Head to Grand Mesa to escape heat, haze
Temperatures here in the valley are in the 90s as hot winds have blown smoke and haze from fires in Utah, Nevada and California into our happy valley. It’s filled with bad juju. Time to get out, and our destination is staring at us in the face.
Grand Mesa looks down upon us from 10,000 feet above sea level and begs to be tread upon. Here are a handful of places to escape the heat. Mosquitoes are not a problem on the Grand Mesa — yet — so get out of this hot valley:
Nestled in a thick forest of mature spruce beneath Island Lake, the largest lake on Grand Mesa, is a little gem of a reservoir named Little Gem Reservoir.
Below Little Gem is yet another, smaller gem named Rim Rock Lake.
Neither are far from Island Lake, yet neither see the humanoid pressure that Island Lake sees, mainly because you have to hike to get to them. The hike into Little Gem is only a few hundred yards, but a hike in the woods apparently is more than most people can handle.
To reach Little Gem Reservoir and Rim Rock Lake, cruise over the top of Grand Mesa on Colorado Highway 65, a National Scenic Byway, then travel 1.6 miles past the Mesa/Delta County line. Just before you reach the Grand Mesa Lodge at Island Lake, turn right (south) and take Forest Road 116 around the southwest end of Island Lake. In another seven-tenths of a mile, you’ll find Island Lake Campground.
If you travel a little farther on Colorado 65, you’ll find the trail head to the most well-known trail on Grand Mesa: Crag Crest Trail (FS Trail 711). At an elevation of 10,360 feet above sea level, it’s well above the hot valley below.
There are a couple different ways to approach the Crag Crest Trail hike. If you shuttle vehicles, one at the east trail head and one at the west, you can hike the upper 6.2-mile trail along the craggy spine of Crag Crest from the east trail head to the west, or vice versa.
With only one vehicle, you can hike the upper 6.2-mile stretch from the west trail head near Island Lake, then return along the lower trail, a four-mile trek, completing the 10.2-mile loop.
Or vice versa.
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.
This “Crag” 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.
The turnoff to the Crag Crest trail head is about three-tenths of a mile past Grand Mesa Lakes Lodge on Colorado 65, near mile marker 28. This is the west trail head.
Here are two more: the Discovery Trail and Land O’ Lakes Trail. Both are short, a half-mile or less, and both are on relatively smooth paths, although it’s debatable whether they’re truly handicap-accessible.
These trails are for all ages, and they help us rediscover why we live around here. You’ll earn your cardiovascular workout in a very short distance, but visitors can stop and rest often while hiking up the short switchbacks along these trails.
To find the Discovery Trail, travel past Island Lake on Colorado 65 and turn toward the Grand Mesa National Forest Visitors Center (a left if you’re coming from Grand Junction, a right if you’re coming from Cedaredge). This is the Trickle Park Road. Park in the lot.
The Discovery Trail is directly behind and uphill from the visitors center. Follow signs to the restrooms, and you’ll find the trail head.
Heading back from the visitors center toward Grand Junction on Colorado 65, the Land O’ Lakes Trail is just uphill from Island Lake and Grand Mesa Lodge, or four-tenths of a mile south of the Mesa/Delta County line, on the west side of the road. There are no facilities at this trail head, but there are vault toilets at County Line and Mesa Top trail heads nearby.
The “pavement” here is rough, although very much appreciated by cane-wielding nature lovers. It may be smooth enough for a high-tech baby stroller, but there are numerous places that could pose a problem for a wheelchair. By the way, dogs on leash are welcome on both of these trails.
The Land O’ Lakes trail leads to an overlook where two kiosks discuss geological features of what you see before you. The island in Island Lake is clearly delineated from this vantage point, and the wildflowers along the way continue to bloom.
So, get up. Get out. Get onto Grand Mesa.