Check out snow on Grand Mesa as Grand Valley temperatures creep upward

Sunset Lake is one of a handful of small ponds in the Mesa Lakes group as you drive on Grand Mesa from Colorado Hwy 65, and is currently spilling with the warming temperatures.


Drive time and distance to West Bench Trailhead:  1 hour, 5 minutes; 50.7 miles

Elevation:  9,760 – 9,860 ft.

Length:  3-5 miles, one way to the top of Powderhorn Ski Area

Hiking Time: 2.5 – 4 hours

Difficulty:  Moderate

We discovered a couple feet of snow in the trees earlier this week on a short trip to Grand Mesa National Forest. It’s melting fast, though. My buddy Ray Gooch confirmed this spring’s runoff as he sat in his truck near Vega Dam at 8,000 feet in elevation, watching it spill into Plateau Creek below.

Even Sunset Lake was spilling. Sunset is one of a handful of small ponds in the Mesa Lakes group — that first group of lakes you come to if driving up to the mountain from the east side on scenic Colorado Hwy 65.

It appears most lakes on Grand Mesa are now void of ice, but that doesn’t mean you can get there from here. Snow still blankets shady spots in the dark timber and on north-facing slopes. Back country roads are not yet open.

On lakes open and accessible — i.e. the ones lying along Hwy 65, anglers were out en masse over the Memorial Day weekend. In another few weeks, if we have more of these hot winds, the snow will be gone. For now, however, unless you’re willing to posthole through a few snowbanks, it’s a little early and a little too muddy for hiking.

We drove over the top of the Grand Mesa past the Mesa/Delta County Line, then down to the Craig Crest trail head. We found a parking area full of snow, but it was worth the drive, just to experience snow one last time as temperatures here in the valley creep into the 90s.

Temperatures on Grand Mesa remain in the upper-50s and lower 60s, but even there, it’s getting warmer every day. As temperatures increase, the snow decreases and runoff is in full swing. That means Plateau Creek, and all other creeks in the region are cranking and dangerous. Not only do they carry a lot of force in the water, they carry lots of debris that’ll crack a shinbone or skull bone.

Nonetheless, it’s worth a trip to breath some of that clear high mountain air. We drove back to the Mesa Lakes group and hiked past Jumbo and Sunset reservoirs along the West Bench Trail. We didn’t go far, but with the dogs on lead, we enjoyed a refreshing day on a mountain void of mosquitoes. They aren’t out yet, but as this snow melts, there will be pockets of standing water that become natural breeding grounds for some of the largest swarms of mosquitoes in the universe.

OK, I’ll admit Mom used to say I was prone to exaggeration, but in a few weeks, you’d better go armed to Grand Mesa, with some bug juice, hat, long pants and long-sleeved shirt.

Each day now, the green aspen will begin budding higher and higher on the mountain. As we drove up from the town of Mesa, we noticed green aspen a good portion of the way up the hill past Powderhorn. At between mile markers 38 and 37, however, it stopped. It’s still a little too chilly at night, apparently. By the time you read this, however, I’m sure that line will continue to travel uphill.

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 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.

The desert is another thing, of course. Prickly pear cactus, claret cup cactus, and barrel cactus are all showing flowers right now. Yellow, purple, red and white desert flowers abound.

Hiking on the Colorado National Monument is spectacular, especially in the mornings and evenings. Daytime temperatures will be in the 80s and 90s for the next few days/weeks/months. Daytime temps may even reach 100 degrees in the next couple weeks. Lightweight tennis shoes or hiking shoes are the order of the day, here, although a couple trails are a little more rugged. Upper No Thoroughfare Canyon is a bit tougher, and you may want to wear a more sturdy pair of shoes or boots. Lower Liberty Cap is the same way — it’s a little steeper and more rocky than some Monument trails, so good foot gear is essential.

Good foot gear is also essential on the rocky trails of Grand Mesa. Plus, it’s wet out there, so a lightweight pair of tennis shoes will certainly become muddy and wet with a short hike on the mesa. Go prepared.


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