Vacationland: North Fork Valley
Chicago is a long way from the North Fork Valley, especially in 1893, when the journey had to be made by train or wagon or horseback.
But so confident were settlers to the valley that they made the trek to the World’s Fair, bearing fruit from trees they’d planted in the fertile soil. In fact, a North Fork Valley peach won a gold medal “and we’ve been producing award-winning fruit since then,” said Michael Drake, president of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce.
But the area has become so much more than the fruit it grows, though the fruits and vegetables are pretty amazing. Paonia and its sister cities of Hotchkiss and Crawford have become known for art, farm-to-table cuisine, music, outdoor recreation, wine and, most of all, unparalleled natural beauty.
The North Fork Valley was the longtime home of Ute tribes until 1880, when the federal government closed the Ute Indian Reservation. Twenty-seven years earlier, in 1853, U.S. Army Capt. John W. Gunnison had been through the valley searching for a pass through the Rocky Mountains for the Topographical Engineers.
Two decades later, more white settlers followed, including Samuel Wade and William Clark, who accompanied Enos Hotchkiss on the journey from Ohio. More settlers arrived, bringing with them cattle and, in 1893, sheep. Soon, extensive coal reserves were discovered in the North Fork Valley and coal became the area’s major industry.
The area also was discovered to be ideally situated for growing cherries, grapes, apples, peaches and other fruit, and it’s this agriculture for which Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford are widely known today. It is particularly known as an area where farmers are making great innovations in organic farming and sustainability.
In fact, some of the most popular draws to the area are farm and orchard tours and wine tasting, Drake said.
“One of the descriptions today that a lot of people like is to come visit Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where art meets agriculture,” Drake said. “Basically, it’s a mutual respect and understanding that it’s the environment and the scenic beauty and the land that everybody here loves. The common ground is that we all like what’s here, and what’s here is just beautiful country and we all want to protect it.”
He added that it’s the “undiscovered gem” of Colorado, a haven for those seeking a balance of simplicity and sophistication blended with a relaxed pace of life.
Have a Dionysian day: The North Fork Valley is known regionally and nationally for its wines, so no visit to the area is complete without a day of wine tasting at the area’s 10 wineries. A good way to get started is with North Fork Uncorked, June 20–21, or the West Elks Wine Trail from July 31 to Aug. 2. Both are special weekends of wine tasting, winemakers’ dinners, food and wine pairings and winery tours. (westelksava.com)
Visit a farm: One of the highlights of a visit to the North Fork Valley is the variety of farms and gardens offering everything from organic cherries to flowers and okra. Various farms has everything from fresh fruits and veggies to tours, programs, the option of overnight stays and farm-to-table meals. (northforkvalley.net, localharvest.org)
3. Go to paradise: The Paradise Theater, that is. The 145-seat Paonia venue hosts weekly movies, fashion shows, live concerts, art shows, live theater, film festivals and series. (paradiseofpaonia.com) Be picky: Paonia’s free summer concert series Pickin’ in the Park returns every Thursday evening in August at Paonia Town Park with an array of musicians performing roots and Americana music. The opening act begins at 6 p.m. and the headliner around 7 p.m. Early arrival is recommended.
(pickinproductions.com) Cheery cherries: Enjoy at least a bowlful, maybe more, at Paonia Cherry Days held July 3–5. There’s a parade, vendors, a children’s carnival, royalty, coal shoveling and wood splitting contests, cherry pie eating contests and more. (paoniacherrydays.com)
Enjoy a cold one: After a busy day of taking in everything the North Fork Valley has to offer, the only thing to do is kick back with a sunset over the West Elk Mountains and a craft brew.
Revolution Brewing offers a variety of beers made from Mount Lamborn spring water. (revolution-brewing.com)