OUT: Haggerty’s Hikes December 20, 2009

West Bench Trail on Grand Mesa is a great mid-week cross-country skiing getaway

The recent storm dumped plenty of snow on Grand Mesa and it’s making for some great cross-country skiing. West Bench Ski Trail is a backcountry area, so make sure you ski with a buddy and go prepared for a change in the weather.

Nick and I raced up to West Bench Trail on Grand Mesa for a quick cross-country ski last Wednesday. It’s great having a retired buddy who can take off at the drop of a hat, especially in the middle of the week when no one else is out recreating.

West Bench Trail is an hour from downtown Grand Junction and I’ve written about this trail a couple of times over the past few years.

I began skiing this trail more than two decades ago. In fact, I learned how to telemark ski here, down some of the shoots on the far side of this bench that traverse to the bottom of the old sledding hill at the historic Mesa Creek Ski Area.

I nearly killed myself on a couple of occasions, as I recall. We’d shuttle vehicles from this parking area up to Jumbo, or simply hitch-hike back up the hill to our vehicle.

West Bench Trail is easy to find: Take I-70 east into De Beque Canyon and Exit 49, the turnoff to Powderhorn/Grand Mesa. This is Highway 65, the mesa’s Historic and Scenic Byway.

Travel another 28 miles, through the town of Mesa, past Powderhorn Ski Area, and up a couple of switchbacks past the sledding hill at the old ski area. Keep going up the switchbacks above the sledding hill and after the road flattens out a bit, you’ll find a wide spot on the right side of the road at Jumbo Lake.

Jumbo Lake really isn’t. In fact, the lake is quite small, but it’s a great jumping-off place for both the West Bench Trail, which travels generally west, and Waterdog Ski Trail, which is across the highway and heads north, then east.

Follow the West Bench Ski Trail around the north end of the lake, behind the recently installed cement restroom facilities.

There’s a new pedestrian bridge going over the spillway at Jumbo Lake. You can now ski over that pedestrian bridge and keep trekking until you slide down a slight incline heading toward the old ranger station below Jumbo and the other tiny lakes that make up the Mesa Lakes Group.

When you reach the bottom of this hill, you’ll find more new stuff — a West Bench Trail sign pointing to the left, and another new bridge going over Sunset Lake, the next lake below Jumbo. The trail used to cut to the right and across the creek below the ranger station. Apparently, however, the local beaver population rendered that old narrow, wooden structure inoperable.

The U.S. Forest Service installed the new pedestrian bridges earlier this year, and the day Nick and I skied, one hard-working Forest Service employee was busy putting up the new signs directing people over them and onto the main stretch of the West Bench Trail.

Soon after crossing the second bridge, you’ll come into a section of private cabins that have been here at least as long as the old ranger station, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.

You’ll want to take a right turn at the top of the next hill, and continue past the cabins.

Soon you’ll be winding your way along a bench of the mesa that lies in the transition zone between aspen and dark timber. The trail meanders in and out of the shadows, in and out of the pine, in and out of the aspen, for the most part traveling in a westward direction.

This trail is a very popular and offers a wide single track ride for mountain bikers when there’s no snow on the ground. It’s also open to horseback, but closed to motorized vehicles year-round. The elevation never changes much and before you know it, you’ll be looking over Powderhorn Ski Area, a magnificent view.

You can ski down if you’re good enough, and if you’ve left a shuttle vehicle in the Powderhorn parking lot. Nick and I turned around and headed back to our vehicle at Jumbo Lake.

The snow is great right now, but this is not a groomed trail like those on top of Grand Mesa at Skyway, County Line or Ward Lake. It’s more of a backcountry trail, and as such, dogs are allowed.

Since this is a backcountry ski experience, please take precautions. Make sure you’ve told someone where you’re going and when you’ll return. Make sure you have food, water and fire-starting capabilities, just in case. Nick also mapped out our trip on his GPS. Not a bad idea.

Don’t ski alone out here. Always ski with a partner. Remember, the weather can turn nasty in a blink of an eye, so be prepared, but you can have a great time — especially in the middle of the week when there’s no one else out recreating.


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