The Gateway Canyons’ tagline, “the ultimate western experience,” turned out to be exactly true. The resort is the brainchild of John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel.
I was looking out the window as my plane began our descent into Grand Junction airport and saw a breathtaking array of mountains and canyons. I took a picture in order to remind myself later of that spectacular vision. But I had to pick my camera up three more times in order to capture other parts of the scenery that continued to unfold beneath our wings. The quickly changing view of the scenery below turned out to be the first of many wonderful experiences that awaited me. The hour-and-15-minute trip from the airport to the resort passed through landscape that grew constantly more beautiful as the car weaved its way along the Unaweep Canyon. Not only did the canyon possess a nearly unearthly beauty, I learned that some of our planet’s most ancient rocks are visible at some places on the canyon floors. One of those rocks has a clearly visible footprint of a dinosaur. Gateway Canyons Resort is framed by a truly enormous sheer rock outcropping called the Palisade that rears precipitously hundreds of feet into the air creating the most dramatic object in that marvelous landscape. The resort sits at the juncture of five separate canyons; truly breathtaking vistas spread out in every direction.
I stayed in one of the resort’s picturesque adobe dwellings, referred to as the casitas, that blend perfectly with the area’s high plains environment. Each of the units provides guests with a surprising sense of seclusion. The casitas meld picturesque Southwest design with contemporary décor features including hand-scraped wood floors and volume ceilings accented by massive wooden beams and rod iron ornate chandeliers. Highly decorative interior sliding doors were amazing functional works of art. Someone said they were hand-made out of exotic wood that had been imported from Peru. Large windows looked out on the distant Palisade and over a foreground filled with gardens, shrubs, flowers, and ponds. In back of my casita were two personal lounging areas, both with lounge chairs and one with an additional seating area arranged around a gas fire pit.
An elegant living and dining area, graceful loft, a sleeping area with a king-size bed with comfortable bedding, an incredible walk-in closet, a spacious bathroom with a grand pedestal tub, and a spacious shower made me feel like I was an important pampered VIP. The wide-screen TV had full channel DirectTV service. Even though there were no fences or gates, my casita and the grounds were arranged in a way that provided perfect privacy, and sported the only outdoor shower of its kind providing a unique opportunity of bathing under the wide-open sky with a full view of the surrounding mountains and canyons, and yes, I did utilize it daily. It required little effort to feel at home because the casita had no brochures, notices, lists of rules and checkout times, or any other commercial item to destroy the illusion that I was at home, or at least in a place where I belonged. In fact, the casitas were named for constellations and mine was Aries, which is my own Zodiac Sign — a coincidence that only seemed to confirm that I was where I should be.
Gateway Canyons Resort features two swimming pools, one with a Jacuzzi and a waterfall. The resort also has an Adventure Center offering a lengthy list of activities including such things as air tours, an HD theatre, river adventures, plus a set of “Curiosity Adventures” that included hikes with specialists lecturing on birds, paleontology, history, and geology. The stables offered trail rides, private lessons, picnics on horseback, and a number of other equestrian adventures. A two-mile dirt racecourse was available for guests who wished to drive high performance Pro-Baja vehicles at high speeds. I didn’t take advantage of this, but watched a video that caused me to add the experience to my must do bucket list.
The complete list of the resort’s available activities was ridiculously long. It would have required weeks to do everything. I did go on an ATV adventure. I had always wanted to drive an off-road vehicle. We had a brief ground school, were issued helmets, and then went on a guided tour. It was a lot of fun, but I really wanted to break away, put the hammer down, and “catch some air” off a few high-speed jumps. The road was smooth, however, and they wouldn’t permit us to risk our lives with the kind of stunts that I wished to do. We drove up a steep road to the top of a local peak. We shut off the engines and a silence filled the rarified space with a stillness that seemed almost palpable. On our way back down the mountain we saw a momma bear with her cub. I was glad to be operating a high-speed vehicle. The bear never charged us, or I might have had an excuse to “put the pedal to the metal” and test the ATV’s acceleration. I took advantage of Gateway Canyons’ complete spa services by getting a facial on the recommendation of the spa manager. Like the other parts of the resort, the spa area was so gorgeous that I had to stop and videotape the surroundings. I rarely make time to indulge in facials but, as the manager had said, the esthetician had an amazing touch. My skin glowed as I walked away feeling pampered and relaxed.
I learned that John Hendricks had chosen the area on the recommendation of some international videographers. He was on a video shoot in Africa and asked them to name the most inspiring place they had ever seen. Two of them said that the American Southwest was the most beautiful region on earth. Hendricks remembered how his dad had loved the area. He was about to purchase some land in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area, when he learned from a Wall Street Journal article that the five-canyon property had come on the market, and booked a plane the next day to view it. He flew over the area in a helicopter and, before the helicopter landed, had decided to purchase the property. John makes his own home on the site together with an observatoryand his own personal herd of buffalo.
