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Out and About in Colorado

by Billy McEntee

Whether you want to wine and dine or bike and hike, the Centennial State has something for all travelers, refined or rugged.

(Photo: Downtown Denver at Sunrise by Captain Colorado)

Whether you want to wine and dine or bike and hike, Colorado has something for all travelers, refined or rugged.

LGBTQ travelers may see some cities, with their progressive politics and vibrant gay communities, as superior destinations for vacationing, but sometimes a nature-filled trip is is even more fun and invigorating. Fortunately for tourists, Colorado offers the best of both worlds: dynamic cities on the Front Range and charming mountain towns in the Western Slope, all of which can be experienced over a relaxed long weekend.

EASE INTO A DAY OF DENVER

Fly into Denver International Airport, home to Blucifer, the 9,000-pound, 32-foot high fiberglass statue of a cyan mustang. The artwork is famed not only for its scale but also its fatality: mid-construction, a piece of it fell on its creator, Luis Jiménez, severing an artery in his leg. This may seem like a gruesome detail to start your westward journey, but Blucifer, with his piercing red eyes and ascending stance, is a piece of lore so feared yet beloved it takes on the energy of a campy Disney villain, like Ursulla or Jafar. In this way, consider Blucifer queer-coded and a symbol of gay welcome as you arrive in the Mile High City

After touching down, take the A Line to its final stop, Union Station, for a 30-minute affordable, sight-seeing journey to downtown Denver.

Stay at the Limelight Denver (1600 Wewatta Street, Tel: 303 323-0024, limelighthotels.com/denver), a four-star hotel steps from the station. With a blonde, natural wood motif throughout, the Limelight nods to rustic lodging. Drop your bags off before check-in time and then pop over to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (1485 Delgany Street, Tel: 303 298-7554, mcadenver.org), a stone’s throw from the hotel and a chill way to ease into your vacation while taking in revolving exhibits of modern art.

CHECK IN AND SADDLE UP

Pop back to the hotel for happy hour, where free beer and wine is served in the lobby from 5 to 6 P.M. Hose off in the capacious shower in your room and then stroll down the 16th Street Mall toward BEZEL Cocktail Lounge (1550 Court Pl, Denver, Tel: 303 835-2159, bezeldenver.com) for an adventurous sip. The menu is bold yet accessible; it’s the kind of bar where you could either take a hot date or your kindly aunt and have a blast either way. Sit outside around the firepit and order some appetizers. It’ll be hard to deny the bison tartare; just be sure to save room because dinner will be a treat.

The Bar at BEZEL (photo courtesy of BEZEL)

With floor-to-ceiling windows and a sleek gray aesthetic, the airy, modern steakhouse Guard and Grace (1801 California Street, Tel: 303 293-8500, guardandgrace.com) is a ten-minute walk from BEZEL and will prove to be one of your trip’s most memorable meals. Naturally, the steaks (from tomahawk to filet mignon) are divine, but don’t sleep on the starters. It may seem silly to sing a song for potato buns, but Guard and Grace’s are pillowy yet flavorful thanks to a grainy mustard and parsley butter. Equally light and melt-in-your-mouth is the jamón ibérico, sliced ham in the traditional Spanish style that’s so delectable and soft you may not even think of it as meat.

Sweeping booths are a steakhouse staple, but for an elevated experience sit at the raw bar: you’ll get dinner and a show. Watch a line chef employ tweezers to place cucumbers just so on a tuna dish, and hear the sous chefs, a refreshing mix of men and women, sing short work songs, culinary hymns that spark energy in what is, surely, a busy shift of preparing hundreds of tables each night.

GET DANCING (Cowboy Boots Optional)

After dinner, the gay bars are just a mile away. Denver is a highly walkable city, but wear comfortable shoes, you’ll likely dance the night away. Charlie’s (900 E Colfax Avenue, Tel: 303 839-8890, charliesdenver.com) has Western flair, a central dance floor for local drag performers, and a casual outdoor patio. For just $8, you get a mini pitcher of beer that amounts to a solid three glasses.

