Wandering the Western Slope

Several weeks ago my husband and I drove over the Rocky Mountains to explore what’s known here in Colorado as the “Western Slope.” Specifically, we went to learn something about the Grand Valley, where the Rocky Mountains give way to the Colorado Plateau, where the Colorado River meets the Gunnison and where a city appropriately-named Grand Junction has been growing like wildfire.

The Grand Valley stretches from the Great Hogback at the Rocky Mountains’ western edge and beyond the Colorado border into Utah, and we could just about see that far when we hiked a portion of the Mack Ridge Trail in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Created by the local bike trail association, this pathway joins a network of trails through the spectacular canyon country of the Plateau, but it was hard to imagine bikes negotiating the steep, rocky path we clambered down to get to this view. But what a view! From our overlook, we could see the Book Cliffs on the horizon, the Colorado River between the Cliffs and Interstate-70, and, on tracks just below us, Amtrak’s California Zephyr streaking past on its way to Chicago.

View from Mack Ridge - Ink & watercolor in a Hand-Blook Journal, 5 x 8

View from Mack Ridge – Ink & watercolor in a Hand-Book Journal, 5 x 8

The Book Cliffs, so-called because its caprock looks like a shelf of books, forms the northern edge of the valley.  The Cliffs are part of about 2.5 million acres of desert overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Stretching an incredible 200 miles, they are reported to be the longest escarpment in the world. Serpentine tracks weaving into the desert at the base of the cliffs make the acreage accessible to hunters, ATV enthusiasts, hikers, climbers, photographers, geologists, fossil-hunters — anyone with 4-wheel drive who wants to subject themselves to a dusty dose of sun, sand and sage. The tracks are narrow and rutted, but at least they were dry the day we bounced our way in, stopping our truck about a 1/2 mile shy of the cliffs at a promising outcrop my husband thought might contain fossils. As a savage wind was stirring up dust and the sun was beating down like summer, I made a make-shift studio in the passenger seat and set about sketching, but not before maneuvering the truck to just the right view: the road we had just driven, with the pink rimrock of Colorado National Monument in the distance.

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Below the Book Cliffs – ink & watercolor in a Hand-Book Journal, 5 x 8

But the Grand Valley is not all desert. Irrigation has turned some of it into orchards and vineyards, particularly in the charming farming community of Palisade. What is most striking about this place is the juxtaposition of monumental buttes and mesas characterized by dryness and erosion, with lush green fields bursting with grape vines and fruit trees. Think Canyonlands meets Napa Valley. If nothing else, the colors knock your socks off. After days of hiking and 4-wheeling in the dry, hot desert, what better than to sit and sketch in the shade of a grape arbor and tosavor the sights with a bit of the local product, in our case a chilled glass of Coral, an unusual white cabernet from Colterris Winery whose vines appear in this sketch.

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Colterris Vineyard – ink & watercolor on paper in a Hand-Book Journal, 5 x 8

 

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