GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- The worst nightmare of a traveling golfer is an outlier course that feels impossible to reach.
The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa is Colorado's white whale, a great course that's hard to find. Redlands Mesa – ranked the no. 1 public course in the state by Golfweek in 2015 and no. 95 nationally by Golf Magazine in 2014 -- sits in Grand Junction, an outpost in western Colorado without a nearby golf resort and few secondary playing options. It's two and a half hours from Vail; four and a half hours from Denver; and five hours from Colorado Springs, the other Colorado golf hotbeds.
Don't let distance discourage you. Redlands Mesa is worth the effort on so many levels, for the course, for the wine, for the hiking on the Colorado National Monument, for the mountain scenery along the way. As much as I love Vail -- the other stop on my July visit to Colorado -- Grand Junction was equally enjoyable.
Grand Junction introduction
Grand Junction is known for two things -- growing wine and peaches. On arrival day, I didn't have time to visit any tasting rooms of the 20-plus wineries, which thrive in the dry high-desert climate. My party ended up, instead, at 626 On Rood, the only wine bar I've seen with wine on tap. It also happens to be the top restaurant in Grand Junction on TripAdvisor. After a drink, we moved on to TripAdvisor's no. 2 choice, Bin foodbar 707, which blew me away with crispy Brussels sprouts, wood-smoked pork belly and killer desserts.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Junction overlooks a private course, so it was a perfect home for a couple nights.
The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa lived up to its billing the next morning. The 11 elevated tee boxes let golfers savor the surrounding rocky red cliffs of the Colorado National Monument and the Grand Mesa. Jim Engh courses are never boring, either. The par 3s rule, all fun and scenic. The ominous par-5 fifth hole plays to a green perched on a rocky shelf. A couple risk-reward par 5s on the back nine were reachable enough that one of my foursome landed an eagle.
After lunch in the grille, we sweated out an afternoon round at Tiara Rado Golf Course, the only 18-hole municipal course in town. It's obviously not Redlands Mesa, but the 6,442-yard course does deliver a few stout holes after a recent back-nine renovation and some nice in-your-face scenery of the Monument to start the round.
Downtown Grand Junction, where we dined at the Rockslide Restaurant and Brewery that night, is worth a stroll. It's very neat (both meanings apply) and tourist friendly. Our host spoiled us at breakfast, bringing a home-made Palisade peach cobbler so we could sample the local bounty and by driving us to the nearby Colorado National Monument. What a place, home to 11 canyons and 20,000 acres of arched windows, rock spires and natural monoliths. I would have loved more time to hike. Alas, an afternoon tee time was waiting.
Rekindling my love of Vail
On the way to Vail, we stopped in Wolcott for lunch and golf at Red Sky Golf Club, a private club with Greg Norman and Tom Fazio courses. Golfers who stay at key resort properties throughout the Vail Valley have access to tee times. The courses rotate daily opening to the public, so we landed on the Norman, the only course in the state ranked among the top 100 public courses in the country by both Golf Digest (no. 79 in 2015-16) and Golf Magazine (No. 43 in 2014).
Red Sky's Norman Course is a thrill ride of elevation changes and dramatic vistas of the mountains. Norman plastered the place with bunkers. A pond and a stream add more trouble. It's important to aim your putts and drives toward the high side of the property. Everything will react accordingly.
You never know who you might see at such a fancy club. The last time I visited Red Sky, in 2004, I saw Phil Mickelson drive by in a golf cart. He was there for a corporate clinic. As mountain courses go, I haven't found a better duo than Red Sky.
Vail was just as I remembered, a mountain paradise bustling with activity. While checking into the posh Arrabelle at Vail Square, A RockResort, a free summer music festival was rocking outside. It was another reminder why Vail rates as one of my favorite summer golf destinations.
Mountain Standard, where we dined, was created by the creative minds behind Sweet Basil -- Vail's no. 1 restaurant on Yelp -- to be a more casual version of the fine dining upstairs. The atmosphere was vibrant. The food was good, not great.
The last day was jam-packed but perfect -- morning golf at Vail Golf Club, a spa treatment at Arrabelle, dinner at Matsuhisa (a hip Japanese sushi joint) and a nightcap in the 10th Mountain Whiskey Tasting Room in the village.
The front nine at Vail Golf Club, a relatively flat municipal course, roams peacefully through the pines with the Gore Mountains looming overhead. The back nine suffers a bit from the noise of the adjacent highway, although the Gore Creek spices up the challenge on a number of these holes. A new clubhouse, scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2016, will really class up the experience.
My only regret is I didn't ride a golf bike during my round. It fits right in with Vail's active ethos. With so many scenic opportunities to play golf, hike and bike, I can see why so many people experience a Rocky Mountain high visiting such a beautiful state.