Colorado is a beautiful state and there is so much to do when you hit the Utah boarder. Below is my guide for spending a long weekend in Colorado and Utah.
If you surveyed a group of people and asked them the first thing that came to mind when you said the word ‘Colorado’ most would say ‘Denver’. And for good reason – Denver is the capital of Colorado and easily it’s largest city. Home to the Colorado Rockies, major conferences, musical acts, and chefs, and an easy drive from breathtaking views and every outdoor activity you could imagine, Denver is the hub to cultural, activity, sports, nature and more.
You don’t get too far outside of Denver before you’re at one of Colorado’s famous ski and snowboarding resorts, catching your favorite band jamming out at Red Rocks, enjoying the breweries in Fort Collins, or taking in the views at Rocky Mountain National Park. All of this to see and do and you haven’t even hit the Western part of the state!
So when my friend Matt and his then girlfriend (now awesome wife!) Kellie told me that they were moving to Grand Junction, CO, I was left wondering – where? what is there to do? what is life like when you head West, past the Eastern-Middle side of Colorado?
Turns out – there’s a lot to do an it’s quite beautiful.
Grand Junction, Colorado
Grand Junction is a town of approximately 62,000 people and is just 30 miles away from the Utah boarder. With easy access to adventures, excursions and is big enough to make your home base while you’re in Colorado.
In addition, the scenic drive available in Grand Junction is breathtaking, especially if you can take it late into the evening just before the sunset.
WHERE TO STAY
Though I stayed at my friends house, there are plenty of hotels in Grand Junction that you can comfortably make your home for a long weekend. In addition you have gas stations, rental places, restaurants, bars, and big box stores like Target and Walmart for any supplies you may need.
Moab, Potash Scenic Drive and Canyonlands National Park
A few hours west of Grand Junction you’ll hit Moab, Utah. Once you get to Moab you’ll have easy and quick access to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, scenic drives, the Colorado River and much more. People come from all over for adventures, using Moab as their home base.
After taking a scenic drive into Moab we grabbed a quick lunch before getting back on the road to start our drive. Moab is a quirky little town. With kitschy shops, hotels, and various rental companies for Jeeps, RZR’s and mountain bikes, Moab is great place to level-set and get what you need before hitting the road.
Our goal this day was to see if we could get high enough to look down on the brightly colored Potash Ponds. These man-made ponds are used to mine a specific type of salt that contains potassium. Once mined, the salt is distributed around the country and used in items like fertilizer and soap.
We decided to take the Potash Scenic Drive that winds along the Colorado River, stopping at various lookout spots, checking out the rock climbers at Wall Street, and taking in the scenery. The goal was to see how high we could get in hopes of getting a good arial view of the ponds. Sadly, after climbing as high as we could go while wrapping around the ponds we determined that the best way to get the view would be with a drone.
The drive from Potash took us on off roads that only a truck, Jeep, or larger 4WD vehicle can access. In Moab you can rent Jeeps made for the offloading adventures that allow you see the beautifully rugged parts of Colorado and Utah. As we followed the narrow dirt trails we encountered the natural beauty that Utah had to offer.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
It was during our drive up on the small dirt roads that we suddenly found ourselves entering a back way into Canyonlands National Park. Passing a sign that alerted us we had entered the park and that the road was narrow, steep and only mountain bikes, high clearance 4WD vehicles and motorbikes are allowed to make this difficult trek.
We quickly discovered that we were on White Rim Road; a 100 mile road that loops around one of the mesas in Canyonlands National Park. With views that overlook the valleys of the park, the white-capped LaSalle mountains in the distance, and the Colorado River, White Rim Road is breathtaking.
It’s important to note that in addition to having the proper vehicle, you’ll want to have a comfortable and experienced driver that is able to make the often bumpy and quite steep drive.
Though we didn’t do the full 100 mile loop, the experience was incredible and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.
