Four hours from Denver near the western border of Colorado lies the picturesque city of Grand Junction. This medium-sized city of nearly 60,000 residents is large enough to have everything you could want in a city, yet small enough that it hasn’t lost its small town warmth and sense of community.
Our adventure began that night with dinner at Enzo’s Pizzeria and Italian Café. Enzo’s is a local favorite for Italian fare. I unwound from our drive with my first glass of local red wine and a plate of Enzo’s signature Ziti. Reagan twirled to the music playing on the deck where we dined then ate a few bites of her buttered noodles before laying her head in my lap and declaring she was done for the night. Fortunately, the comfort of our hotel was just a block away at the newest hotel in Grand Junction, the Holiday Inn & Suites.
It was only a five-minute drive to downtown Grand Junction for Mix and Match pancakes the next morning at the hip, Dream Café on Main Street. A guitarist added to the hipster vibe on the Dream Café patio across the street from a vintage clothing store.
Grapes, peaches, apricots, plums and more are all grown in nearby Palisade where we were given a horse drawn carriage ride and tour of Clark Orchards. We passed many fruit stands along the way, but decided on the peach salsa from Clark Orchards. It didn’t last long at our house.
Another type of farm in Palisade was most unexpected – the Sun Crest Orchard Alpacas Farm. Visitors are welcome to come feed the Alpacas and take a tour of how their wool is spun into yarn in the onsite mini mill.
We took our time driving back to Grand Junction from Palisade, winding through the beautiful farmland where fields of lavender contrasted with the green grape vines and adult visitors can choose to tour the 21 wineries by bicycle or car.
For over 50 years, Grand Junction has been home to the world’s finest almond toffee by Enstrom Candies. A visit to Grand Junction isn’t complete without a stop at Enstrom’s candy shop, ice cream and espresso bar. Reagan and I shared a homemade strawberry shake while shopping for gift boxes of candy in the store. On weekdays, you can even watch the candy being made right there in the shop.
It was time for some hands-on fun at John McConnell Math & Science Center of Western Colorado. With more than 160 hands-on exhibits made from common materials, kids of all ages can have fun exploring science and math concepts. John McConnell is not your typical fancy, city science center, but rather like a school science fair on steroids. It was just one of several pleasant surprises we would find in Grand Junction.
Summer temps in Grand Junction are at least 10 degrees higher than in Denver and we were definitely feeling it. Reagan couldn’t wait to head to the Main Street Fountain Play Park she had spotted earlier in the day. The fountain is just one of many things that brings families to the downtown area – there is also a variety of unique gift shops, boutiques, antique stores, bars and restaurants in addition to a collection of over 100 charming outdoor sculptures.
Across the street from the fountain is Rockslide Restaurant and Brewery with an irresistible outdoor patio smartly located next to a play area with giant ape sculptures meant for climbing. Rockslide has the biggest and most delicious kid’s meal (Reagan had the burger, fries and a drink) I’ve ever tasted for a great price. Can’t decide on just one microbrew? Order the flight of four, like I did.
It wouldn’t be a Bird Family outing without a little chaos, which is exactly what happened when we arrived at Colorado National Monument for a Ranger led hike early the next morning. Following my GPS, I drove to the west entrance of the park in Fruita, 45 minutes further than I needed to be. The hike started at the east entrance in Grand Junction. Realizing my mistake, we made the best of it and set out on our own hike along Canyon Rim Trail, which offers amazing views of the canyons and red rocks that make up just a small part of this 32-square-mile park. At the end of the trail was an overlook with a breathtaking view of the valley below – a just reward.
Speaking of rewards, Reagan also earned her first Junior Ranger badge while learning about our National Parks.
After our hike and leisurely drive along the park’s 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, lunch at the Main Street Café back in Grand Junction never tasted so good. Especially fresh strawberry shakes. These were even better than the one we shared at Enstrom’s and I highly recommend you stop in for one when you visit.
How’s this for a surprise? Grand Junction has the historical distinction of being the site where North America’s largest dinosaurs once roamed the land. Paleontologists are still making discoveries there today. Our final stop for the weekend was at Dinosaur Journey where you can wander through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods among skeletal and animated dinosaurs, or dig for fossils in the Kid’s Dig Pit. A working paleontology lab is viewable from the top floor.
Activities in Grand Junction and the surrounding area are year-round. In contrast to the Colorado National Monument’s red rock formations stands the Grand Mesa, which is more like a Rocky Mountain Forest. Covered in pines and aspen, the Grand Mesa offers hiking, boating and fishing in the summer, and skiing and snowboarding at Powderhorn Mountain Resort in the winter.
Whether for a relaxing retreat or grand adventure, Grand Junction is a family vacation destination that will constantly surprise you.