A few blocks down, X Bar (629 E Colfax Avenue, Tel: 303 832-2687, xbardenver.com) is a bit more scene-y, but also offers a range of experiences, from thumping music on the second story’s dance floor to laid-back vibes in the outdoor’s grassy yard. After bar hopping, head back to the hotel for some shuteye, but if you need a late-night snack, Tom’s Starlight (601 E Colfax Avenue, Tel: 303 353-4122, tomsstarlight.com), a diner next to X Bar, prepares well-made greasy spoon essentials to soak up the booze

THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING

After a big night out, sleep in and relax until check-out time, then head downstairs for a solid brunch at the hotel’s restaurant, Citizen Rail (1899 16th Street Mall, Tel: 303 323-0017, citizenrail.com). Afterwards, rent a car and begin the four-hour drive west to Grand Junction, the Western Slope’s largest city, a gorgeous mountain town, and neighbor to many of the state’s 150+ vineyards. Along the way, take in nature’s splendor: the Rockies offer a dramatic backdrop for your ride along I-70 West, and if you are traveling late in the spring or early summer, white-capped mountains still reveal the results of a long winter and ski slopes attract late-season athletes.

A Double Room at The Hotel Maverick (photo courtesy of The Hotel Maverick)

Park yourself at The Hotel Maverick (840 Kennedy Avenue, Tel: 970 822-4888. thehotelmaverick.com) for three nights. It’s less than five years old, a short walk to downtown, and abuts the idyllic Colorado Mesa University campus. After arriving, take a breather at the hotel; if the weather is good on your first night, head up to the fourth floor for its rooftop bar and restaurant, Devil’s Kitchen. With spices, lime, and tomatillos sprinkled throughout, the menu gently skews Latin American, and the bison tamales are a signature. With sharp dishes under the Milky Way, Devil’s Kitchen gifts some of the best of culinary Colorado. From here, you can map out your days by either staying local to shop and hike, or adventuring farther out into the vineyards to try Colorado’s homegrown wines.

SIT, SIP, AND STROLL

To start off your wine tasting journey, begin local in downtown Grand Junction and slip into Carlson Vineyards Downtown Tasting Room (545 Main Street, Tel: 970-424-5827, carlsonvineyards.com). Opened as a small winery in 1988, the operation has grown and diversified the many wines it sells, including roses, peach wines, and a trendy orange. Their Sweet Baby Red, a red blend, is the bestseller, and affordable tastings are served via flights of wine in the storefront’s back room surrounded by local mountain-impressionist art. Owner Garrett Porta keeps the atmosphere easygoing and the tasting accessible; he also combines philanthropy with his work. “A successful business means a successful community,” he tells visitors, and through his work with The Wren Quinn Project, Carlson Vineyards donates some of their proceeds to local nonprofits and organizations with aligned missions.

After sipping on half a dozen or so wines, perhaps try tasting some craft oils and vinegars at Bella Balsamic (555 Main Street, Tel: 970-581-6703, bellabalsamic.net). The husband-and-wife shop features specialty balsamics in apricot, bourbon maple, and mango natural flavors. Another highlight on the block is A Robin’s Nest of Antiques & Treasures (603 Main Street, Tel: 970-245-0109, robinsnestgj.com), where you can easily spend hours sifting through the two floors of fine china, vintage clothing, and gorgeous ephemera, including posters of Keith Haring’s work. It’ll be hard to not walk out with a statement piece, perhaps a new wool blazer or chic blouse that’s a great price and even better fit.

A Meal at Devil’s Kitchen (photo courtesy of The Hotel Maverick)

If you need a sandwich or snack, stop at The Hot and the Hen (510 Main Street, Tel: 970-644-5110, thehogandthehen.com), whose rainbow awning is a harbinger for treats within. The absolutely adorable market sells penny candy, gourmet jams and condiments, and knock-out sandwiches housemade at the deli counter. It won’t be hard to find a flight-friendly souvenir here.

Afterwards, you can keep strolling on Main Street where the magic of downtown Grand Junction provides many lovely stores to experience. Head back to the hotel to rest (or take a dip in its pool to cool off), and then, for dinner, try one of the Western Slope’s best restaurants: Bin 707 Foodbar (225 North 5th Street, Tel: 970 243-4543, bin707.com). At this New American restaurant, chef and owner Josh Niernberg curates a Colorado-first menu, and a wine list where the majority of the wines are from within state, giving visitors a kaleidoscopic look at the diversity of vineyards waiting to be explored.

