When I first moved to Colorado, I learned of the term ‘mud season’, and I quickly learned that this was not the time to visit the mountains. So where is a Colorado visitor to go in April and May if they want to play outdoors? Point your car west and drive right through the mountains to the ‘other side of the state’ that seems to be gaining a lot of attention lately – Grand Junction.
This was my first visit to ‘the other side of Colorado’ beyond just driving through. I had always been awed by the beautiful Western Slope landscape while driving on I70, but this time I stopped to experience a variety of outdoor things to do in Grand Junction CO.
Western Colorado has mountains, rivers, canyons, lakes, and high desert – and the best part – few visitors.
Why Go to Grand Junction in the Spring
You might know Grand Junction as the gateway to Colorado’s farming and wine culture – but it’s so much more than that! On my first trip to Grand Junction, I was introduced to what an incredible outdoor recreation area it is. While the mountains are experiencing mud season and the front range is still getting freak temperature swings and snow storms, Grand Junction is experiencing a perfectly beautiful spring.
In fact, the first thing I noticed in Grand Junction were the lilac bushes blooming. The beautiful spring scent filled the air everywhere I went. Since lilacs are my favorite flower, I take special notice of them wherever I am. I’m on ‘lilac watch’ starting every April and I knew that Denver was at least 3 to 4 weeks away from seeing any lilacs. In fact, it seemed that Grand Junction was about 4 weeks ahead of the eastern part of the state when it came to spring in general!
In May, the average high-temperature rises, from a mild 58.6°F in April, to a pleasant 69.1°F. The average low-temperature, in Grand Junction, is 45°F.
Denver to Grand Junction
It’s only a 4 hour drive from Denver to Grand Junction on 1-70; however, if you don’t want to drive, you can easily fly there too! Starting in June 2021, Frontier airlines added non-stop flights from Denver to Grand Junction for rates as low as $50. Frontier is just one of many carriers that have flights to Grand Junction; also check out Delta Connection, United Express, Allegiant Air, American Eagle, and Denver Air Connection. Or maybe you want to sit back and enjoy the scenic ride along 1-70 on Bustang!
3 Days of Outdoor Things to Do in Grand Junction CO
I spent 3 days enjoying the mild spring weather and things to do in Grand Junction, and I barely scratched the surface of what the area had to offer.
Day 1: Hike, Drive, and Photograph the Colorado Monument
Locals simply refer to it as ‘the Monument’, this part of the national park system in Colorado is a relatively unknown to most visitors. Prior to my trip, if you had shown me a picture of the Colorado National Monument, I would’ve guessed that it was somewhere in Utah. However, while people flock to Utah for a desert landscape and arches, you can escape the crowds and get that experience at the Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction.
Rim Rock Drive & the Colorado Monument at Sunrise
I started out by waking up with the sun for my first look at the Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction. This is one of Western Colorado’s best-kept secrets of the National Park Service. I spent the entire day driving the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive. It hugs the canyon rim and cliffs of the Monument providing a unique perspective of the Grand Valley below
The road was started in 1931 through the Civilian Conservation Corp, but wasn’t finished until 1950 (with a delay due to the war). The goal was to design a scenic drive to showcase the features of the park. It has 3 tunnels blasted through solid rock, and lots of stomach-churning hair pin turns. Luckily the creators had the forethought to include plenty of pull-outs along the drive to safely enjoy the jaw-dropping views.
Surprisingly there is little traffic which also makes Rim Rock Drive a popular road biking route. I thought about trying to tackle the 23 miles on my bike, however I decided to save that for another day when I was in better climbing shape. The vertical climb is 2,300 feet – a decent challenge when you are already where the air is thin at 6,000+ feet. Plus, there are many steep switchbacks. Mark my words…I will be back to do this!
There are a number of views where you can see the winding road below and appreciate what an engineering feat it was to create. If you come at sunrise like I did, you’ll get this view of the orange cliffs and the Rim Rock Drive.
The Visitor Center is located once you climb to the top of the monument cliffs and it’s a recommended stop. Not only does it provide you with the history and geology of the park, but there’s a great hike that starts behind the building!
Fees are $25 per vehicle. If you are entering on foot or bike the fee is $15 per person. Or you can use your annual National Park pass. More on the Colorado National Monument.
