Ski destinations spool past as my husband, Bob, and I cruise along Interstate 70 west of Denver. Loveland. Copper Mountain. Vail. Beaver Creek.
I could sense his yearning for long, sweeping ski runs, but this was late July. We were skipping the Rockies, beelining for Palisade peaches.
Blame nostalgia. Late every summer, for more than 20 years, when big boxes of Colorado peaches arrive at grocery stores, it’s been like a family holiday. My late mother-in-law and our family would get together to slip off peach skins after a quick boil, staining our fingernails yellow and filling our kitchen with the scent of jams, pies and canned fruit for the winter. Folk musician Greg Brown called it “a little bit of summer in a jar.”
The four-hour drive from Denver to Palisade, Colo., and the surrounding Grand Valley — where our favorite peaches grow — felt like a calling. We hadn’t fully realized that our pursuit of fruit would land us so close to some of America’s most majestic national parks, artfully sculpted and strung like jewels along the Colorado River.
We meet the river just east of Glenwood Springs, and it joins us like a roadside companion on the way to Colorado’s central-western edge, where the Gunnison River meets the Colorado at Grand Junction, a regional hub with 63,775 people.
We settle into our rented midcentury bungalow in Palisade, a small town of 2,690 near the edge of Grand Junction. On borrowed bikes we pedal past scenes of Mount Garfield framed by boughs of ripe peaches, soft fruit orchards and the striped rows of vineyards that supply a thriving wine industry.
We stroll the Saturday farmers market with its peach hand pies, devour a fresh peach and ice cream sundae, and peruse local cherries, bundles of lavender and the first wave of green chiles ready to be roasted. It’s a mission we could do daily, with farm stands and wineries lining the Fruit and Wine Byway.
Signs tout sweet corn from Olathe, dried beans from Dove Creek, watermelon from Green River, Utah — a late-summer feast.
By afternoon we’re climbing Colorado National Monument, a 20,500-acre park on the northeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, which formed about 20 million years ago when land lifted up and stretched across Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Water and wind sculpted the plateau into some of America’s most beloved places, including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef and Monument Valley National Parks.
Colorado National Monument’s 23-mile Rim Rock Drive rises from the valley until we’re facing the Book Cliffs, and the beautifully layered Wedding Canyon yawns below our feet. We carefully make our way along ledges and marvel at how singular columns of rock can withstand the elements that disintegrate others and grind them into dust. The colors intensify to red, bits of scrubby greens and warm sandy hues.
“God don’t make no junk,” says an older woman at a lookout, clearly impressed.
We make our way along more canyons with features such as Independence Monument, one that looks like a kissing couple, and a squat, rounded trio called coke ovens. Toward the end, we’ve reached 6,640 feet above sea level and finish with aptly named Cold Shivers Point and Devil’s Kitchen.
We study the map while enjoying a backyard feast of Olathe sweet corn, steaks from a local butcher and peaches that caramelize on the grill. The day whetted our appetite for more canyons.
“I didn’t realize Utah was so close,” Bob says. “I think we should go.”
Heading to Canyonlands
Sunrise turns Mount Garfield and the rest of the arid Book Cliffs pink as we head out in the morning. It’s just under two hours to reach Canyonlands National Park in Utah, following lonely stretches of “No Services” exits along eastern Utah’s I-70. We exit on Hwy. 191 and continue to Hwy. 313 to reach the park’s main entrance at Island in the Sky mesa.
It’s hard not to gasp at the first dramatic view along the 34-mile scenic drive. Shafer Canyon plummets in front of us and seems to stretch on forever, a distant outline of mountains adding a haze of purple near the horizon.
“They look like toys,” I say, as a few four-wheel-drive vehicles far below us kick up red clouds of dust on their way to remote sections of the park.
The Green and Colorado rivers that flank the mesa had millions of years to chisel and crater these otherworldly wonderlands. We climb onto rock outcroppings and stare across the Green River overlook. Manganese and iron varnish the rock with streaks of black, red and orange. Pinyon and juniper add smudges of green.
Our Minnesota ears, used to the rhythm and song of woodlands and lakes, find the landscape oddly quiet. We hear only wind or tourists murmuring in English, Japanese and Italian.
Rain and crowds at Arches
While Canyonlands takes visitors to the edge of postcard scenery, Arches National Park takes travelers alongside formations that tower above and tease the imagination. Rocks are named for elephants, sheep or human shapes they resemble, while hiking trails lead to dozens of different arches.
Arches’ entrance on the edge of Moab, Utah, immediately climbs upward, building excitement like a roller coaster’s first big hill and delivering views that sustain suspense for what’s around the next curve.
Our morning’s blue sky has turned moody, and as we marvel at the first major view point — Park Avenue’s sheer, rich red walls — the wind whips up and clouds threaten to pour.
We rush back to our car as the first drops pelt us. “I got grit in my mouth,” I say, hearing it grind against my teeth. It’s a souvenir and swift lesson in how the elements so brutally and beautifully carve and polish sandstone.
The rain keeps dogging us as formations shark-fin out of the desert and we hit Delicate Arch viewpoint and views of Devil’s Garden. Even in less than ideal conditions, the changing light across the rocks keeps us snapping photos and driving the full route.
We hit the turning point when thirst and hunger stir, and we’ve reached our saturation pont for scenery and tourists. As we leave the park by late afternoon, vehicles are still stacked up at the park entrance.
Arches isn’t Grand Canyon-crowded, but it had 1.6 million visitors in 2018, compared with 739,449 at Canyonlands. As the gateway community, Moab’s population of about 5,000 triples or quadruples in the peak summer season. The bustle of restaurants and tourists in town makes us eager to return to Palisade. Colorado National Monument, by comparison, had 375,000 visitors in 2018.
Heading back, we follow the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (Hwy. 128) as it hugs the water, passes several uncrowded Bureau of Land Management campgrounds, and curves through quiet canyons.
“I’d come back here,” I say, as we feel our pace downshift.
Less than two hours later, after finishing the last half of the return trip on the interstate, we’re back to Palisade.
The voice of the woman from the Book Cliffs pops into our heads as we park near a hillside orchard to watch the sunset redden Mount Garfield. “God don’t make no junk.” Not exactly eloquent, but as we bite into juicy, just-picked peaches and recall the scenery, our trip feels rather divine.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”