Unaweep-Tabeguache Historic and Scenic Byway
Located south of Grand Junction and running southwest from Whitewater, the glorious Unaweep-Tabegauche Scenic and Historic Byway sweeps through unfathomably deep canyons and climbs skyscraper plateaus, taking us on a winding journey through an ancient and historied land.
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“Once, my grandfather was riding a skittish horse,” remembers Oscar, “and he bent down to open a gate or something. That horse threw him and broke his femur, or his hip. I don’t know. He tied himself on his horse and rode from here all the way to Moab.” People were tougher back then, he said. Life was tougher.
Maybe people accepted more risk, or just trusted more. “My dad, he used to put my sisters on a pack mule, one on each side, and just send them up the mountain to the high pasture,” Oscar said. “It was 15 miles but the mules knew their way and just took them.”
One of their sons walked in, Austin, a friendly man dressed in denim, a red moustache under a big weathered hat. Talking about what it was like to grow up in the Unaweep, Austin recalled, “We got up at 4:30 to make it to school. We were too far from town to do any sports, but we spent hours climbing the cliff walls around here.”
Oscar pointed out a slanted line up the nearby cliff and said, “The boys climbed that. You wouldn’t catch me dead up there.” Then, looking at the living room wall covered by photos of their grandkids, he pointed out a young woman and said, “That’s Danielle, Austin’s daughter. She can train a horse to talk and walk. She’s just a natural.” For many in the Unaweep, these are things that matter, skill with horses, courage, the land, family and longevity.
Just down from the Masseys, the road passes Campbell Point, site of an unusual murder in the valley in 1885. John L. Campbell apparently shot his business partner, Sam Jones, then carried the body on horseback to the top of the cliff where he threw if off. A search party later found the body by following circling buzzards. Oddly enough, the point carries the name of the murderer and not the deceased.
AS THE ROAD continues southwest and drops down the divide, Unaweep Canyon officially ends in the Dolores River Valley. Four major canyons converge here, like giant red spokes radiating outward from the worn town of Gateway. The town has waxed and waned over the last century, but besides a few houses, a post office, a school and a diner that’s rarely open, there is still little to Gateway beyond a wealth of stunning scenery including the Palisade, a towering red rock mesa that looms nearly 2,000 feet over town.
Drive through the faded town, cross the Dolores River and turn south and suddenly it appears like a mirage, the Gateway Canyons Resort, an upscale destination resort and conference center owned by John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel television networks. After the simplicity of the working ranches and barbed wire fences, the contrast is striking.
People have been buying and selling ranches in this valley since the first acre was fenced, so the purchase of several thousand acres in the area was nothing new. Hendricks learned about Gateway from an ad he read in the New York Times that simply said, “Ranch for sale in the spectacular red rock canyon country southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado.” He flew out, purchased the ranch and starting buying more land in an effort to preserve Gateway’s open western feel.
It must have seemed like fate. Hendricks had harbored dreams of the American West most of his life, enthralled by his father’s tales about traveling in the area in the 1920s and ’30s. The wild country around Gateway seemed to match his dreams perfectly.
Undoubtedly his vision and resources shocked some locals, as it does throughout Colorado when someone with more than you moves in next door. But it can’t be disputed that the Gateway Canyons Resort has breathed new life into Gateway by providing jobs, raising property values, purchasing computers for the school and grass for the soccer fields. Over the last few years, Hendricks has placed a good portion of his land in conservation easements in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and Mesa Land Trust, ensuring that these big tracts of land will stay whole forever.
From a few hundred feet above the valley floor in the resort’s helicopter, it’s easy to see how the land around Gateway inspires so many. Unaweep Canyon stretches out to the north, the white Precambrian cliff walls contrasting with the deep red Wingate sandstone above the Dolores River. To the east, the Uncompahgre Plateau rises up in forests of aspen and pine. To the west, the snowcapped La Sal Mountains of Utah beckon, looking close enough to touch. This is the incredible natural backdrop where the Massey family has made their life, and where Hendricks realized his childhood dreams.