Thirty miles east of the Utah border, US-50 diverges from high-speed I-70 at the city of Grand Junction (pop. 58,566) on the Colorado River. After all the desert that surrounds it, Grand Junction feels much bigger than you’d expect, with its thriving old downtown, complete with cobblestone streets, odd bits of outdoor sculpture, great antiques shops, neon signs—and tons of free parking. Catering to passing traffic, Grand Junction’s I-70 frontage has all the motels and places to eat you could want, but downtown holds one really nice older place, the clean and comfortable Historic Melrose Hotel (337 Colorado Ave., 970/242-9636, hostel bunks $33, rooms $67 and up), a block south of Main Street—just look for the red neon sign.

Like the rest of western Colorado and eastern Utah, the Grand Junction area is rich in two things: the scenic splendor of rivers and red-rock canyons, and fossilized dinosaurs. The scenery is everywhere, and a fine array of the latter are on display west of town along I-70 at Fruita, in the Museum of Western Colorado’s wonderful Dinosaur Journey (970/858-7282, daily, $9). Kids can have fun pushing buttons to control gigantic audio-animatronic mechanical critters while learning a little about Triassic, Jurassic, and other period details.

Colorado National Monument

Rising south and west of Grand Junction, nearly 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, the brilliantly colored cliffs of Colorado National Monument are simply impossible to miss. Deep canyons, alive with piñon pines and cottonwood trees, nestle at the foot of sheer rock walls, at the top of which you get panoramic views over miles and miles of the Colorado Plateau. The 23-mile-long Rim Rock Drive winds along the tops of the cliffs, giving quick access to numerous trails for up-close looks at the various layers and hues of sandstone and shale, which have eroded over the eons into masses of sculpted stone.

There’s a large visitors center (970/858-3617) at the main entrance, four miles southeast of town, and there’s another entrance off I-70 in Fruita, at the northern end of the park.

Delta

From Grand Junction, US-50 briefly becomes a four-lane freeway, then reverts to two lanes following the Gunnison River as far as Delta (pop. 8,915). The half-dozen building-size murals of elk and local agricultural products support Delta’s claim that it is “The City of Murals.”

Delta has one great old landmark, the 1920s Egyptian Theater Movie Palace (452 Main St., 970/874-9770), along with its fair share of motels (including a Days Inn) and fast-food places. It’s also home to a classic piece of roadside Americana: the log-and-stone cabins of the Westways Court Motel (1030 Main St., 970/874-4415, $65 and up), on US-50 in the center of town.

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