Gateway Canyons Resort Is a Paradise for Adventurers and Auto Enthusiasts

Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Robb Report Collection as “Gates of Heaven

Colorado’s Gateway Canyons Resort is a paradise for adventurers and auto enthusiasts.  

“Now, a lot of what we are doing might seem counterintuitive,” the voice coming over my helmet radio said. Bouncing off a distant satellite and then relayed back to Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa, the words sounded like they were coming from the dark side of the moon, though the man talking—former Grand-Am Road Racing driver Jeff Humberson—was standing barely 10 feet away on the Colorado red-rock clay. But he did have a point. There is definitely something counterintuitive about climbing feet first through the passenger window into a cockpit that is lined with steel tubing and sits six and a half feet off the ground. The vehicle itself defied credulity. What was originally a Ford F-150 Raptor had been transformed into something out of Mad Max, all motor and wheels, several inches wider than a Hummer H1, and capable of outrunning the most high-powered exotic across the desert. 

As Humberson observed, after wiggling in behind the steering wheel, driving this vehicle is not for the faint of heart. “First-time drivers think hitting the brakes will make the truck stop, but it will just pile up dirt in front of the truck like a snowplow,” he said. “You have to learn to be comfortable with being out of control.” 

With that, he flicked a switch on the center console, sending jets of cool air rushing into my helmet. I took a deep, grateful breath, as if it might be my last. A flick of another switch set the fuel pump to ticking, and with a third, the big machine shuddered and came to life. The cacophony of its exhaust echoed off the canyon walls as we rolled slowly out to the test track.

“Things can get scary if the truck goes sideways,” Humberson said, “but as long as the wheels are turning, it will chew its way through the dirt. Just be sure to keep your head straight up when we hit the jumps. The helmet’s heavy, and you don’t want to snap your neck when we land.” 

Roger that, I assured him, giving him the old thumbs-up. But what did he mean by “jumps”? 

It was too late to ask, because now the truck was screaming like a Formula 1 racer as it accelerated onto the rutted test track. We were about to go airborne. 

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This was not exactly what I was expecting when the resort’s cream-colored Bentley convertible picked me up at the Grand Junction airport a few days earlier. To me the term “luxury resort” suggested pool lolling, tanning, tropical drinks with little paper parasols, visits to the spa, and, well, Bentley convertibles. But that was before I arrived at Gateway Canyons Resort. 

The resort lies along the western edge of Colorado, just east of the Utah border, amid a spectacular setting inhabited by wildlife long before the Jurassic period. “The surrounding countryside is riddled with dinosaur tracks,” the Bentley’s driver, Gateway Canyons vice president and managing director Rudy Sharp, said on the way from the airport to the resort. “The fact is there are too many fossils and tracks for researchers to study them all.”

The pterosaurs, with their 20-foot wingspans, and stegosaurs, the size of school buses, are extinct, but the countryside still abounds with fauna. “Every now and then you’ll see elk standing in the middle of the road, challenging cars,” said Sharp. “Higher up, we might see bobcats, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and bear.”

The vistas shifted from the real to the surreal. As the big Bentley sped along the mountainside, the surrounding cliffs and valleys seemed to morph into a giant statuary garden of towering cathedrals, pipe organs, ghostly tombs, and craggy ziggurats. But eeriest of all was the monolith that rose over the canyons like a 2,000-foot-tall, 4-mile-long wall. “That’s the Palisade,” said Sharp. “It’s a magnet for world-class mountain climbers. A lot of people try to climb it, but fewer make it to the top than have gotten to the summit of Mount Everest.”

In the distance, a helicopter settled down on a landing zone. A pair of eagles circled overhead as an ATV came ripping along a trail. A pack of wild horses went galloping across a nearby meadow, and what looked like a Le Mans–winning GT racecar from the 1960s rolled out of a gate and accelerated down the road. We had arrived at our destination. 

When the television-industry tycoon John Hendricks set out to build Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa, what he had in mind was not a leisure getaway but an arena for adventure and education, a place where guests could learn about the world around them and experience nature firsthand. It was a similar impulse that had inspired him to start the Discovery Channel in 1982. Since then, Discovery has expanded to include operations in more than 220 countries with nearly 3 billion subscribers and 53 entertainment brands ranging from Animal Planet to TLC. 

With Gateway Canyons, which opened in 2005 and accommodates guests in a total of 72 suites, including 14 private casitas, Hendricks takes visitors out of the armchair and puts them face to face with a world of seemingly boundless possibilities. The property’s amenities and activities include an auto museum, collections of Americana and weaponry, helicopter flights to the area’s uppermost plateaus, hiking and mountain trails, stables for horses, rivers for fishing, and off-road driving for motor­sports enthusiasts. 

In short, the resort presents a dilemma familiar to any child who has found himself or herself with free run of a candy store: what to try first? View the cars in the museum’s collection? Explore the hills for dinosaur tracks? Sample the local Pinot Noir? Saddle up for a gallop through the sagebrush? Tackle the sheer face of the Palisade? Or view it from above, in a helicopter?

