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Grand Destination Spectacular Junction: Small Colorado town attracts tourists with its wineries, weirdness and scenery.


Want a bit of both the sublime and the quirky -- if not downright ridiculous -- with plenty of variety sandwiched in between on your next vacation? Try Grand Junction, Colo.

It may not be a well-known destination, but this growing area in the far western reaches of Colorado's Rocky Mountains has plenty to offer, from a re-emerging wine industry and sometimes zany display of outdoor sculptures to the spectacular sandstone scenery of nearby Colorado National Monument.

Just 30 miles east of the Utah border, Grand Junction is the hub of the Grand Valley, wider than the Grand Canyon and in some spots almost half as deep. Rimmed by orange sandstone cliffs 2,000 feet high on one side and by the formidable Book Cliffs on the other, the valley is home to a century-old Colorado wine industry that was reborn in 1978 and is now attracting national attention.

Though the region's winemaking ended abruptly in 1916 when Colorado passed a prohibition law, it has grown so much since its rebirth that wineries have become the area's No. 2 visitor attraction, according to the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau. (No. 1 is the Colorado National Monument; third place goes to the dinosaur museum and the region's numerous dinosaur digs.)

In the seven years since Colorado Cellars opened in Palisade a few miles east of Grand Junction, winemaking has expanded to five vineyards in and around the town. All have tours and tasting rooms. Last year, the region's 380 acres of vineyards produced 82,500 gallons of wine.

Among the older and better known area wineries is Plum Creek Cellars, where Erik Bruner, a geologist by training, is part owner and winemaker. Mr. Bruner says Plum Creek insists on using 100 percent Colorado-grown grapes since the soils, high altitude and climate produce a particularly distinctive flavor.

On the outskirts of Palisade off Interstate 70, Plum Creek winery is surrounded by vineyards in the shadow of Mount Garfield and the Book Cliff Mountains.

The industry's importance to the region is such now that the Fourth Annual Colorado Winefest was celebrated last month in Grand Junction and Palisade with tastings, tours, seminars, exhibits and entertainment.

For those who prefer a less sophisticated beverage, the Rockslide Microbrewery recently opened on Grand Junction's tree-lined Main Street, or Downtown Shopping Park, as it has been redesignated.

Installed along the sidewalks in the Downtown Shopping Park is "Art on the Corner," an array of sculpture -- for sale at prices ranging into the thousands of dollars.

The most prominent piece currently is a larger-than-life silver buffalo, named Chrome on the Range II, sculpted from automobile bumpers, which guards the entrance to the Norwest Bank.

You'll also come upon such oddities as a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton pedaling a bicycle and another on the ski slopes, homage to two of the area's favorite recreational activities. And there is the life-size bronze pig -- with a coin slot on its back -- poised over an ear of corn.

Founded in 1881, Grand Junction is exactly halfway -- 250 miles from each -- between Denver and Salt Lake City. Its population is estimated at 37,000, with the urban area -- including the towns of Palisade to the east and Fruita to the west -- approaching 100,000.

Situated on I-70 in the Grand Valley of the Colorado River, the city is not only a commercial hub but also the center of Colorado's fruit bowl. Here 85 percent of Colorado's peaches are grown, along with apples, pears, apricots, cherries, plums and grapes.

In winter, the city is a major transportation hub for skiers headed to resorts on the western slopes. Coming into the area from the east on I-70, you find a panoramic view of the city and the valley, shaded by the lush green of globe-willow trees. Otherwise, however, the scenic beauty is more stark and foreboding than in the forested mountains farther east.

To the north are the barren Book Cliff Mountains, a shale and sandstone range stretching for 200 miles from western Colorado into Utah.

Standing sentinel to the east is Grand Mesa, rising some 10,800 feet above sea level and billed as the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. A 50-mile scenic byway takes you to the top for a spectacular view of the valley.

Surprisingly, this mesa top is not a sere, sandy place, as many mesas are. Grand Mesa's top is studded with Douglas fir trees and has more than 300 lakes and dozens of streams -- all prime destinations for anglers, hikers and campers. It's also home to the Powderhorn Ski Resort, the only one in the immediate area.

To the southwest, a few miles outside Grand Junction, the 20,450-acre Colorado National Monument dominates the skyline. Sculpted by nature over millions of years, the monument offers a dazzling array of domes, rocks, multicolored mountains, pinnacles and arches. It's also home to a variety of animals, birds and other wildlife.

The best way to see the monument is on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, whose turnouts offer dramatic scenes of valley and the canyon landscapes.

For the more historically inclined, there is the Museum of Western Colorado. Among its exhibits is Dinosaur Valley, where a visitor can observe not only animated dinosaur replicas but also a working paleontological laboratory.

Billed as the largest museum between Denver and Salt Lake City, it also manages four natural resource areas, including nearby Riggs Hill, the 1900 discovery site of the first known brachiosaurus, and Dinosaur Hill, the source of the apatosaurus displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago.

In Fruita, a 10-minute drive west via I-70, the Devil's Canyon Science and Learning Center has recently opened, featuring a combination of life-size robot dinosaurs -- including one that spits at visitors -- and other interactive exhibits. It also offers hands-on excavation safaris. If you have seen the sights in the Grand Junction environs, easy one-day trips are possible to Glenwood Springs and Aspen (an hour or two to the east), Black Canyon of the Gunnison (to the southeast) or the Canyonlands area of Utah to the southwest.

We chose a side trip to Moab, Utah. It's a mecca for mountain bikers and the center of Utah's Canyonlands, a variety of national and state parks and some truly majestic scenery.

The 90-mile drive from Grand Junction is awe-inspiring, with about 25 miles of it winding through Colorado River canyons. If you choose, another 30-mile loop road will take you through the 12,000-foot-plus La Sal Mountains before coming into Moab.

The entrance to Arches National Park -- which the National Park Service proclaims to have the highest density of natural arches in the world -- is but five minutes outside Moab. The pollution-free blue sky above and the snowcapped La Sal mountains in the background make the ancient red sandstone formations all the more spectacular.

If you go

How to get there: Grand Junction is accessible by car on I-70 or U.S. Routes 50 and 6. It is on the Amtrak route from Chicago to points West, including Salt Lake City and Seattle. Several commuter airlines fly into Walker Field, the city's municipal airport, from Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and New Mexico.

Colorado National Monument: (970) 858-3617.

Museum of Western Colorado: (970) 242-0971.

Dinosaur Valley: (970) 243-3466.

Grand Mesa National Forest: (970) 242-8211.

Devil's Canyon Science and Learning Center: (970) 858-7282.

Information: Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau: (800) 962-2547.

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