Climb every mountain
There's more than one way to conquer Crag Crest Trail
There are a couple of different ways to approach the Crag Crest Trail hike.
If you shuttle vehicles, leaving one at the west trail head and one at the east, you can hike the upper 6.2-mile trail along the craggy spine of Crag Crest from east to west, or vice versa, then drive your weary bones back to the other car.
With only one vehicle, however, you can hike the upper 6.2-mile stretch and then return along the 4.2-mile-long lower Crag Crest Trail, completing a stunning 10.4-mile loop.
However you approach it, Crag Crest Trail is a designated National Recreation Trail and is considered “the signature hike” on Grand Mesa. You won’t be disappointed.
The upper trail climbs more than 1,000 feet in elevation from either trail head, and then runs more than two miles along the top of a steep-sided rocky crest. This “Crag” crest is a long ridge left behind by two parallel glaciers in the last ice age.
The trail is not terribly difficult, other than an ascent on one end or the other, but it is long, and it is not suitable for hikers who fear heights. Along the crest, this trail narrows to about six 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 Colorado Highway 65, a National Scenic Byway. 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 three-tenths of a mile past Grand Mesa Lakes Lodge, near mile marker 28, you’ll see the Crag Crest Trail head and parking area on your left. This is the west trail head.
The east trail head is at the Crag Crest Campground, off FS Road No. 121 (Trickle Park Road). To reach this trail head, continue on Colorado 65 past the west trail head and around the bottom side of Island Lake, then turn left on FS Road No. 121 at the Grand Mesa Visitor’s Center.
Follow this paved road for 2.5 miles, and then turn left toward Eggleston Reservoir. Drive another nine-tenths of a mile on this unpaved road, and you’ll find the Crag Crest Trail parking area next to the reservoir on the right. The trail head is located across the road, below the campground and adjacent to the stream.
The upper trail is well marked. The lower Crag Crest trail is relatively well marked, although you have to pay attention.
The first mile-and-a-half on the upper trail from either side is a bit of a climb. Take your time and watch for picas scurrying about in the rock fields. You’ll hear them peeping at you. Also watch your footing as rocks leap out to grab you along the full length of this trail.
Good foot gear is recommended, although we saw many hikers in tennis shoes on this trail last week.
From either west or east, the trail crosses large fields of black volcanic rock, painted green with lichens and mosses, and dotted with Colorado Columbine, red elderberry and raspberry. Even this late in the season, plenty of golden asters and purple daisies were shining brightly in the daytime sun.
A series of switchbacks on either end leads toward the crest where you’ll hike along a narrow, often windy ridge flanked by drop-offs on both sides. The San Juan Mountains are visible to the south. The West Elk Range spreads to the east.
On good days, you can see Utah’s LaSal Mountains to the west. Battlement Mesa looms to the north, and the chalky white Bookcliffs and Roan Plateau dominate the northwestern skyline beneath an incredibly blue sky, as blue as the Blue Gentian wildflowers we spied on the way up the trail.
About a half-mile before reaching either trail head, the trail splits. Follow signs back to the parking area if you have a vehicle there, or follow the signs to the lower Crag Crest Trail and return to your vehicle.
This lower trail flows through a lush forest with thick, tall grass and wildflowers, dense stands of Aspen, Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce, with large swaths of “blow down,” where the dark timber was knocked down in a tremendous wind storm dozens of years ago. Pay close attention to the trail through here.
No motorized traffic is allowed on these trails. Some horseback and mountain bike use is allowed on short, well-marked stretches.
This trail crests at two miles above sea level. If you feel light-headed or acquire a nasty headache, get to a lower elevation immediately. Carry extra water and hydrate often.
Remember, you’re in the Rockies, and the weather can change quickly, so be prepared for this “signature” hike, and you won’t be disappointed.