Colorado's uncrowded mountain has rustic digs and miles of skinny ski and snowmobile trails
From Interstate 70, Grand Mesa appears as a long, snow-covered lump dominating the southern panorama between Parachute and Palisade. Outdoor enthusiasts from nearby Grand Junction think of it as their personal winter backyard treasure. For Front Range residents, it’s a rare retreat to the Colorado of the past, when lodging was rustic, food was food and not cuisine, prices were reasonable, and solitude reigned in the backcountry.
At 53 square miles, the Mesa, as it’s known locally, is the world’s largest flat-topped mountain. The top, at more than 10,000 feet, receives an average of 300 inches of snow each year. State 65, a National Scenic and Historic Byway, snakes up the Mesa’s steep northern and southern slopes to the wooded landscape on top.
The many frozen lakes on the Mesa appear as pancake-flat clearings among the snow-laden trees, and wildlife abounds. For humans the Mesa is a place for winter sports. Local downhillers head for Powderhorn Ski Area, a small, family-oriented resort for skiers and snowboarders. But most Front Range residents come to the Mesa for its prime nordic skiing and snowmobiling.
While there is plenty of winter recreation, services are limited, with just a handful of places to sleep, eat, or rent a snowmobile. Rustic cabins are reminiscent of traditional summer cottages. The cross-country ski trails are just that–with virtually no warming lodges, ski lessons, or rental equipment. The Mesa, in short, is a place for self-sufficient recreationists to plunge into winter, not to be coddled. Go there to get in touch with nature, breathe clean, cold air, and escape the Front Range crowds.
Separating skiers and snowmobilers keeps everyone happy
Grand Mesa’s real appeal is that the U.S. Forest Service has minimized conflicts between motorized and nonmotorized recreational users by designating specific snowmobile and cross-country trails along State 65.
Three trail systems for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing crown the Mesa. The Skyway and County Line systems, linked by a 1-mile trail, are relatively gentle, with groomed tracks that can be combined into myriad routes of various lengths. Skyway’s trails are easy, and its northeastern section provides a dramatic view of the Book Cliffs, deeply eroded shale walls that resemble taupe book spines lined up on a shelf. The County Line system is even easier, and its southern trails offer good views of the soaring San Juan Mountains. A full-moon ski or snowshoe outing on any of these high-altitude routes is an ethereal delight.
The Ward Lake system is more extensive and more challenging, with a 500-foot elevation difference between the lowest and highest parts. Some trails are groomed; others are marked but ungroomed. As the system farthest from Grand Junction, Ward Lake gets the fewest users. It is also the lowest in elevation and faces south, so the season tends to be shorter here. One of the two main trailheads is near the Grand Mesa Visitors Center, where heated rest rooms are open daily (not a trivial consideration on the Mesa).
If you prefer your views to change quickly, one after another and with a lot less effort, book a snowmobile tour. Of the Mesa’s 121 miles of snowmobile trails, a half-day tour can cover about 35 to 40 of the most scenic. Guides stop at the best views, like the Land O’ Lakes Overlook, from which 16 lakes are visible, along with a remarkable 180° panorama that arcs from the mountains surrounding Aspen all the way to Utah. From Crater View, you see Powderhorn, the West Bench Trail (which skirts the Mesa’s north rim), Chalk Mountain, and the Grand River Valley. Lands End, on the Mesa’s western tip, seems to put all of western Colorado and a good part of Utah at your feet. People who own or rent sleds can explore other trails through the forest and across the empty, rolling landscape.
Whether on snowmobiles or skis, always head out prepared for weather, and let someone know where you’re going. This really is Colorado winter the way it used to be.
Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It’s best to bring gear from home. Volunteers from the nonprofit Grand Mesa Nordic Council maintain the trails. Use is free, but donations in trailhead boxes are appreciated. For a trail map, visit http://outdoors.at/gmnc or send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to P.O. Box 266, Cory, CO 81414.
Snowmobile rentals and tours. Four lodges offer snowmobiling: Alexander Lake Lodge (from $125 for full-day rental, no tours); Grand Mesa Lodge (from $95 for 3 1/2-hour tour); Mesa Lakes Resort (from $80 for 2-hour tour); and Spruce Lodge (from $165 for full-day rental, no tours).
Powderhorn Ski Area. Lodging, rentals, lessons, and food service on site. Four lifts, 27 trails, 1,650-foot vertical rise. Lift ticket is $38. www.powderhorn.com or (970) 268-5700.
LODGING AND DINING
Lodging reservations on the Mesa are essential on weekends. Many cabins have basic kitchens; be sure to ask if yours does, then bring groceries with you. Restaurant options are very limited.
Alexander Lake Lodge. Historic inn with seven cabins, some redone and some very rustic. Restaurant serves hearty lunches (check dinner availability) Fri-Sun. From $65. www.alexanderlakelodge.com, (866) 525-2539, or (970) 856-2539.
Grand Mesa Lodge. Simple cabins popular with snowmobilers. From $65 (two motel rooms from $45). www.coloradodirectory.com/grandmesalodge, (800) 551-6372, or (970) 856-3250.
Log Cabin Bed and Breakfast. Small and charming 1891 B&B in Cedaredge. From $80. 210 N. Grand Mesa Dr; www.logcabinbedandbreakfast.com, (888) 750-6647, or (970) 856-7585.
Mesa Lakes Resort. Motel units and cabins on the Mesa’s north side; a restaurant is scheduled to open this winter. Rooms from $45 (from $150 for a two-story cabin that sleeps 12). www.coloradodirectory.com/mesalakesresort or (970) 268-5467.
Powderhorn Resort. Lodging is available at Inn at Wildewood; lunch and dinner are served at its restaurant Thu-Sun. Rooms from $59. www.powderhorn.com or (970) 268-5700.
Spruce Lodge Resort. The Mesa’s prettiest place to stay, with recently remodeled cabins. The dining room serves hearty breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with Tex-Mex specialties and a Saturday prime-rib special. Rooms from $85. www.sprucelodgeonline.com, (800) 850-7221, or (970) 856-6240.
Grand Mesa is 230 miles west of Denver. Take I-70 to exit 62 and follow the DeBeque Cutoff to State 65.
Contact the U.S. Forest Service (970/242-8211) or the Grand Mesa Visitors Center (at intersection of State 65 and Forest Road 121; (970/856-4153), which is open and sometimes staffed by rangers on weekends.