Uncrowded Grand Mesa has plenty of room for everyone
Grand Mesa is one of the largest flattop mountains in the world, known as a mecca for anglers in search of trout and solitude on one of its 280 lakes and reservoirs.
This 800-square mile mountaintop of volcanic origin averages 10,000 feet in elevation and towers 5,500 feet above the surrounding Colorado and Gunnison river valleys. It offers fishing opportunities for seven species of trout, including rainbow, Colorado River cutthroat, Snake River cutthroat, brown and brook trout, as well as Splake (a hybrid between lake and brook trouts) and Arctic grayling.
Even during the winter, Grand Mesa provides hard-core anglers with incredible opportunities for ice fishing.
Yet, if you were on Grand Mesa last weekend, you would have found much, much more than fishing: The Alpine skiing at Powderhorn was superb, and the deck on the back of the lodge was, apparently, THE place to be.
The sledding hill at the old Mesa Creek Ski Area was full of gleeful sledders, while snowboarders and telemark skiers shredded the slopes were mudslides just above them.
Jumbo Lake and Mesa Lakes Resort were full of Nordic skiers and snowshoers.
There was a cross-country ski race at Skyway featuring our own Mesa State Mavs, and some very cool retro-clad Nordic aficionados.
The Lands End area was full of happy and well-dressed snowmobilers, and just beyond that, at the Mesa Trails parking area, were the fabulous Colorado Mountain Mushers Sled dog races.
Way cool — and the place was packed.
Just beyond the turnoff to the sled dog races lie the County Line Cross Country Ski Trails — featuring dog loops. That parking area was full because some jerk wrote about it in last Sunday’s paper.
(FYI: Grand Mesa/Uncompahgre/Gunnison National Forest is working with everyone under the sun to build a new parking area at County Line. Right on, Forest Service!)
Farther across Colorado Highway 65 — Grand Mesa Scenic Byway — to Grand Mesa National Forest Visitor’s Center, you would have passed Mesa Lakes Lodge and the big curve at the lower end of Island Lake, where ice fishermen begin their trek into the lake to enjoy their favorite pastime.
The visitor’s center parking area was full of vehicles towing snow machines, as well as snowshoers and cross-country skiers and, well, visitors to the center.
A few miles beyond the visitor’s center lies the Ward Creek pull-off. You can’t miss it. On the west side of the highway is another great sledding hill that was full of happy children and somewhat chilly parents, enjoying the great day, the hot chocolate and burgers on the grill in the parking lot.
The Grand Mesa Nordic Council, in collaboration with Grand Mesa National Forest, has laid out and grooms a wicked section of cross-country ski trails on the east side of the highway, adjacent to Ward Creek Lake, where a handful of wintertime anglers jigged through a hole in the ice for a few rainbow trout.
But, there was a lot more going on than just fishing last weekend.
We skied here, thinking there would be fewer people than at the other areas we’d passed.
We were right, but this is not a beginner cross-country ski area. These trails provide true backcountry adventures. They are not intended for anything else.
They are designated for use by intermediate and advanced skiers who seek a remote, secluded experience and who can handle a lot of ups and downs. Grand Mesa, after all, isn’t totally flat.
To get here from Grand Junction, take Interstate-70 east for 20 miles to the Grand Mesa/Powderhorn exit (Exit 49). That’s Colorado Highway 65, a National Scenic and Historic Byway. It will take you directly to the top of Grand Mesa.
Go through the town of Mesa and past Powderhorn Ski Area 12.4 miles to the Mesa/Delta County line. Keep going for another 4.8 miles to the Ward Creek Reservoir trail head. (It’s 1.8 miles past the first Ward Lake Turnoff near the northeast tip of Island Lake.)
The day we skied, the mesa hadn’t received any new snow in quite some time, so the track was icy, slick and hard.
After this past week’s snowstorms, however, the track has greatly improved.
That should bring out the crowds again this weekend. But, seriously, is it really crowded on Grand Mesa?
After being stuck in ski traffic coming out of Denver a few weeks ago, with a few hundred thousand of my best buddies, the mesa is NOT crowded. There is room for everyone to enjoy themselves.
After all, there’s certainly much more than fishing on Grand Mesa, and the forest service has done an excellent job of managing such diverse activity.