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“People talk about touring the Grand Canyon by air, but there’s much more to see here in Gateway,” said the resort’s air tours pilot Alan Sisson, as the five-passenger Eurocopter AStar B3 passed over the largest of the area’s hoodoos near the Palisade. Its topside greenery called to mind a Manhattan roof garden. “In a matter of minutes you can fly from desert to snowy mountaintops,” said Sisson. “And since we fly so much lower than commercial airliners we can offer a more intimate and memorable view of some spectacular terrain.” 

Later that day, as we walked along the edge of the Dolores River, viewing the relic that clung like a giant centipede to the cliffs above us, Zebulon Miracle, the resort’s ebullient resident curator of curiosity, explained that this was the remnants of the famous Dolores Hanging Flume. Part of a $175,000 investment in a placer-mining endeavor, the flume was built between 1889 and 1891 in part by workmen hanging off ropes 75 feet above the riverbanks. The project was abandoned after a short time because the quantity of gold at the claims was less than expected and because the flume was next to impossible to maintain.

“The story of the American West is boom and bust,” Miracle said after a short drive from the flume to Calamity Camp, an abandoned mining site that included a half-dozen rock-and-log cabins. It was not gold that these prospectors were after. This settlement was the country’s epicenter of radium exploration in the 1920s and for uranium from the 1940s until the 1970s, when demand tailed off. In 2011 the camp was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors usually do not stay long, said Miracle. “It’s still a little radioactive.” He quickly added that the area is nevertheless safe.

The smell of cordite wafted through the air the next day at the remote site where the resort’s Evolution of the Weapon instructor Steve Dow retraced 150 years of history through the arms common to the Old West: tomahawk; bow and arrow; Sharps, Henry, Hawken, and Springfield rifles; 12-gauge shotgun, stagecoach shotgun, Colt .45; and a fully functioning 19th-century Gatling gun. More modern firearms included the M1 rifle familiar to generations of American infantrymen. 

Memories of my old drill sergeant yelling “Why don’t you just throw your weapon at the target?” came rushing over me as I slapped the 30-caliber magazine into its chamber, hefted the butt to my shoulder, exhaled slowly, and gently squeezed the trigger. A loud kablam! was followed by a moment of nostalgia when Dow, walking up to the target, announced the results: “You missed.” 

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The resort’s Driven Experiences garage houses five Bentleys, a pair of Corvettes, an SRT Viper, a Mustang Shelby GT500, and other cars for guests’ motoring pleasure. But the one that caught my eye was the Ford GT, a descendant of the GT40 racecar, which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in four consecutive years, from 1966 through 1969. 

Humberson, who serves as Driven Experiences’ vice president, explained that the racecar was called the GT40 because it stood barely 40 inches high. The road car is only 3 inches taller. “It’s a serious car,” he said. “That’s a racing clutch, and it might take both hands to get it into reverse. And you have to watch your head when you’re getting in and out. Otherwise, it’s like any other 200-mile-an-hour racecar.” 

So saying, Humberson tossed me the keys. “Be back in an hour or so.”

Some 100 miles later I returned to the garage, car and driver unscathed but with my pulse racing and my hands still shaking.

“How was it?” asked Humberson.

A piece of cake, I lied.

Leading the way back into the garage, Humberson said there was one more vehicle he wanted me to see, Driven Experiences’ Pro-Baja off-road racing truck. “If you wanted we could give you lessons, provide the truck, the gear, and take you racing in the Baja 500 or 1000,” he said.

Several hours later, we were flying off a dirt ramp in the truck, coming back to earth more than 70 feet from our launch point. I gritted my teeth against the crash of landing, but the impact was much softer than I had expected. 

“That’s because of the suspension,” said Humberson, fighting the wheel as the truck churned its way out of the trackside mud. “The travel is almost 30 inches, front and rear. A Trophy Truck is built to take a rollover and keep on going.”

Then, with the truck once more gathering speed, we drifted through the first turn, spewing rocks and mud in our wake, to do it all over again. 

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The Canyons’ Classic-Car Collection

For car buffs, Gateway Canyons’ most memorable feature may be its auto museum, which at any given time displays more than 50 vehicles from John Hendricks’s collection in six distinctly themed galleries. The Hollywood High Style gallery houses an elegant Duesenberg Model J previously owned by King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Also included are the kinds of cars owned or driven by such movie-land royalty as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Howard Hawks, and Howard Hughes. 

The oldest car on exhibit is a baroque 1906 Cadillac Model H that a contemporary onlooker might have compared to a rolling telephone booth, if he or she had ever seen a telephone booth. The museum’s sporty 1912 Ford Model T Speedster hints at the automotive design and performance that were to come; it was several hundred pounds lighter and much faster than other production models of its time. Among the museum’s surprises is the aerodynamically contoured 1937 Hudson Terraplane. It features a waterfall grille, amber fog lights, a driver’s spotlight, and a streaking-comet hood ornament. 

In 1947, the Town & Country convertible was the big showroom draw for Chrysler, with its stylish steel-and-wood body. It was also the car often cast in movies to take affluent city-dwelling characters to their weekend homes in Connecticut. In 1953 the most charismatic and desirable car on the road was the Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Both are included in Hendricks’s collection, as are hot rods, muscle cars, and a gleaming white Ford F-100 Good Humor ice cream truck from 1956.

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