Best Hikes to Do on Rim Rock Road
There are a number of short hikes you can do right from Rim Rock Road. If you do nothing else – make sure you do the Canyon Rim hike behind the visitor center – it’s only a mile and it’s flat. Since I was there at sunrise, I essentially had the entire hike to myself. The trail follows the edge of the cliff, however it’s up to you how close you want to get to that edge. My fear of heights kept me away from the edge, but a few times I timidly wandered to the edge and peered over. Eek!
There were so many wonderful spots to stop and take in the incredible view while watching the birds soar above you. Go early in the morning as I did and experience the sun light up the canyon turning it from brown to orange right before your eyes.
I also stopped to hike and admire the views on Otto’s Trail (1 mile), and Coke Ovens Trail (1 mile). There are many other hikes to do (from the top or bottom) that will challenge you.
Nearly every trail you can get spectacular views of Independence Monument – one of the highlights of Colorado National Monument.
Every 4th of July a few daring people climb the monument and put an American flag at the top. This is a tradition started by John Otto, whose advocacy and vision led to the monument’s establishment in 1911. He was the first to climb Independence Monument. However, he also has a bit of a sad history with the monolith. He was married at the base on Independence Monument, however his marriage only lasted 2 weeks when his wife left him and never came back because she didn’t like the wilderness life he lived!
Main Street Bagel Picnic Lunch
Plan ahead and grab a bagel sandwich from Main Street Bagel to go and bring it with you to the monument for a little picnic lunch while hiking! This way you can have lunch with the most beautiful view imaginable!
Wine Tasting in the Grand Valley
After spending the morning and a picnic lunch at the Monument, come back down into the valley and enjoy some wine tasting. I stayed at one of the few wineries in the region with lodging – Two Rivers Winery and Château. The winery actually has beautiful views of the Monument from below.
I met Bob, the founder of Two Rivers Winery to do some tasting. He led me through the tasting teaching me how to recognize the different acids found in wine. I chewed the wine, I dipped my tongue into the wine, I let wine rest in the top of my throat, and more. It was the most educational tasting I had ever done! Not only did he teach me all about how to understand the acids of wine and how to decipher them, he also told me his fascinating origin story of the winery.
Two Rivers produces a number of different wines all from Colorado grapes. Plus, they have a beautiful outdoor patio area to enjoy the valley views and wine tasting. And if you stay at the Chateau, you only have a few hundred feet to walk back to your room!
Dinner at Rood 626
I kept the wine flowing at Rood 626 specializing in local, seasonal cuisine in Grand Junction. Chef Theo Otte works closely with the local farmers and ranchers to highlight the seasonal food of the Grand Valley and pairs that with their extensive wine list.
Day 2: Heat Up with Mountain Biking and Cool Down With SUP
Today was all about learning new things and pushing my own comfort zone in the unique landscapes with Grand Junction Adventures. How do you know your limits until you push yourself and fail a few times? I did that in both Mountain biking (I have the bruises to prove it) and SUP on Day 2 in Grand Junction CO. Each of the experiences left me feeling really great about pushing myself and learning something new.
“We stayed here (in Grand Junction) because it’s so close to mountain biking, water sports, climbing, and hiking,” explained Elizabeth, Michigan native and owner of Grand Junction Adventures. It’s true, Grand Junction has a bit of everything for the outdoor adventurer.
Lunch Loops Trail System
What started out as an old jeep road connecting Grand Junction and Montrose evolved into one of the most popular trail systems in the Grand Valley. Lunch Loops is an iconic mountain biking trail system just a few minutes from downtown Grand Junction serving all levels of mountain bikers.
There was only one problem, even though I’m an avid road biker, I didn’t know how to mountain bike! Luckily Grand Junction Adventures can help with that. I did a half day of beginning (or any level) mountain biking lessons around Lunch Loops with Dave.
After discussing the differences between road biking and mountain biking (bike design, form, power, balance), Dave started me out on a trail called Kids Meal. He was careful to explain to me that this didn’t mean it was an easy trail for kids – it was simply built by kids.
I started out slow and a bit wobbly trying to get used to the feel of the bike as well as the seat that went up and down with the push of a button! After getting used to more standing, and where to look ahead on the trail, Dave did some ‘sessioning practice’ (doing a section multiple times until you get it) with me.
