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March/April 2002
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AAA Mini Tour

The sepctacular Colorado National Monument, Near Grand Junction, Colo.
Photo: Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau

Grand Escape
by Margo Ellis

This AAA Mini Tour takes travelers through the Grand Valley of Colorado's Western Slope-a unique setting rich in ancient history, scenic wonders and outdoor recreation. Surrounded by Colorado National Monument to the southwest, Grand Mesa to the east, and the Book Cliffs to the north, Grand Junction's diverse landscapes contribute to the city's distinct character.

Historically, this region is well-known for the subterranean Jurassic treasures that are unearthed daily. More than 30 species of dinosaurs have been discovered in the region, making the area a paleontological hub. Dinosaur Journey Museum (affiliated with the Museum of Western Colorado), located just off Interstate 70 in Fruita, provides visitors the experience of lifelike robotic dinosaur replicas, hands-on activities and a working paleontology laboratory where scientists restore and preserve the fossils of dinosaurs found in nearby quarries. Additionally, the museum offers dinosaur digs and expeditions. For more information, call 888-488-DINO.

To learn more about the history of Grand Junction and neighboring communities, visit the Museum of Western Colorado, located at 462 Ute Ave. in downtown Grand Junction. The museum features regional history exhibits, programs and educational tours. Permanent exhibits include an 11-decade timeline, an Old West firearms display and a turn-of-the-century schoolroom replica. Call the museum at 970-242-0971 for hours and admission fees.

If you enjoy Native American art, be sure to visit the Western Colorado Center for the Arts, 1803 N. 7th St., to see an impressive collection of traditional Navajo rugs, paintings and prints. Modern art, pottery and black-and-white prints are displayed in the second gallery. Art classes and workshops are offered by local artists year-round. For more information on the center, call 970-243-7337.

Bordering the downtown area to the east, located where heaps of old tires and junk car parts used to be, is the 400-square-foot Western Colorado Botanical Gardens and Butterfly House-a haven of more than 600 tropical plants and approximately 600 North American native butterflies. The 12-acre site is located on South 7th St. and Struthers Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. Call 970-245-9030 for more information.

Blessed with ideal fruit-growing conditions, the fertile Grand Valley near Grand Junction is home to numerous orchards as well as eight local wineries-the largest concentration in the state. Growers planted more than 100,000 fruit trees along the Gunnison River in the 1880s, and as irrigation waters brought rich harvest from the fertile valley, the community soon became a distribution and trade center for western Colorado and eastern Utah.

Visitors may take advantage of Colorado Wine Country Tours, which offer an inside look at the winemaking process. At each winery, visitors have the opportunity to view behind-the-scenes winemaking, talk with wine experts and taste a variety of locally made wines. Tours are available via limousine (customized) or van. Prices begin at $25 per person. For further information, contact American Spirit Shuttle at 888-226-5031.

When it comes to recreation, Grand Junction offers endless outdoor adventure and entertainment. Biking options abound in the area-along the Colorado Riverfront trails (handicap-accessible), Kokopelli's Trail, Tabeguache Trail and around the valley's orchards. Maps are available at the Bureau of Land Management, 970-244-3000, and at local bike shops.

Come spring and summer, hiking is a popular activity in Grand Junction. Trails in and around the city range from easy to very difficult. Trail Guides are available at the Visitor Center (I-70 and Horizon Drive). For hiking with a twist of history, try exploring Dinosaur Hill, Riggs Hill and Rabbit Valley-all with self-guided trails through sites where dinosaur remains were discovered. Call 970-858-7282 for maps and information.

Other local recreational pursuits include golfing, rafting, canoeing, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing, camping, in-line skating, and more. If you're interested, the Visitor Center has complete listings of vendors, information and details, 970-244-1480.

Heading toward Colorado National Monument, from downtown Grand Junction, take Grand Avenue west until it becomes Broadway (Hwy. 340) and follow the signs across the Colorado River. Turn left at the Monument Road intersection just after crossing the river. Take Monument Road about four miles to the east entrance to Colorado National Monument.

Colorado National Monument is a 20,453-acre testament to the artistry of wind and water. Plan to spend a half-day exploring and sightseeing among the skyscraping sandstone monoliths and deep, sheer-walled canyons. If you can, visit in the early morning or late evening to witness the effect of low-angle light on the red rock.

Monument Road becomes Rim Rock Drive, the main road through the park. Rim Rock Drive allows motorists and bicyclists an easy way to see the landscape from the northern edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. The 23-mile drive winds around the edges of the canyon, which is narrow in places, so drive with extra caution. For a more tangible look at the terrain, short hikes include Coke Ovens, Window Rock and Otto's Trail. The Visitor Center, located four miles from the west entrance (or exit), provides information on these hikes as well as educ-ational exhibits. The entrance fee is $5 per vehicle, April through September.

The next scenic drive on the tour is the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway, a National Scenic Byway. From I-70, take Exit 49 and drive south on State Road 65. This 51-mile route leads to the town of Cedaredge and traverses Grand Mesa, said to be the world's largest flat-topped mountain. Known as Thunder Mountain by the Utes, Grand Mesa averages a 10,000-foot elevation and consists of lush meadows, forests and more than 200 stream-fed lakes.

The mesa offers abundant recreational opportunities, including fishing, boating, hiking and mountain biking. In late winter and early spring, the hiking trails and backcountry roads can be used for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Picnic areas, public campgrounds and rental cabins are also available.

Just past Skyway is Lands End Road. Turn right on this dirt road for the short drive to Lands End Overlook. From this vantage point you'll have sweeping vistas of the Gunnison and Colorado River valleys.

Return to the byway along Lands End Road and continue traveling south. As the highway meanders down toward the valley floor, you'll be treated to more scenic views of farms and orchards below and mountain peaks to the south and west.

Continuing along SR 65, you'll come to the small agricultural town of Cedaredge, known for its apple, peach and pear orchards. Continue driving south to SR 92, then west toward Delta. Laid out in 1882 by the Uncompahgre Town Company, Delta was first named Uncompahgre; the name was later changed because the shape of the town resembled that of the Greek letter. Unlike many Colorado towns, Delta started and stayed small. It has remained steadily prosperous, owing its stability to agriculture, particularly fruit crops.

From Delta, head 45 miles northwest on Hwy. 50, leading back to Grand Junction, to complete this AAA Mini Tour.

For more information on attractions, restaurants and lodging in the area, view our online AAA Colorado TourBook or visit your nearest AAA office,

Questions or comments about this Mini Tour may be e-mailed to mellis@colorado.aaa.com The spectacular Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction, Colo.



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