Colorado Wine Tasting (Photo by Kikujiarm)

 

VINEYARD ADVENTURES

There are two pairs of near-adjacent vineyards to visit that represent the state’s two American Viticultural Areas. In Palisade, within the Grand Valley AVA, Sauvage Spectrum (676 38 1/4 Road, Tel: 970-464-2127, sauvagespectrum.com) has a blanco zinfandel that is light, crisp, and fun. While they focus on bubbly bevs with their series of “Sparkle” wines, their red blend Domaine also won Best in Class at the 2023 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the only Grand Valley wine to earn the honor. A few miles down the road, and still in Palisade, the mom-and-pop Peachfork Orchards and Vineyards (281 33 Road, Tel: 970 216-7662, peachfork.com) has a tasting room filled with colorful chairs and dangling Edison bulbs. With doors in shades of lime and nectarine, the pastel palette reminds tasters that fruits provide the most pleasing colors, and wine inspiration. Don’t forget to try their pear and apple wine on your tasting tour for a sweet finish.

You’ll need to drive a little farther for the West Elks, Colorado’s second AVA, but the stunning views absolutely make it worth your while. Nestled amongst cherry trees, Qutori Wines (40823 CO-133, Tel: 970-527-3236, qutoriwines.com) has a Syrah that won Best in Show at the 2019 Governor’s Cup (the state’s top winemaking competition), and when you’re done sipping on that, head into the family-owned market, Root and Vine, to be tempted by local art, jewelry, and homemade pies.

For the best views, drive five minutes up the road to Hotchkiss and take the winding path to The Storm Cellar (14139 Runzel Gulch Road, Tel: 970-589-3142, stormcellarwine.com), home to restaurant veterans Steve Steese and Jayme Henderson’s picturesque vineyard with a clear-as-day view of the West Elks. Evening visits may include homegrown food, which is often prepared by the superb Forage Sisters or local chefs, pop-up style. Looking down at the valley and farms below, Steese gestured to where the food originates. “The cheese came from there; the bread came from there,” he smiles.

The View From The Storm Cellar (Photo by Billy McEntee)

Everything is al fresco: the views, the food, and even the spit cup. If you’re not swallowing your wine, the strategically arranged pebbles beneath your feet act as the depository for unfinished whites, which Storm Cellar specializes in, but good luck denying yoursel. Most vineyards have a signature cultivar, but at Storm Cellar every bottle is lean and dry, and all prepared at 6,000 feet elevation, making them among the highest of vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, SUPPORT THE LOCAL GAY SCENE

Cap off one of your nights in Grand Junction with the city’s, and Western Slope’s, only gay bar, Good Judy’s (103 N 1st St, Tel: 970) 433-711, good-judys.com). Grand Junction native Jesse Daniels founded the bar and also co-created Colorado West Pride to celebrate the LGBTQ community around the Rockies. To him, a gay bar is more than just a nucleus; it also builds “queer wealth.” He says, “Not everyone works a standard job, so we’re really digging into making sure that we are helping keep each others’ heads above water so we can grow.”

Sign at Good Judy’s (Photo by Billy McEntee)

 

With its welcoming energy, refreshing outdoor space, and bileval hang-out areas complete with a Vegas-quality DJ set and VIP lounge, Good Judy’s may be Grand Junction’s first gay bar, there are other LGBTQ-owned businesses nearby, and more are coming. Kodiaxe (11S W Grand Avenue, Tel: 970 628-4454, kodiaxe.com) is a gay-owned ax-throwing lane. As Grand Junction welcomes new transports and becomes a more progressive hub, Daniels has seen “queer businesses popping up all over now,” including two that are opening soon: a lesbian-owned scooter company, Bird, and a gay-owned Pride merchandise and apparel store, Happy Gay Apparel. Reflecting on how Grand Junction has transformed since he was a kid there, Daniels notes the shift has been “night and day, it’s amazing,” he says, and having more queer-owned businesses proves that. “It’s exactly what we want,” he shares.

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