West Bench ski getaway
In an effort to spread out Nordic skiing pressure and parking congestion on top of Grand Mesa, two of us took a shorter drive to the West Bench Trail, which is on the way to the top of the mesa, yet only an hour from downtown Grand Junction.
The report: Snow was great, track was fast, crowds were nonexistent.
I first skied this trail three decades ago. In fact, I learned how to telemark ski here, down some of the chutes and runs on the far side of this bench. They magically traverse to the bottom of the old sledding hill and 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 Lake in the Mesa Lakes group, or simply hitchhike back up the hill to our vehicle.
West Bench Trail is easy to find, and you don’t have to kill yourself getting down. You can simply ski back on the same trail.
Take Interstate 70 east into De Beque Canyon and Exit 49, the turnoff to Powderhorn/Grand Mesa. This is Colorado Highway 65, the Mesa’s Historic and Scenic Byway. Travel another 28 miles, driving 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.
Jumbo Lake really isn’t. This lake is quite small, but it’s a great jumping-off place for 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 cement restroom facilities at the parking area. A pedestrian bridge leads skiers over the spillway at Jumbo Lake. Ski through the closed campground until you slide down a slight incline heading toward the old ranger station below Jumbo and the other tiny lakes in this area.
When you reach the bottom of this hill, you’ll find a West Bench Trail sign pointing to the left and another pedestrian 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’s station. The local beaver population, however, rendered that old narrow, wooden structure inoperable. The Forest Service installed the new pedestrian bridges a couple of years ago and rerouted the trail.
Soon after crossing the second bridge, you’ll follow the West Bench trail sign into a section of private cabins that have been here at least as long as the old ranger station. That structure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941. You’ve gone a mile at this point.
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 of pine and aspen, for the most part traveling in a westward direction.
This trail is popular in the summer and offers a wide singletrack ride for mountain bikers when there’s no snow on the ground. It’s also open to horseback riding, but it’s closed to motorized vehicles year-round. The elevation never changes much, and before you know it you’ll be looking over the 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. We used to do that quite often. Maybe I’m getting old, but we turned around the other day and skied back to the vehicle at Jumbo Lake.
The snow is great right now, but this is not a groomed trail like those on top of the mesa at Skyway, County Line or Ward Lake. This is a backcountry trail where dogs are allowed.
Since this is a backcountry ski experience, 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. You could also map this trip on your 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. If you are, you’ll have a great time, especially in the middle of the week when there’s no one else recreating.
Yet, even on a busy weekend day, this trail is less used than any of the trails on the top of the mountain, and it helps to spread the pressure.