As we left Canyonlands to head back to Grand Junction we stopped at a lookout plateau and stopped some incredible storms rolling in to the area. We then headed back into Colorado to prepare for our next adventure.
Kayaking the Colorado River
Kayaking was high on my list to try, and I had my first chance at it while I was in Colorado. My sense was that I would love it. I wasn’t raised on the water, but I love to swim and I’m completely comfortable canoeing and boating. Our plan was to pack our kayak’s for camping, kayak the first six miles to our campground, than complete the remaining 19 miles of our kayak trip on day two.
I quickly learned that I had to learn, adapt, and contend with some incredible winds, and that kayaking, though I ended up liking it in the end, took some getting used to.
Our first day kayaking was supposed to be an easy six miles until we reached our campsite. Those six miles were much more difficult than expected. With 20-30mph head winds, a river with a quick current, and learning the ins and outs of navigating a river for the first time – I was nervous and uncomfortable.
The river wanted to pull us backwards, sideways, and every muscle in my body was working overtime in a desperate attempt to stay both pointed forward and in the middle of the river. My friends floated with me the majority of the time, and I felt defeated. I somehow paddled my way into camp where we set up shop for the night and I reassessed my situation for the next day and what I had learned.
Once I realized a few things I was determined to make day two much more enjoyable. The first is that the wind we experienced was intense and enough to make experienced kayakers work hard. My nervousness as a first time kayaker was completely normal and not unfounded, and I needed to not beat myself up about it.
The second thing I learned from my friends was that you’re not going to run into either the rock wall or the grassy low lying areas. With the obvious rule of ‘don’t get yourself caught in downed trees and branches’, keep in mind that when you get towards a big rock wall the river current and how the water hits the wall all contributes to the fact that it’s going to twist and push you back out, away from the wall.
Conversely, when you get into the grassy areas you’re going to ‘eddy out’. This means that the current is running opposite of the main river current. Though in white water rafting this can be tough, when we were on the river and we hit an eddy we were basically at a stand still. A little muscle is required to get yourself out of the eddy, but nothing dangerous that’s going to hurt you.
Third, kayaks are really tough to tip. At least if you’re on a float trip; perhaps a bit easier if you’re going white water rafting. But on a calm river with minimal to no rapids you’re going to have to try really really hard to tip your kayak.
Fourth, sometimes you just have to relax. The river is going to take you downstream, where you need to go. Sure, you need to pay attention for trees and debris, and keep yourself away from hugging the edges of the river, but it’s okay to sit back and enjoy the experience and the scenery.
I am the type of person that takes comfort in having knowledge. Once I understood the river a bit more, got some time in the kayak, and told myself that I was going to be okay, I was okay. And I enjoyed the experience. Day two was much better. With hardly any wind in the morning I got to actually kayak, familiarize myself with the kayak, enjoy the scenery and the experience.
Packing your kayak, raft, or boat for camping is quite common. Along the river you’ll see posts with campsite names etched on them. You simply head online, reserve your spot, print your permit, than it’s waiting there for you to cruise into camp for the night.
Our campsite was one of the Cottonwoods sites. Surrounded by big, beautiful trees that many of the campsites in Colorado and Utah don’t have. Sites get reserved quite quickly, so we were lucky to find one available, and the location of our site also determined how many miles we kayaked the first versus the second day.
Dry bags are essential to packing your kayak to camp. If you don’t want it wet than you put it in a dry bag. Your waterproof backpack may be able to withstand the rain when you’re hiking, but dry gear is essential so it’s best to pack everything into dry bags to combat any storms or water that you kayak may take on.
Other essentials include garbage bags to pack out all your garbage, biffy bags (for when nature calls), sunscreen, supplies you need to sleep and eat, and other items like layers to stay warm at night, chairs, and fire making essentials. It’s best to be as compact as you can, and above all else respect nature and the rules of the campground. Leave it like you were never even there.
Colorado is a beautiful state with so much to do, and if you haven’t ventured west, near the Utah boarder, than I couldn’t recommend it enough!