He picked a large rock (at least it seemed large to me) and taught me how to get over it. Dave could tell I was a bit intimidated and yelled “Your bike dreams of rocks!” just was I was turning around and starting the attempt at it again. I laughed and got a little burst of confidence. After multiple times, a few falls, and his coaching, I was able to conquer that rock!
We moved from him leading the way on the single track trails to me leading on the trails and learning how to ‘read’ the trails and pick my way through the obstacles. After a couple of hours and his encouragement, I was doing beginning single track confidently!
It was a night and day difference between how I started and how I ended. I know this because Dave wisely took me on the same section of trail at the end that we started on and even the way I saw the trail had changed. It’s rare that you can see progress in just a short couple of hours – but with his teaching method – you could. He pushed me just enough to give me just enough failures, and confidence that I could get it!
There are trails at Lunch Loops for all levels, and it’s a super place to learn and practice! Or if you are already a mountain biking expert, you can get lost for hours in this rocky desert riding!
Lunch at Café Sol – the Perfect Adventure Food
You’ll need to fuel up for this active outdoor adventure day! Stop at Café Sol in downtown Grand Junction for healthy organic salads and sandwiches!
Test Your Balance at Colorado River SUP
After a dusty morning of riding, it was time to slow down and float! I went out with Elizabeth, a master stand up paddle boarder, to conquer the Colorado River! This section of the Colorado River that flows through Grand Junction is really friendly and mellow, making it a great place to SUP.
Stand up paddle boarding on a river does provide a few challenges though as I was quickly going to find out! Elizabeth instructed me on safety tips about debris, what to look for, how to step off, and also not get your foot stuck on rocks. We started on our knees until I was comfortable enough to stand up. Right as I stood up a big gust of wind blew, giving me the ‘wobblies’. Mother Nature was challenging my sense of balance but I won out…this time.
We floated past Blue Heron nests, bald eagles, and even saw a few fish in the water. I started to get the hang of the strokes and my ability to keep me going somewhat straight despite the wind. I let out a deep breath and relaxed into the current and movement of the river.
There are a number of ripply rapids on this float, you can choose to do them on your knees or standing. As long as you stay calm and loose, you’ll be fine. Elizabeth instructed me how to tackle the rapids and follow her line. I was doing great until we came to one rapid that tested my resolve – and it won. I thought I was going to be able to hold on, but suddenly I caught one powerful ripple that threw me off balance and in I went! The water was chilly – but honestly it felt pretty refreshing on the hot afternoon!
You’ll find Grand Junction SUP and Adventures at Las Colonias Park in Grand Junction. This is a new park that was just finished in 2020 and highlights the riverfront with trails, am amphitheater, and skate parks. You can either rent boards and paddle around yourself, or do a float with a guide like I did. Grand Junction SUP not only rents paddleboards, but they also have rafts, kayaks, and more!
Happy Hour with Highlands Distillery
After my day of adventure, it was time to celebrate my new skills with a cocktail. I went out to Highlands Distillery to enjoy their outdoor patio and view while sipping one of their inventive cocktails. It’s not just a distillery, but it’s also a lavender farm – so the view is beautiful – and fragrant.
I met Dillon, the master distiller to learn about how he and his father started this creative venture. They distill gin, vodka (in a rum barrel), and rye whiskey. Dillon has created a menu of refreshing and ingenious cocktails that change seasonally.
Go there to learn about distillation with a tour, walk through the lavender fields, grab an Italian style sandwich with their new food truck, or shop for lavender gifts at their shop!
Dinner at Il Bistro Italiano
I finished this active day by replenishing all of those calories I burned biking and SUP’ing at Il Bistro Italiano. Be prepared for big servings of handmade pasta, and an extensive wine menu at this Main Street restaurant.
Day 3: Bike the Colorado River Trail, Peaches, and Alpacas
I brought my bike along from Denver (you can also easily rent a bike) because I heard about Colorado River Trail as a way to really see the beauty of the valley. In addition, I wasn’t going to leave Grand Junction without learning more about why this area was the bread basket of Colorado!
