OUT: Haggerty’s Hikes September 07, 2008

Now is the perfect time to crest Crag Crest Trail

BILL HAGGERTY/The Daily Sentinel
THERE IS A FOUR-MILE STRETCH of the Crag Crest Trail where there are significant drop-offs on both sides.

Crag Crest Trail (Forest Service Trail 711) is the most well-known trail on Grand Mesa, but considering how famous it is, I’ve never seen many people hiking here.

I crossed paths with only two other hikers here the other day. Kitty, my neighbor, and one of her friends, Berta, had parked a vehicle at each trail head before beginning their trek. They then hiked the upper 6.2-mile trail along the craggy spine of Crag Crest from the east trail head to the west.

I only had one vehicle, so I hiked the upper 6.2-mile stretch from the West Trail head near Island Lake, then returned along the lower trail, a 4-mile trek, completing the 10.2 mile loop.

The upper trail climbs more than 1,000 feet in elevation from either trail head, then runs about four miles along the top of a steep-sided craggy crest.

Wonder how it got its name?

The crest is a long ridge left behind by two parallel glaciers in the last ice age. While the trail is not terribly difficult, other than an ascent on one end or the other, it is not suitable for hikers who fear heights. Along the crest, this trail narrows to about three feet wide with steep drops on both sides.

To find the trail, take Interstate 70 east into De Beque Canyon. Turn off I-70 at Exit 49 (the Powderhorn/Grand Mesa exit). This is Highway 65.

Stay on it for 33.9 miles, through the town of Mesa, past Powderhorn, past Mesa Lakes Resort, all the way to Grand Mesa Lake Lodge at Island Lake. About .3 miles past Grand Mesa Lakes Lodge, near mile marker 28, you’ll see the turn for the Crag Crest Trail head on your left. This is the west trail head.

The east trail head is at the Crag Crest Campground, off FS Road 121 (Trickle Park Road). Keep going on Hwy 65 past the west trail head and around the bottom side of Island Lake, then take a left turn on the Trickle Park Road at the Grand Mesa Visitor’s Center.

Follow that road toward Eggleston Reservoir and you’ll find the trail head on your left.

The best time of year to hike this trail, which has been designated as a National Recreation Trail, is right now. The springtime melting snowpack makes it nearly impassible. When the snow is finally gone, the Grand Mesa’s infamous mosquitoes devour you until they disappear around mid-August. By October, temperatures drop and snow can already cover the trail.

Both upper and lower Crag Crest trails are well marked, but that first mile and a half is a bit of a climb. You must watch your footing as rocks leap out to grab your ankles and stub your toes along the full length of this trail. This is not a place to wear tennis shoes. You need good foot gear. 

Kitty and Berta said they usually start this trek from the east side, but I’ve always begun this hike from the west trail head, probably because it’s the first trail head I come to from Grand Junction.

After only a quarter-mile or so, the trail crosses one of many wildflower-filled meadows. Even this late in the season, there were plenty of golden asters and purple daisies shining brightly in the daytime sun.

About one mile from the trail head, you’ll come to the well-marked junction of the upper and lower sections.

Go left to the upper 6.2 mile stretch, and right to the lower four-mile stretch. The lower path takes you beneath the top of the crest, and climbs to an elevation of 10,680 feet (the west trail head parking lot, by comparison is at 10,360 feet).

If you stay on the upper trail, you’ll reach a series of switchbacks that will take you to the Cottonwood Lakes Trail. This is another great hike, one I wrote about a few years ago. I might have to re-visit that one in the near future.

Continue past this trail head to the actual crest of the route. You’ll hike along a windy, narrow ridge flanked by drop-offs on both sides for about two miles.

The San Juan Mountains are visible to the south. The West Elk Range spreads to the east. Battlement Mesa looms to the north and the chalky white Book Cliffs and Roan Plateau dominate the northwestern skyline.

I met Kitty and Berta coming the opposite direction east of this point. I had just startled a resting golden eagle. They had just watched a large coyote hunting in a meadow far below, yet not far away.

The temperature was perfect, and even though this may be the most famous hike on the Mesa, it was deserted the day Kitty, Berta and I crossed paths.


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