Colorado Road Trip: The North Fork Valley
Home to the quaint communities of paonia, hotchkiss and crawford, the north fork valley is a creative cocktail of charming wineries, crafty artisans and rolling farmlands. Crisp autumn days are perfect for exploring this verdant valley and sampling all of its gastronomic offerings.
Day 1 | Kebler Corner
If Kebler Pass is still open (depending on the snowfall the gravel pass may close as late as November) start your road trip off in Crested Butte (see our main destination story on page 26) and traverse the 30 miles of the West Elk Loop scenic byway, which is hands down one of our favorite autumn drives. Colors peak at the end of September but can last into October if you’re lucky. If the weather allows, make a pit stop at Lost Lake and go on one of the numerous hikes in the area or even hit the water for some fishing or paddle boarding action.
Spend your first night at Kebler Corner, a haven tucked away on the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The property offers 22 full hook-ups, primitive tent sites, eight rooms and cabins and is open until November. Doc Holliday’s Cabin is large enough to sleep a family with a queen bed and a sleeper sofa in the living room and has a newly-renovated kitchenette and bathroom as well as a spacious deck with a large outdoor bed - perfect for stargazing.
After getting settled in, explore the property and head outdoors. You can try your hand at fishing, or there is always hiking with plenty of trails starting nearby. The folks in the office can point you in the right direction.
There is a general store and liquor store on property, so we recommend having a river-side picnic for dinner if the weather allows. While the general store offers plenty of necessities we recommend bringing most of what you’re going to want with you.
Day 2 | Paonia and Hotchkiss
Wake up with the sun and make the short 20-minute drive into Paonia. Nestled at the base of Lamborne and Lands End mountains, this part of Colorado is a verdant oasis where wineries, orchards and a plethora of public land offer an experience for everyone.
Stop in at Paonia Bread Works for a quick bite to eat before you explore the valley and get to sampling some wine. Most wineries are open throughout the end of November, but be sure to check dates and exact opening times. Arm yourself with a map and perhaps a bike if you’re feeling particularly spry and get sipping. We recommend starting at Black Bridge Winery and working your way west through the valley toward Hotchkiss. Grab a glass of vino and stroll through the onsite orchards or relax down by the river and take in that crisp autumn air.
Next up is Stone Cottage Cellars. Tucked away on Garvin Mesa, the quaint winery is, unsurprisingly, housed outside of an adorable stone cottage. After that, take the back road to Azura Cellars & Gallery which is a beautiful property perched right on the edge of the mesa overlooking the lush valley below. Azura exudes old world charm and is not to be missed.
By now you’ve likely worked up an appetite, so head back out to Hwy 133 and stop in a Qutori Wines for more sampling and some lunch. The Greek Platter paired with a glass of their rose is the perfect lunch. Be sure to save room for a piece of pie, too, as autumn heralds the arrival of their pear and wine pie.
Once you’re refueled, continue making your way toward Hotchkiss, stopping at Endless Endeavour Winery followed by an afternoon cider from Big B’s - be sure to inquire about live music that may be happening while you’re in the area.
A stop in at Storm Cellar should definitely be on your itinerary. Offering high-elevation whites and roses, Storm Cellar was started by ambitious and talented sommeliers Jayme Henderson and Steve Steese. The couple have made incredible strides in the short time they’ve been open. You really can’t go wrong with anything they produce.
In Hotchkiss, you have Evening Grace, Mesa Winds Farm & Winery as well as Leroux Creek Vineyards. If you aren’t too wined out (remember to take advantage of the spit bucket if you’re driving or on bike!), they are all worth a visit.
If you’re ready for some dinner, PJ’s is a nice spot in Hotchkiss and the newly-reopened Flying Fork Cafe back in Paonia offers homemade pastas and pizzas.
Another option is to reverse your itinerary and end your tour at Black Bridge where you can sit on the banks of the North Fork of the Gunnison River which is the perfect spot for an alfresco meal. Black Bridge offers all sorts of jarred goodies along with cheese and pick your own offerings. In October, they have a fun family-friendly pumpkin patch with wagon rides.
Not a wine fan? No problem, the North Fork offers plenty to do beyond winery hopping. From mountain biking and hiking to river rafting and paddle boarding. Western Slope SUP in Hotchkiss will get you sorted for all your gear needs. There are also two breweries in town - Paonia United Brewing Company which is located in an old house on Grand Avenue as well as Chrysalis Brewery which is at the south end of Grand Ave. Chrysalis uses locally-grown ingredients to make barrel-aged farmhouse ales.
After dinner, take the wine you inevitably purchased during your journey and enjoy a glass on the porch of Bross Hotel, an historic bed and breakfast located in downtown Paonia. Caretakers Mike and Suzanne are friendly and accommodating and will ensure you have a cozy stay.
Day 3 | Paonia to Crawford
Wake up to breakfast down in the Garden Room, which will no doubt be delightful whatever is on the menu, but if you really luck out you may get the house pancakes, a sinfully delicious trifecta of lemon curd, blueberries and whipped cream. They are served with a side of bacon which is a winning combination and the perfect fuel for an afternoon of exploring the natural beauty of the valley.
After checking out, head into Hotchkiss and stock up on supplies at Farm Runners Station for a picnic lunch before heading to Crawford, the base for exploring Crawford State Park and the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Not as developed as the south rim entrance, which is just 10 miles from Montrose, the north rim offers a lot more solitude due to substantially lower visitor numbers. Accessed via a gravel road from the east end of Crawford State Park, North Rim Road affords jaw-dropping views into the canyon with six overlooks, including the amazing North Rim Chasm View. Be sure to check nps.gov/blca before you venture out, as the road closes once the snow starts piling up.
Crawford State Park offers warm and cold weather activities including fishing (catfish, bass and trout) and ice fishing when there is over six inches of ice. There is also cross-country skiing and snowshoeing if there is enough snow to protect vegetation. Early autumn days are ideal for SUP boarding which gives amazing views of Needle Rock.
As for accommodation, the French Country Inn is located right at the Crawford Airport and offers nice accommodations with easy access to the above mentioned activities.
If you’re not ready to end your road trip and still want to explore Crested Butte but Kebler Pass has been closed for the winter, you can continue driving along Highway 92 which will take you to Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest body of water. Continue about 25 miles on Highway 50 where you’ll turn north onto Highway 135 at Gunnison and arrive in CB about 30 minutes later.