Mount Garfield a vigorous and rugged hiking challenge
Mount Garfield defeated me twice.
The first time was more than a dozen years ago when my dad and I stupidly, stupidly tried to hike it in the middle of summer. Don’t do that. It’s blister hot and dusty. Large rocks do not provide enough shade.
The second time was on an afternoon several weeks ago with features writers Melinda Mawdsley and Rachel Sauer. Frustrated and somewhat nauseated, Melinda put a halt to the lack of fun she was having on the hike’s initial ascent. At some point, she even conjectured that President James Garfield must have been a bad president to have such a mountain named after him.
(Sorry, if you’re a fan of the 20th president of the United States, who, by the way, was assassinated only 200 days into his presidency.)
But on April 12, Melinda, Rachel and I stood on top of Mount Garfield as it loomed over Interstate 70 on the Palisade end of the Grand Valley. And it wasn’t even noon.
OK, so we started early.
Hiking Mount Garfield is something to put on your springtime great outdoors to-do list, but DO NOT underestimate it. Sure, there are people who run it or hike it multiple times in a row or even skip class (Rachel, the teenage years) at Palisade High School to climb it for fun. However, I maintain that hiking Mount Garfield isn’t something to shrug your shoulders about.
You need to be fairly physically fit. You need good shoes for traction. You need plenty of water. You need to pace yourself and rest as needed as the trail rises 2,000 feet.
The start of the hike is particularly steep as the trail leaves the valley floor and goes up the spine of a dirt ridge along the Bookcliffs. There should be a sign telling your boots to stay in low gear, both ways.
While that is the main route up Mount Garfield, it’s not the only one. The Gearhart Mine Trail is a more moderate route and starts at the same trail head as Mount Garfield Trail. According to the sign at the trail head, the main trail is two miles long, and the mine trail is 2.5 miles.
On the sunny April day of our hike, Rachel and Melinda started about 8 a.m. and took the mine trail. About 30 minutes later, I began hiking the main trail.
Birds chirped, traffic zoomed on the nearby interstate and I huffed and puffed. Thank goodness there was a little breeze. I stopped a few times to take pictures and gaze at the valley spread out from the base of the Bookcliffs in spring green orchards, vineyards, fields and neighborhoods, with the blue ribbons of canals weaving through. It was beautiful.
It took me 26 minutes to make the initial ascent to the top of the first ridge and another 12 minutes as the trail scrambled around rocks to the spot where it meets the mine trail.
Rachel and Melinda soon joined me, Melinda exclaiming that the mine trail is “much more magnificent” than the main trail. Melinda is a morning person.
Up the trail we went, over rocks, across shale, dirt and silt then … trail? Does it go that way? Around this boulder? Oh, here’s some horse poop, so this way?
Mount Garfield has “trails-ish,” as Rachel put it. All I can say is look for the “trail” with the most footprints and go that way. The trail isn’t particularly well-marked with cairns or signs. If you seem to be moving north, away from the edge of the Bookcliffs, and the rushing sound of the interstate is getting dim, you’re not on the trail.
For nearly the entire hike, you can look down into the valley from the edge of the Bookcliffs. As you close in on the summit, the West Elk Mountains can be seen in the distance to the northeast, Grand Mesa stands high to the east and the peaks of the San Juan Mountains appear to the south.
After an hour and 40 minutes — two hours and 10 minutes for Rachel and Melinda — we reached the top of Mount Garfield and took photos of the U.S. Geological Survey bench mark to prove it.
We relaxed and took more photos. I sent one on my cell- phone to my husband. We saw a plane land at Grand Junction Regional Airport. A train whistle caught in the breeze swirled through the rocks. In some ways, Mount Garfield is a rather civilized peak after all.
We headed down, admiring the rusty red contours in the rock and the cacti growing in clusters in a couple of the flat areas. Rachel and Melinda took the main trail with me. We skidded on some of the steeper dirt sections toward the bottom, but came out just fine. I think our descent took about an hour.
Finally, I can check Mount Garfield off my trails list, at least until temperatures cool in the fall. The view could be color spectacular then.
Get going: To get to the Mount Garfield trail head: From Elberta Avenue on the west side of Palisade, turn west on G 7/10 Road and drive to its end, which takes you through a tunnel under I-70 and to the parking lot north of the interstate. Hike Mount Garfield in the cool of the day or during the cooler months. Don’t go after rain or snow, as it can make the trail slick and muddy. Take plenty of water. If you hike Gearhart Mine Trail, obey the sign, which bluntly states, “stay out of mines and diggings and stay alive.”