Tucked into corner of Mesa County, hideaway resort draws distinctive clientele
The divine geometry that created Unaweep Canyon converges at a point hidden by stately cottonwood trees, which have been pruned into obedience like giant bonzai.
The point of convergence, a 6,000-acre spread known as Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa, comes into view near the foot of a red rock spire known as The Palisade, which juts several hundred feet from the canyon floor just across the highway from the hotel lobby.
Hidden behind the trees are blooming flower gardens, rushing waterfalls, cool blue swimming pools, rock sculptures and eye-pleasing stone-covered architecture.
The meandering drive along Colorado Highway 141 from Grand Junction takes less than an hour but ends too soon. Between Naturita and Whitewater, the route is part of the Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway.
From the passenger side, it was easy to see how the ancestral Colorado and Gunnison rivers may have cut their way through the red sandstone of the canyon, exposing some of the oldest rock on earth, according to geologists.
With all its painted cliffs and riparian greenery, Gateway Canyons could be situated in the most scenic and peaceful spot in Colorado, except for all the others.
Even so, what all the other quietly beautiful places in Colorado lack is the vision of an inspired entrepreneur with a business plan based on his desire to share the beauty with as many people as possible.
When Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks and his family first came to Gateway in 1995, they were moved by the beauty and history of the area, as well as by the spirit of its people, Hendricks said.
He knew the little town of Gateway would be his home and the place to launch his vision of a sustainable, outdoor recreation resort that highlights the beauty of the canyon while providing intellectually stimulating adventures among the rocks.
When not adventuring, guests can enjoy wellness-focused treatments at the spa, private tours aboard luxury aircraft, and privileged access to the Gateway Colorado Auto Museum, on-site adventure center and recently launched Driven Experiences.
For her birthday, Jan Ericson of Denver booked one of the resort’s 14 new casitas where she and her nine friends could celebrate. She was sipping wine and taking in the views Friday while her friends lounged or sketched with pastels.
“This is a fantastic place to celebrate your birthday,” Ericson exclaimed, arms raised to the rocky vista.
The starry night skies were a joy to behold, she said.
One-upping Mother Nature, Hendricks enhanced the canyon experience by making it comfortably accessible to everyone willing to pay the price of admission and by supplying all the conceivable luxuries paying guests come to expect from a world class resort.
Some rooms come with a butler.
In-season accommodations can be purchased through online hotel booking companies for $600 a night, which is probably more than most Mesa County residents can afford, considering average annual earnings hover around $39,000 a year, according to the Colorado Department of Labor.
Plenty of others find a way to afford the trip, however. The hotel counts as many as 10,000 room nights a year, said Erik Dombroski, director of marketing.
Even at that volume, the resort’s average annual occupancy is historically only about 35 percent, according to Dombroski.
“Nobody knows we’re here,” he said.
The resort took another breath of rarified air three years ago when it hired Noble House Hotels and Resorts to manage the place. The strategy resulted in added recognition from some of the most prestigious travel experts around.
In 2013, Gateway Canyons won a Conde Nast reader’s choice award and a World Luxury Hotel Award for best hideaway resort. It was also named World’s Best by Travel+Leisure, to name just a few of the most recent accolades. Some were repeat awards.
Recognizing the financial bar to entry for some, Hendricks instituted several special rates exclusively for locals that provide discounts of up to 50 percent depending on the time of year, Dombroski said.
As the resort has grown, so have its efforts at preservation. Gateway Canyons received the 2014 Museum of Western Colorado Preservation Award for the work it did preserving Calamity Camp, the Hanging Flume and the Driggs’ Mansion, all historic architecture that was at one time at risk of disappearing.
Because of its preservation efforts, “Gateway Canyons, along with the Hendricks Family Foundation, has ... promoted educational opportunities for thousands of guests who are curious about western Colorado,” said Zebulon Miracle, curator of anthropology and collections manager for the Museum of Western Colorado.
Hendricks said he has plans to erect affordable housing for workers, which will enable them to live near the resort, and sees a future for other housing development in the area that would be confined to places where humans have lived in the past.