Grand Junction, Colorado: Pedal Your Way Through Paradise
It’s Colorado topography in transition, a place where snow-fed streams surge into sandstone desert and flattop peaks fall to canyon precipices. Naked cliffs, their bases hemmed with stony skirts, stretch along one side of Interstate 70. Across the roadway, vineyards and orchards line a tree-trimmed Colorado River. This ring of merging landforms turns the Grand Junction area into an outdoor theater of scenery in the round.
While panoramas seen from car windows can be stunning, a more intimate way to appreciate the region’s bluffs, buttes, mountains and mesas is onboard vehicles offering unobstructed views. For the muscle-motivated, that can mean swapping pistons for pedals and exploring the valley on two wheels instead of four.
The Grand Junction area offers rides for bicyclers of all levels. The land along the valley floor lies flat enough for family touring, and the surrounding highlands provide hills and trails for athletes craving a leg-cranking challenge. There are wineries to visit and vistas to view. Trails are many, rural roads remain generally uncrowded, and the warm climate averages 275 days of sunshine annually.
Grand Junction provides motorists an incentive to strap bikes on the rack and head for the West Slope. Visitors lacking their own equipment will find an array of shops that rent everything from Lance Armstrong-style road racers to full-suspension mountain hoppers. Lovers craving tandem togetherness can even rent bicycles built for two.
The question is where best to go. Here are some suggestions for some of the area’s best rides.
Easy Road Biking
A day of family fun can be found on the Redlands Loop of Grand Junction’s Riverfront Trail. From Riverside Park, the 8-mile paved route follows the Colorado River from its confluence with the Gunnison, the “junction” for which the city was named.
Heading northwesterly, the Riverfront Trail winds through cottonwood groves and past wetlands and marshes rife with bird life. After passing Blue Heron Lake, the trail meets the Redlands Parkway, veers southwest, crosses the river and returns along another channel of waterway. For an after-ride lunch, a short side-jaunt leads to Main Street, a pedestrian-friendly, vehicle-accessible boulevard featuring shops and restaurants.
Moderate Road Biking
For a modest all-day ride, it’s tough to beat the Tour of the Vineyards route, a 25-mile loop route imbued in the springtime with the fragrance of peach blossoms and the soft scent of sage. Following rural roadways, the ride passes at least 10 of the area’s acclaimed wineries, meaderies and cellars.
Bikers often pack bread and cheese, buy a bottle of a local varietal, and enjoy a picnic along the way. Unlike California, Colorado wineries seldom charge for tastings. For those who crave fresh fruit, the route also passes summertime fresh fruit stands.
The two-wheel journey through the agrarian scenery offers just enough climbing to make riders feel they are getting a workout. The biggest challenge is figuring out the road numbering system, where streets display names such as 35 Road and E-1/2 Road.
Extreme Road Biking
For a good gear-grinder, take the 33-mile Rim Rock loop through Colorado National Monument. This red-rock enclave southwest of town features 11 different canyon systems, and the cliff-top views stretching across Grand Junction to Grand Mesa can be inspiring. Even panting pedalers issue awes.
The roadway switchbacks up the sandstone cliffs, climbing 2,300 feet above the valley floor. Unfortunately, the pavement is narrow, drop-offs extreme, and there are several short tunnels to negotiate along the way. This is a ride best done with light traffic on a slow midweek day.
The journey across the monument can be taken in either of two directions with Colorado Highway 340 connecting the starting points. Each offers its advantages.
“If you do it from the east, the Grand Junction side, you get all of the climbing out of the way in the first few miles,” says local biker Mary Monholland. “Then it’s around and down. If you do the other way, it’s not quite as steep, but it’s spread out for a longer climb.”
Easy Mountain Biking
As good as it is for pavement pedaling, Grand Junction and neighboring Fruita may even be better known for their fat-tire trails. Among enthusiasts, the area is even challenging the mountain biking mecca of Moab as the West Slope’s best place to ride.
One of the best family-friendly mountain bike trails is Rustler’s Loop, perfect for knobby-tire beginners. It features informational signs along the route that explain the ethics of riding, along with how best to climb, corner and descend the terrain that follows. For those new to the sport, it’s like pedaling with an instructor.
Although the 3.6-mile route starts with a short climb on a gravel road, the remainder of the trail is single track, which means it’s one-bike wide. It winds along East Horsethief Bench with views 200 feet down to the Colorado River. The trail turns, traverses slickrock and small drainages and then heads toward a band of cliffs, which it parallels back to the parking lot.
Moderate Mountain Biking
A favorite intermediate riding venue lies along the Book Cliffs at the end of 18 Road north of Fruita. Here, riders can negotiate desert bluffs, gullies, ribs and ridges that were once an inland sea. Similar rock-forming sediments once covered the bones of dinosaurs, which can now be seen at the Museum of Western Colorado’s Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita. This kid-friendly place even sponsors dinosaur digs.
For bikers wanting to get their own bones in motion, a good ride is the 7-mile Chutes and Ladders loop. From the parking lot, the route descends to a cow pond before climbing a small valley. A series of leg-taxing drainages (chutes) and hills (ladders) follow. The return is a fast downhill run on a singletrack path complete with big air-raising berms, dips and jumps.
Camping at road’s end is free, but the area features neither water nor toilet facilities. Riders are asked to keep the trails clean and never pedal in the rain or when the ground is muddy.
Extreme Mountain Biking
While the 18 Road trailhead also accesses extreme terrain for experts, it’s the hardcore Kokopelli’s Trail for which the area is most famous. Named for the native Southwest god of fertility, this 142-mile strip of trail connects the mountain biking communities of Fruita and Moab, Utah. Between these two towns, the land lies empty and wild.
Kokopelli’s Trail parallels the Colorado River, detouring overland where canyon cliffs hem its banks. Juniper and pinyon pine dot the landscape, and the La Sal Mountains tower in the distance. Water and civilization are seldom seen. Most of the extended route is singletrack bike trail interspersed with short sections of county and four-wheel-drive roads. With climbs reaching 8,500 feet, the riding can be delightful in places and downright character building in others.
Approaching Moab, the bike route crosses the Colorado River beside where the wooden Dewey suspension bridge built in 1916 once stood.
If You Go
Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau
740 Horizon Dr., Grand Junction, CO 81506
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, www.LookingForTheWorld.com.