchards, ripe fruit hanging off the bending branches. We biked along country blacktop then down a long dirt road to Maison La Belle Vie, a French winery surrounded by a flowering courtyard. Samples of every varietal flowed as we rode from one outstanding winery to the next, and the experience made me feel briefly transported from Colorado to Napa. No, this isn’t the nation’s most famous wine country, but it’s only five hours from Salt Lake City and the wines are, dare I say, just as palate pleasing.
You know of, and have likely visited, Colorado cities like Denver, Grand Junction, and Boulder, but lesser-known gems also dot the mountainous landscape of our neighboring state. I explored two of these towns on Colorado’s western slope, Palisade and Paonia, for a weekend of sipping and cycling that rivals more celebrated locations.
Twenty minutes from Grand Junction (and 4.5 hours from Salt Lake City) Palisade is paradise for peach lovers and home to Colorado’s Fruit and Wine Country. Mesas, grape vines, and orchards line the peaceful streets, and you can load your basket with fresh produce at farmer stands on nearly every corner.
To best explore the area’s charm, hop on a cruiser bike. Bring yours if ya got it, or rent one like we did at Rapid Creek Cycles (rapidcreekcycles.com) on Main Street. The modern three-speeders are equipped with amenities like bells, baskets, locks, and helmets. Tandems are available for trusting twosomes. If you haven’t ridden a cruiser bike before, remember that brakes can be found by simply pedaling backward. This works better than screaming, “Where are the brakes?!” as you careen down a hill, sliding your feet along the ground trying to stop. But I found this is an easy, and embarrassing, way to break the ice with new friends.
From Rapid Creek’s door we cycled a short distance to Plum Creek Winery for a free tour and tastes of their award-winning wines—my favorite being the crisp Sauvignon Blanc. You can bike from here to other wineries on Palisade’s newly opened Fruit and Wine Byway, a 23-mile loop designed to guide visitors through the region’s orchards and vineyards. Our next stop was Maison la Belle Vie, a winery known for exquisite reds and handcrafted walnut liquor. It’s a longer pedal away, but the enchanting atmosphere of their outdoor courtyard makes it a worthwhile stop. Not a wino? Visit Peach Street Distillery before returning your ride to sample their prize-winning craft vodka, brandy, gin, or bourbon. Don’t miss their newest product, Dagave, an agave-based spirit—essentially tequila. Take a lunch break down the street at Palisade Cafe, a 75-year-old diner serving juicy burgers paired with sweet potato fries.
Access advanced singletrack mountain bike riding on two technical loops (5 or 13 miles) along the Palisade Rim Trail near town. Petroglyphs are easy to spot, but you’ll have to tackle tough switchbacks on exposed trails to reach them. Or pick from a dozen nearby rides called Lunch Loops at the Tabegauche Trail, just outside the east entrance of the Colorado National Monument. Discover this region’s other exceptional mountain bike rides on the Grand Valley Trail Alliance website: gvtrails.com.
Riding the 23-mile loop up Rim Rock Drive through the Colorado National Monument, which connects to roads outside the Monument for a 33-mile grand loop, is a popular challenge for road cyclists. The ride boasts 2,300 feet of elevation gain with expansive vistas along the way. Stop to catch your breath at the sheer, red cliffs and rock formations set in this dramatic landscape.
Visit on a Thursday evening for the Grand Junction Summer Farmer’s Market from mid-June to September. Over 100 food, craft, and produce vendors overtake the street to peddle wares and free samples, and I loved tasting the popcorn, fresh salsa, and homemade root beer. Stock up on juicy local peaches, tart cherries, and crisp apples as you wander past artistic sculptures decorating the sidewalks. Close out the night with patio dining and pub fare at Rockslide Restaurant and Brewery (rockslidebrewpub.com) or stellar American favorites at Bin 707 Foodbar (bin707.com).
Maybe it’s the limited cell phone coverage or the delightfully small thoroughfare in town, but visiting Paonia feels like stepping back into yesteryear. Home to a contingent of farmers and winemakers, this town of 1,497 is situated along the North Fork of the Gunnison River—just 5.5 hours from Salt Lake—and is famous for its charming bed and breakfasts, sweet cherries, and fabulous wine.
