Colorado Escapist, Ep. 2: Bikes and wine on the Western Slope (video)

Shawna Henderson
The Colorado Escapist

The ‘Zuma Backcountry

In April, Colorado Escapist host Shawna Henderson drove past the ritzy resorts at Keystone for a taste of true backcountry skiing outside of Montezuma, the fun, funky little mountain town at the foot of the Continental Divide. She found fresh turns, ancient outhouses and — well, see for yourself.

Oh, the joys of springtime in the mountains.

Many of us want to transition into the warmer summer season, but Mother Nature’s snow and rain showers make it quite difficult. The mountain-bike and hiking trails are muddy in the mountains, and you might have to put on your puffy to keep warm.

So what do you do to end the May blues? A perfect solution to renew your energy and enlighten your spirit is a trip out to the ultimate Colorado mountain-bike escape: the Western Slope. A short drive brings you to a whole new world of green grass, blossoming trees and, most importantly, desert biking. Every die-hard mountain biker knows that Fruita is a hot spot for springtime fun, but how many have also considered the nearby towns of Grand Junction and Palisade?

Back in the day, I drove past Grand Junction to arrive in the bigger (and more well-known) mountain-biking mecca of Moab, Utah. However, as more and more people flock to warm their bones after a long winter, this destination has lost its small-town feel. A better alternative, complete with a similar warm desert environment, is the collection of Colorado towns before the Utah border, otherwise known as the Western Slope.

Lucky for us, a group of mountain-bike entrepreneurs developed trails for adventurous travelers in the small town of Fruita, and these pioneers continue to promote the sport of mountain biking while expanding the trails into nearby Palisade and Grand Junction.

Singletrack for all

So who exactly are the visionaries and pioneers who started the Fruita mountain-biking movement? Trailblazers like Rondo Buecheler with Rapid Creek Cycles, Sarah Withers with Desert Rat Tours and Scott Winans, who helps run the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trails Association and opened the first mountain-bike shop in Fruita.

Over the years, groups of volunteers have followed their lead, helping to build and maintain singletrack trails on the Western Slope. The mountain-bike trails range from technical to super-technical to fun and fast with big slabs like the Ribbon Trail. Recent trail expansions have brought the network into Palisade with the new Palisade Rim Trail.

Perhaps you are into “chunkalicious” riding, a term coined by Sarah of Desert Rat Tours. She likes those trails that are fun yet challenging with big rock drops. If technical riding fuels your fire, test your skills on the Lunch Loops or Holy Cross trails. Make sure to say your prayers before venturing onto this high-action, adrenaline-packed singletrack, because if you do, you must love lots of rocks.

For a lesson on how to effectively ride on technical terrain, hire a coach like Sarah to tweak your technique and form. If you’re looking for something more mellow, get a shuttle up to the top of the Ribbon Trail and enjoy a long, sandstone rock slab of pure downhill bliss.

On the road (bike)

Another pioneer of his time, John Otto is honored for spending a good portion of his life advocating for the protection of the area between Grand Junction and Fruita. Through his efforts, he turned this stunning area of rock spires and natural monoliths into Colorado National Monument.

The best way to see the monument is by pedal power. Road biking gives you a connection to Earth, so much that you might get lost in your thoughts on the uphill climb to the top of the plateau, surrounded by mesmerizing rock formations. Mountain biking is not permitted in the park, but roughly 23 miles of paved road is a perfect road-biking option.

High-Country wine

I’d always heard about wine tasting during Colorado’s fall harvest, but what about spring-barrel wine tasting? During my visit to Grand River Winery in Palisade, the owner, Naomi Smith, took out a syphon, known as a wine thief, to steal a taste of fermenting wine.

The thrill of being a part of that first sip made my tastebuds tingle. I felt like family in the intimate setting of the barrel room, breaking the rules and sharing in a few laughs. I might have to return again in the fall for the big Colorado Wine Fest, where anyone can fulfill a personal “I Love Lucy” moment and stomp grapes with their toes.

Colorado wine has evolved from infancy into a force that is impressive even to the heavy hitters. The Grand River Meritage Red, a multiple red grape blend, beat out California’s Opus One in a taste test. Considering the price difference — Opus One averages $160 per bottle, and the Meritage Red is a cool $17 — Colorado wine has positioned itself as a serious contender on the global wine market yet keeps its small-production charm. Having tasted wines all over the world, take it from me: You can’t go wrong with a glass from Palisade.

An electric ride

A new way to experience wine tasting in Palisade is on an electric bike, available for rent at Rapid Creek Cycles. The owner, Rondo, has made a map of the wineries for solo trips and can even take you on a guided winery tour with the super-fast E-bikes. Each pedal stroke makes you feel like a superwoman taking off down the road like a bat out of hell.

Cheating? Perhaps, but when you have a smile from ear to ear — either from the excessive wine consumption or the speed with which you can reach the next winery — you might just relax and let the bike work for you.

The headless chicken festival

Colorado is known for its many festivals, and the Western Slope is no exception. The area attracts visitors with wine, mountain biking, music, art and even peach festivals, but I’m sure you have never heard of Mike the Headless Chicken Festival, held June 3 and 4 in Fruita.

As the story goes, Mike the chicken was going to be dinner for a farmer’s family in this area. But after the little guy’s head had been chopped off, he continued to run around and peck as if he were still alive. The owner thought it to be a miracle and took the chicken on the road, where people paid 25 cents to see Mike. The owner even made a good living off the chicken.

In commemoration of the odd things in life, you can participate in events like pin the head on the chicken and the chicken dance and bet on where a chicken will poop on bingo squares — a true celebration of a life and a chicken’s will to live.

Beware the Grand Valley curse

Have you heard about the curse of the Grand Valley? Apparently, Chief Ouray of the Ute tribe placed a curse on the land: The only way a resident can permanently leave the area is to collect dirt from four different locations, including Grand Mesa, Bookcliffs, Colorado National Monument and the junction of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. The consequence of not collecting dirt results in an inevitable return to the valley.

Before returning to Summit County, I decided to take my chances and be cursed. Anyone would love to come back, over and over, to this incredible Colorado adventure destination.