Breakfast at Dream Café
Get ready for your big bike ride with a hearty breakfast from Dream Café. Grand Junction’s Main Street is filled with great restaurants, but Dream Café is one you’ll hear about over and over from locals and tourists. Choose a sweet or savory breakfast – you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
Biking Grand Junction Riverfront Trail
Biking the Riverfront Trail was one of the highlights of my things to do in Grand Junction. I started in Fruita and biked approximately 27 miles through Grand Junction to Palisade on this newly connected trail following the Colorado River. It provides an incredible view of the valley and highlights the importance of agriculture and the river is for the area. And it’s bookended by the Colorado National Monument and Grand Mesa views; it doesn’t get much better than this…and did I mention…it’s a flat trail!
Actually, my first few miles followed the canal system in the valley that is so crucial to the agriculture. It sort of reminded me of Europe riding along the little canals! Next I coasted through the Audubon park keeping my eyes peeled for blue herons and other birds, then I came to one of my favorite and understated parts of the trail – the confluence. The name “Grand Junction” comes the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers; two significant Colorado riverways.
You’ll bike right through the newly developed Las Colonias Park, past the amphitheater, and Grand Junction SUP from the previous day’s adventures. This is also a great area to stop for a beer at the Edgewater Brewery.
You’ll ride past the James M. Robb Colorado River State Park and the Grand Mesa will start to come into view as you coast closer to Palisade. The lakes give way to more fields as the trail merges out onto farm roads. This was actually one of my favorite parts of the trail biking past wineries and beautiful farm houses all the way into the quaint town of Palisade.
I zipped along at a good pace for the entire ride, however you can also make a whole day of it and treat it as a relaxing bike ride stopping frequently to enjoy the wildlife, river views, and many restaurants along the way!
A Well Deserved Lunch at Palisade Brewery
Everyone needs a carrot for a little encouragement, and my ‘carrot’ for my bike ride was at Palisade Brewery in the form of a craft beer! I ended my bike ride at the brewery for a High Desert Red beer and lunch.
Suncrest Orchard and Alpaca Farm
My last stop in the Grand Junction area represented the heart of this region – farming and Agritourism. I met Mike of the Suncrest Orchard and Alpaca Farm. He’s been running the family farm for decades, and has been integral in bringing agritourism to the region.
You might wonder why you would visit a farm as part of your vacation. I travel to satiate my curiosity – and when I can learn and see things like this that is important to the region, I am excited. Travel can make us think deeper about something, and in this case, it can also make us appreciate where our food and clothes come from.
Mike has over 4,000 peach trees that were just starting to bloom. He walked me through the orchard explaining the uniqueness of Palisade Peaches. My mouth was practically watering at the thought of the sweet, peachy goodness. However, I would have to wait until July/August to sink my teeth into them; Palisade peach patience.
Mike is also one of a handful of Alpaca farmers in the Grand Valley. He stared working with Alpacas because it’s an animal that his wife isn’t allergic to! Visitors can not only learn about, feed, and walk with the alpacas, but you can also learn all about why these animals are so valuable.
The farm offers interactive and educational tours where you can learn some interesting facts, and then see how this amazing, warm fiber is spun into yarn by touring their mini mill. Mike is one of only 50 millers in the US and is self-taught. It’s a fascinating process to watch sheered fur from one alpaca turn into individual threads, then yarn, then numerous hats and scarves. They mill over 5,000 lbs of wool a year!
The gift shop sells hats, yarn, scarves, and variety of other handmade items.
Dinner at Taco Party
I spent the last night in Grand Junction at a local favorite – Taco Party. With an ever rotating menu, Taco Party showcases products grown, made, or sourced in the Grand Valley – from farmers, ranchers, brewers, distillers, winemakers, to friends & neighbors. From this they come up with things like hot fried chicken tacos, crispy cauliflower tacos, and Colorado beef pastrami tacos! And don’t forget to wash it down with a margarita and treat yourself to some soft serve icecream…that’s what 29 miles on the Colorado River Trail will get you!
These are the activities I did during my 3 days in Grand Junction; however if you want a complete list of things to do in Grand Junction
check this out.
When you are tired of winter and are ready to race into spring – Grand Junction is the place to be in Colorado! Pull that swimsuit out of the back of your dresser, Get your bike out of the garage, and pack some shorts – head to Grand Junction to get your spring adventures on!
I was a guest of Visit Grand Junction during my stay there, however all opinions expressed here are my own and I chose my own itinerary based on things I like to do.