We stayed at Leroux Creek Inn (lerouxcreekinn.com), in neighboring Hotchkiss, and the site of this beautiful Santa Fe-style bed and breakfast enveloped by flowers and grape vines left me wonderstruck. Our welcoming hosts and innkeepers, Joanna and Yvon Gros, showed us to our well-appointed rooms, all overlooking mountain peaks, desert mesas, or the vineyard. I took a short hike on their expansive grounds, but with more time you could better explore their 54 acres, and even venture to the creek. When I returned, Yvon treated us to an authentic French dinner on the back patio overlooking the grape vines, and conversation flowed like the seemingly endless glasses of their organically grown Cayuga wine. Foodies can request a similar culinary experience when booking. To fully unwind, conclude your evening as we did with a soak in the backyard hot tub as you look out at the starry sky.
A hearty breakfast is included in your room rate, and we awoke to plentiful servings of Paonia cherries paired with yogurt, the best muffins I’ve tasted, and freshly brewed coffee on the sunny patio. If you decide to stay here, book in advance as this popular inn has just five rooms. Or simply stop by Leroux Creek’s tasting room for sips of their organic wines. Innkeeper Joanna also makes her own line of beauty products, Leroux Creek Spa, which you can sample in your room or purchase to take home.
I could’ve spent the whole weekend at Leroux Creek, but we also explored the surrounding area and found Paonia’s tastiest lunch spot, Delicious Orchards (deliciousorchardstore.com). This organic farm store specializes in local products like honey, wine, and fresh cider, and also houses a cafe where we ordered sumptuous sandwiches paired with their ripe Bing cherries. Cherry limeade is on tap—with free refills. (If you can’t get enough cherries, visit July 3-5 for Cherry Days, an expansive festival dedicated to this famous fruit.)
Or pick your own tree-ripened cherries in their orchard. Call ahead to learn what’s ready to harvest, then come fill a bag or box with apples, cherries, apricots, plums, or peaches. Camp on these fertile, scenic grounds for just $10 a night for tent sites or $20 for tipis.
Nearby Orchard Valley Farm also offers you-pick-em fruit, and there’s a market on-site that stocks Colorado-produced foods with balsamic vinegar and wine samples from Black Bridge Winery.
Next we ventured into the hills to my favorite Paonia winery, Azura Cellars and Gallery, a high-altitude boutique establishment that only sells their vintages to visitors. They display fine art throughout the gorgeous tasting room created by the owners, winemakers, and sailors, Ty and Helen Gillespie. Helen poured tastes for us while regaling stories of their seven-year sailing trip around the world. Step outside to look down on the lush North Fork Valley, then enjoy a cheese plate and glass of wine in their stonewalled courtyard.
Mountain bike trails for technical or new riders can be found on Paonia’s Jumbo Mountain Trails System, which is comprised of fast, packed, smooth singletrack maintained by expert local riders. Stop by Paonia’s Galaxy Bike and Sport for a map or to rent a bike, then ride to the trails from the shop. The fast, flowy singletrack on Ridge of Doom is a favorite among advanced riders. Cool off with a post-ride brew made the old-fashioned way at Revolution Brewing (revolution-brewing.com), located across the street from Galaxy Bike. You won’t anything pasteurized, filtered, or artificial here. Just good beer.
Before heading home, divert 40 miles off course to the often-overlooked but simply stunning, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Formed through the centuries by powerful flowing water, this 2,700 foot deep, narrow canyon has distinctive marbled walls with drops so sheer they make my stomach leap. Hike around the rim to take in the enormity of it, or stop at scenic overlooks to peer into this majestic place. Treacherous hikes into the Canyon exist, but all are unmarked and rife with poison ivy, so explore at your own risk.
What are you waiting for? Skip the crowds and load your bikes on the rack for a trip to these charming Colorado communities.
Jenny is the Managing Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide and a self-proclaimed gear and grammar nut. She loves adventure and is happiest when riding horses or snowboarding in Utah’s mountains. Llama racing and deal finding are her secret superpowers. Follow Jenny’s exploits on Twitter @jennywillden or on Google+.