Traffic jams. Cracked curbs. Limited parking. Jaywalking. Shadeless streets. Dying businesses.
That about sums up downtown Main Street Grand Junction, Colo., such as it was in the late 1950s. Just a handful of years later, it was named an All American City by Look Magazine.
How did that happen?
Foresight, tenacity and the willingness of citizens, business owners and city officials to invest time, talents and money. It took a collective will to take Grand Junction’s Main Street from the downhill slide to the welcoming, pedestrian-friendly district that it is today.
“We live in the desert, so it can be pretty inhospitable,” explained Harry Weiss, executive director of the Grand Junction Downtown Development Authority. “We wanted to distinguish our Main Street — to make it more hospitable and pedestrian-oriented — an alternative to the strip mall.”
As it turns out, the city planners were ahead of their time because “walkability is the gold standard today,” Weiss added.
That transformation in the early ‘60s was a giant undertaking for a city of less than 19,000, but they did it. Today residents and visitors enjoy a two-lane serpentine Main Street bordered for blocks by leafy sycamore trees, dozens of sculptures, fountains, planter boxes, play structures, benches and café tables. And best of all, the sidewalks are well populated with shoppers, kids, cyclists, dog walkers and diners.
Today 59,000 call Grand Junction home, so-named because it’s the point in Western Colorado where the Colorado and Gunnison rivers meet. The town and surrounding area have much to offer — a welcoming shopping and dining district; the nearby Colorado National Monument; agricultural tourism; and vineyards and wineries that bask in the sun at the base of the magnificent Book Cliffs.
I discovered all of this in mid-June during a four-day visit. To explore the area, plan to stay at one of several reasonably priced hotels along Grand Junction’s meandering Main Street. (Excellent lodging and free buffet breakfasts are provided at SpringHill Suites by Marriott; Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott; and the Hampton Inn.) These hotels put you steps away from the boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and bars. Recommended downtown eateries: Bistro 743; Bin 707 Foodbar; il Bistro Italiano; Dream Café; Café Sol; and Naggy McGee’s Irish Pub.
Be sure to visit one of the outdoor kiosks, which provide pamphlets with keys to the many sculptures and walking-tour maps of the town’s historic buildings.
A 25-minute drive from downtown takes you to the entry of Colorado National Monument with its “big, bold and brilliantly colored” canyons and mesas standing against a cloudless sky. It’s a place where you can contemplate the ferocity of the wind, rain and ice that created all of these sandstone features.
Trails of varying difficulty bring you to other-worldly formations that will have you contemplating nature at its grandest. Balance Rock is a 600-ton boulder that perches atop a sandstone pedestal. Coke Ovens look like giant beehives, and Independence Monument is a 450-foot-high, freestanding tower that changes shape completely when viewed from different angles.
Even if you decide to drive, you’ll see some spectacular scenery along the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, which takes you through the length of the park. This route also provides vantage points from which you can see summer monsoons develop and move across the rust-colored landscape.
My group took the Devils Kitchen Trail, which brought us to massive rock “room” bordered by giant sandstone boulders.
The round trip took about an hour-and-a-half, but other trails can take up to eight hours.
For information on activities, shopping, hotels and restaurants, go online to visitgrandjunction.com.
Next column: Western Colorado’s Wine Country and agricultural tourism.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash @coastnewsgroup.com