Playing by the Colorado River
Dry, dusty, desert winds. Warm, green, apple orchards. And the massive river that connects both worlds.
Western Colorado is a world of micro climates. The north face of each hill is different from the south. If there is water coursing through a valley, it’s lush and green. If not, it’s brown, dry, hot and harsh. We spent a long weekend camping in the Grand Junction area of Western Colorado, and managed to experience nearly all of the Colorado River basin extremes.
Our original plan was to camp at the 18 Road bike trails all weekend, but 8p rolled around on our drive out I-70, the sun was setting, and our tank was almost out of gas. We filled up at a station right across the street from the Island Acres Campground, which is the eastern-most part of the James M Robb Colorado River State Park system.
Our Campsite at Island Acres
They had plenty of sites, all with either electric or electric/water hookups, nestled in a grove of just-green cottonwoods on the banks of the Colorado River. The valley was filled with the haze of campfire smoke and the smell of fresh green grass – something we don’t have much of on the Front Range this spring.
Since we thought we would stay only one night, we took a slightly cheeper electric-only site on the river-side of the park. We let G out of the car while Mark leveled the trailer, and he took off through our neighbor’s site and immediately found a new friend. The little boy, we’ll call him B, was almost the exact same age as G, with the same long curly blond hair and the same happy, wild, spirit. They played in the dusk of the campground that night until we pulled them apart to sleep.
G spent a lot of time playing in this ditch with his friend
The next morning, G and B played and played. Mark and I enjoyed hanging out with B’s family, and the lovely green campground, so much that we payed for another night. We mountain biked all day on Saturday and then came back Saturday night to enjoy another evening at Island Acres.
This campground has quarter-operated hot showers and nice, clean bathrooms. There are lots of ponds for fishing, a nice playground, and even a sandy swim beach (that wasn’t open this early in the season). The sites are level and great for even big-rig RV’s, and far enough apart that it doesn’t feel cramped at all. The campground is a little expensive because you are required to buy a daily pass for the state park with each night of camping. The electric only sites are $20/night + $7/night entry fee. The electric and water sites are $24/night + $7/night entry fee.
Island Acres is just a few minutes from Palisade, Colorado, which is the heart of Colorado wine country. The wide valley is filled with peach trees, apple trees, cherry orchards, and grape vines. A number of California-style wineries have sprung up in the last few years, and Palisade now boasts a Fruit and Wine By-way chocked with sun-kissed love in fruit form.
Camping in the Unrestricted Zone at 18 Road
The free camping on the BLM North Fruita Desert Special Recreation Area is on the exact opposite side of the camping spectrum. This high desert sits at the edge of tall sandstone mesas that mark the transition from the Rocky Mountains to the canyons of the desert southwest.
There are two main areas for camping on this land. The first is the marked pay-for sites that sit near the top of the area hill. These sites are in a great location for the biking area, and are a little outside of the worst of the dust. But they also fill up quickly and cost $10/night.
The Free Camping in North Fruita is nearly empty during the week
The other main area for camping is the Unrestricted area. This is a branching 2 mile long dirt road in a valley below the main mountain bike trails. There are probably hundreds of campsites in the valley, and on Saturday the place was hopping full with mountain bikers camping and partying and having a great time. There is virtually no shade, very little grass, and plenty of swirling dust and dirt.
But you can camp for free, ride as much as you want right from your site, and our trailer made it up the road without a problem. After the campground emptied out on Sunday evening, we felt like the only people in this wide open, beautiful desert.
Riding back to camp in North Fruita
So that was two very different camping experiences. The Island Acres campground is full of amenities and green grass. It is easily accessible from the interstate and can cost nearly $30 a night. The North Fruita Desert camping area is full of sand, sun, and desert dwellers (mountain bikers and lizards and such). The camping is free and convenient and very, very dusty. We had a good time in both places and managed to experience the full spectrum of Western Colorado climates in the space of three nights camping.