Haggerty’s Hikes column July 19, 2009
Crag Crest Trail is the most used trail in Grand Mesa National Forest. The west trailhead near Island Lake, however, is a great jumping off point to the Cottonwood Lake Trail, a somewhat shorter and much less traveled trail.
The Crag Crest Trail provides hikers with a 6.4 mile trek from the east trailhead to the west trailhead, or just under 10 miles if you do the loop back. The trail climbs over 1,000 feet in elevation from either trailhead, then runs about four miles on 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 one steep mother when you get onto the top. It’s not suitable for hikers who fear heights. In several places the trail narrows to about 3 feet wide with steep drops on both sides. That’s why Cottonwood Lake Trail provides a less adventurous alternative.
The springtime melting snowpack makes this trail nearly impassible. Then, by October, temperatures drop and snow can already cover the trail, so now is the time to visit this area. Of course, Grand Mesa’s infamous mosquitoes can be nasty from late spring until mid-August. On my hike last week, however, a mild dousing of bug juice and a light breeze was enough to keep those mosquitoes at bay.
To reach the Cottonwood Trail, which crosses over the crest of the Crag at about 10,600 feet, you can start at the western trailhead for Crag Crest Trail (No. 711). You’ll have to make the same ascent Crag Crest Trail hikers make. Within 1.5 miles, however, Cottonwood Trail (No. 712) cuts to the north, abandoning the well-used Crag Crest Trail. It drops through a scent-filled pine forest before rising another 200 feet. From there, the trail descends again to 10,065 feet at the northwest side of Cottonwood Lake No. 1.
To find the trailhead, take Interstate 70 east into De Beque Canyon. At the 20-mile mark from Fourth and Main, turn off I-70 at Exit 49 (the Powderhorn/Grand Mesa exit). This is Colorado 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, you’ll see the turn for the Crag Crest Trailhead parking lot on your left.
Most of the hikers park here for the famous Crag Crest Trail hike, but you’ll lose them in 1.5 miles from the trailhead.
This trail is well-marked, but that first mile and a half is a bit of a climb, and you must pay attention to the switchbacks. Don’t miss one, or you’ll miss the Cottonwood cutoff. Watch your footing as rocks leap out to grab your ankles and stub your toes along the full length of this trail. You need good foot gear.
If you’re an angler, use your rod case as a walking stick, since Cottonwood Lake No. 1 is the largest reservoir on the north side of the national forest and provides good fishing for rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and brook trout. This lake also was stocked years ago with splake, a cross between a brook trout and a lake trout. The problem for walk-in anglers, however, is that they’re hard to reach from the shore. You really need a boat.
This area is extremely popular locally and most of the lakes in this area receive heavy fishing pressure, so once you arrive, you won’t be alone. Along the trail, however, you’ll pretty much be by yourself from the lake all the way back to the junction of Cottonwood and Crag Crest trails.
A great alternative to this out-and-back hike is to drop hikers off at the west Crag Crest Trailhead, then drive back down Grand Mesa the way you came and go through the town of Mesa.
A few miles below the town is the turnoff to Collbran (Colorado Highway 330). Turn right and go all the way to Collbran. As you enter the town, turn right and travel south on Forest Access Road 121. Go 12 miles to the junction of Forest Road 257 (the first seven miles is paved).
At the southern end of Bonham Reservoir, turn right. Proceed west 3.3 miles to the fork in the road and turn left, continuing on Forest Road 257. Travel 2.1 miles passing Kitson Reservoir to Cottonwood Reservoir No. 1. The road dead-ends at the dam.
You can fish as you wait for your hikers while they enjoy the trail less traveled.