I replicated John’s initial survey, taking to the skies on a beautiful helicopter called Eurocopter AStar B3. The ride lasted an hour, or so. The pilot Mike was a great tour guide, pointing out features as we flew above them, including an aerial view of the looming Palisade, which was much largerthan it appeared from below, a half-dozen mesas, a river, and the San Juan Mountain Range. We saw cave dwellings in which Anasazi and Pueblo Indians lived before Columbus. Mike had been a pilot for Grand Canyon tours, but he said that he thought the canyon lands we were flying over were even more spectacular because of the varietyand diversity of the landscape. I’ve seen beautiful places in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and other parts of Colorado. The Gateway Canyon region, with its soaring mountain peaks, green mesas, red rock palisades, canyons, and high desert areas, encapsulates in one place the variety of all those other areas.
After landing, we went on a picnic to the nearby Red Cliffs, enjoying our lunch in a secluded area backed against beautiful precipitous red cliffs that give the area its name. The picnic area included an archery range where some of the younger people in our group satisfied their Hunger Games-induced desire to try their hand at the sport. A nearby log cabin had a swamp cooler and fully equipped bathroom facilities that were much nicer than we might have expected in a log cabin. The brilliant weather suddenly began to change dramatically. In a remarkably short time the sun was hidden behind dark clouds, and enormous raindrops began to fall. We were treated to a lightening and thunder show that after 15 minutes, or so, settled into a light rain. A short time later, as is appropriate in paradise, the rains ceased, the sun came out, and I went horseback riding out of the resort’s gorgeous stable. I had only been on horseback on one previous occasion, but the tour guide, Amy, reassured
us that the ride was safe. Some horses were perfectly gentle and others more spirited. Amy had us walk among the animals and pick one to make a connection with. None of the gentle horses connected with me, but a small feisty pinto named Boomerang silently sent to me the unmistakable message that he would be willing to let me ride him. We rode up a steep track to a picnic spot right on the top of a peak. As we rode, Amy shared with us her love for these animals. She made me appreciate Boomerang on a much deeper level than simply as a mount to ride around on. I learned that horses and people can connect at a very personal level.
Gateway Canyons also features an upscale car museum with more than tens of millions of dollars worth of vintage automobiles dating back to the very beginning of the industry. Each vehicle was restored to an impeccable level of shiny brilliance and color that in some cases probably exceeded new-car-showroom quality. The museum provided a journey through time beginning with the oldest “horseless carriage” looking vehicles and taking the visitor step-by-step through the development of the industry beginning with a 1906 Cadillac. I was delighted at the bright colors of many of the vintage vehicles because I only knew them from old movies in which, of course, they appear as black, white, or gray. I was most impressed by the 1960s muscle cars because they reminded me of the Firebird and GTO that my parents had owned when I was a child.
The museum is immaculate; carefully arranged floodlights and spotlights beautifully showcase the automobiles. The walls are decorated with brochures and vintage maps. John Hendricks had ordered the style in honor of his father who would bring back maps from his travels that filled John’s boyish spirit with the desire to go see the far-away places depicted. The maps and brochures had been hung by someone with a genius for interior decoration, because they perfectly complimented those splendid automobiles.
Gateway Canyons not only has fine cars for guests to look at, they have fine cars that guests can actually drive. After returning to the resort from the trail ride, I cleaned up, went to a place called the Driven Experiences, which features a collection of 20 cars in seven class levels. Class One included such things as a Jeep Wrangler and a Camaro. Class Seven included such things as a Porsche and a Bentley. I wanted muscle so I drove a red hemi-equipped Dodge Challenger through the canyon and up one of the mountains. I do not know what its top speed might have been, but it could go at least 100 MPH and was still accelerating when I let up on the throttle.
I was able to enjoy all three of the restaurants on the property, however my favorite meal was a six course wine pairing event created by a 5-star chef named Ron Rhiver and featuring such dishes as foie gras that melted in my mouth, broiled lobster, sweet corn risotto, and a short ribs entré that was so good everyone at the table agreed it was the best they had ever tasted. I told Chef Rhiver that I had grown up in Colorado. I mentioned my particular fondness for green chili, which is a regional specialty. I told him that the quality of the Colorado variety was unmatched in California. As I left, Chef Rhiver presented me with a container of green chili to take back with me. It was as good as I remembered and a fantastic delicacy that everyone in my family enjoyed. Everyone in my nuclear family, I should have said. I kept it a secret from my extended family because they would have rushed over and helped themselves.
When I got back to SFO the next day, I was confronted by Bay Area roadways that were jammed by commute traffic. It was a rude reintroduction to reality. The silence of the mountains and the clear visions of those majestic canyons and peaks were sweet memories that I recalled with a poignant smile as I sat in the horrendous backup to the Bay Bridge that would take me back to the East Bay.