Last week after wrapping up our annual Vickers Ranch workamping gig, we decided to play tourist and visit a part of rural Colorado that we’ve heard a lot about. Known as the North Fork Valley, this region is ground zero for Western Colorado’s small leftie contingent and a blossoming orchard and winery industry.
The main towns which comprise the North Fork Valley are Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia. We approached from the south along State Highway 92 (part of the West Elk Loop), a twisty and hairy adventure that meanders alongside the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a hole in the ground more stunning than the Grand Canyon.
Highway 92 is the best way to enter the Valley but have a barf bag ready; the drop-offs are breathtaking and with no guard rails and few pull-outs, we weren’t able to take any photos.
For the first time in months, we had no plans or places to be and zero commitments whatsoever. It was heaven!
We arrived in the tiny cow town of Crawford to find that Verizon cell service is non-existent, which meant we couldn’t look up any places to stay. As I was just about to come unglued because my phone wasn’t working, I decided to have a face to face interaction with the owner of the general store to ask if she knew of any local RV parks.
Turns out, she told me more than my smart phone ever could. She sent us to a new RV park in Hotchkiss, “Farm and Ranch Camp.” Perfect, we thought!
It was rustic and right up our alley. The name was also entirely appropriate; with RV sites set within the actual ranch itself, we were in the middle of the irrigation action. See the water shooting out into left field behind our rig?
We spent the next two days soaking up the last blast of summer heat and playing tourist. First we toured Hotchkiss, which has a few wineries and lots of local produce, but it’s a little rough around the edges as we discovered in a local dive bar, Past-Times.
Paonia lived up to it’s reputation as a culinary destination and hippie haven. We hadn’t seen so many dreadlock-wearing, earthy types since we were in Northern California. It’s easy to see why they flock here. There’s a strong sense of connection to this lush farmland, a very supportive artist community and it’s a relatively cheap place to live if you’re just renting (land prices are another story).
After stopping at a few wineries, we savored a gourmet lunch with all local products in Paonia Town Park.
Even Wyatt got his share of locally-grown delicacies, when a local meat market gave us free elk bones!
Next, we stumbled onto Black Bridge Winery and Orchard Farms, a dog-friendly idyllic destination on the outskirts of town featuring a U-Pick orchard and gardens, tons of local gourmet products and the best wines in the region.
The finale of our visit happened at the end of our day in Paonia, when took the suggestion of a local and ate at the Flying Fork Cafe, which many folks say is the best eatery in the Valley.
We have to agree with the consensus; dining al fresco at this little Italian-style restaurant was comparable to the best big-city dining experiences we’ve had, but without the attitude or the price!
We had a blast and hope to be back someday. It’s been a long time since we did anything so relaxing and touristy. After working 60 hour weeks all summer, it was paradise when we finally got to reap the fruits of our labor!