In the heart of the western Colorado’s “Millionaires Triangle” formed by affluent Telluride, Aspen and Moab lies budget-friendly and beautiful Delta County. From the world’s biggest flat-topped mountain, to a magnificent canyon second only to the Grand Canyon, the fruit basket of Colorado has a lot to offer.
For a fraction of what it would cost to visit the pricy famous cities that surround it, visitors are sure to have a memorable trip because the locals have made it easy. Here are nine ways to take in this stunningly lovely part of the West.
Check out Black Canyon National Park
This spectacular gorge formed by the Gunnison River is actually 48 miles long, but the park encompasses 14 miles of the most dramatic section. It is almost 3,000 feet deep. Even the Ute Tribe did not go down into it, considering it too eerie and dangerous, although they built homes on both rims. The Rim Drive on the north side of the canyon offers spectacular views of such rock formations as “The Camel” and “Balance Rock.” Boating in the canyon is forbidden because rescue would be impossible if something happened, and the rapids are vicious. But hiking trails at the bottom are very popular, and so throwing anything over the rim is strictly off limits—you might just conk some unlucky hiker. There is a shady and comfortable campground on the north rim offering great views.
Raft the Gunnison
While the Black Canyon stretch is off limits, there are miles of fabulous rafting along the Gunnison River, with some enticing pullout points. Boaters find a long stretch in Escalante Canyon with just Class II rapids, and maybe one or two Class III, perfect for families. The same stretch of the Gunnison is designated by the state as Gold Medal Water for fly-fishing and is rated as one of the best fishing spots in the country. Al DeGrange, who owns Gunnison River Expeditions, has been on the river since 1984 and offers fly-fishing and white water expeditions. Sights along the Gunnison include ancient Indian petroglyphs on canyon walls.
Follow the Grapes
At any visitor center or winery you can pick up a map of local wineries. To make it even easier, the wineries have hung banners decorated with a bunch of grapes by the roadsides to lead you in. Some of the wineries have become well known for varieties that do especially well at the higher altitude. These are very welcoming wineries, not at all snobbish, and the tasting is free. In addition to wineries there are a few distilleries, most notably Colorado Gold in Cedaredge. It produces vodka, gin and corn whiskey of exceptional quality. Rabbit Ridge produces a lavender gin.
Follow the Frog
Artists have been flocking to Delta County in recent years because of its reasonable living costs. Just as wineries have their grape banners, so artists and craftsmen have an art trail map marked with a frog. Before you start following the frog banners, check out the wonderful tromp d’oeil murals all over the town of Delta. Tease your eyes with their tricky 3-D illusions. One cautionary note: in the town of Crawford there are two glass blowing studios with exquisite work. But Crawford also has a cattle drive that comes down the main street in the spring. If you are there during the drive, please don’t let a bull in the china shops!
Follow the Teepee
Delta County is the homeland of the Ute Indians. They were driven out and separated into three reservations. Fifteen years ago they began to meet again at the Council Tree in the town of Delta. They hold a powwow each fall, and also hold council so the tribe becomes unified once again. The town of Delta houses Fort Uncompahgre, the old trading post that first made contact with the Utes. Kids as well as history buffs will enjoy the fort. The tourist office has maps of a heritage and history tour and marks interesting spots with banners sporting teepees.
Follow the Sun
The mesa country is very fertile, and is the fruit basket of Colorado. A lot of farmers practice organic and biodynamic growing, and many orchards specialize in heirloom varieties. Follow the banners with the sun logo to find the ultimate in homegrown and homemade goodies, from artisanal cheeses to red-hot chilies.
Follow the Funny Bird
Peregrine falcons hunt in Black Canyon and 20,000 whistling cranes migrate through Eckert. Birding in Delta County (as well as viewing other wildlife such as big horn sheep) is excellent. Banners with the bird point the way to trails and viewing spots.
Gourmet chefs have begun to leave the hectic pace of the glitzy resorts and create and cook their own way in Delta County. The town of Paonia has lured two of the best Colorado has to offer—Dava Parr and Kelly Steinmetz. Parr bought an old farm and put in lush organic gardens to provide produce. She also raises her own chickens. She holds Friday night farm dinners at Fresh and Wyld, her farm, as well as Sunday brunch. Some show up early to just sit and enjoy the views and watch their veggies being picked in front of them. Steinmetz owns Flying Fork restaurant and bakery, which uses all locally grown ingredients (except for the seafood which he has flown in fresh). His rose water panna cotta has become famous.
Visit the Flat Mountain
Grand Mesa is a tall mountain—10,000 to 11,000 feet high, towering a mile above the other mesas—but it has a flat top. Campgrounds are everywhere. The Scenic and Historic Byway across the Mesa takes you through aspen woods and by lakes. From the overlook at the end of the quarter mile easy stroll at Land O’ Lakes you can see 13 lakes. There is also a historic observatory offering another spectacular view. The weather can get cold at those altitudes so dress in layers. In the winter of 2011 they will hold dog sled races on Grand Mesa for the first time.
So there you have it, the key to a great, and budget-friendly vacation in the secret valleys and mysterious mesas of western Colorado. Once you are there, you will probably find treasures of your own. By all means feel free to invent a banner for them so the rest of us can find them, too.
Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.