Picture a very wide and long table, embed a mountain into it and enlarge it a zillion times, and the result is Colorado’s Grand Mesa. It was Spanish explorers in the 1700’s who called the mountain “Mesa Grande”, meaning “large table”. Before more modern settlers came, the Ute Indian tribes living in the area called Grand Mesa “Thunder Mountain”, because of how the mesa towers over the valley 6,000′ below.
Just like the Book Cliffs along its north side and Colorado National Monument to the southwest, Grand Mesa completes the large plateau formations surrounding Grand Valley, which contains the cities of Grand Junction and the smaller communities of Fruita and Palisade.
The unmistakable large mesa can’t be missed from the moment you drive into Grand Junction, either on I-70 heading East or from the south on US50. The 500-square-mile mesa has been called the world’s largest flat-topped mountain, standing over 11,000′ above sea level and 6,000′ above the Colorado River.
We explored Grand Mesa in two visits; first the northern half by taking I-70 from Fruita to the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, and on another day via US50 and CO65 from the south during our stay in Montrose.
Our first trip from Fruita found us on a steep climb east of Palisade, where we observed a large diversity in the landscape – from desert canyons to dense forests atop the mesa. We paused at several overlooks to take in the meadows and deep forests of Colorado Pine, Spruce, Fir and a multitude of lakes. Reaching the top, we could smell and feel the cool evergreen forests.
After a short hike on the Discovery Trail behind the visitor center, we went inside to peruse the displays and watch their short movie. We learned from a park ranger that we could drive out to Lands End Observatory, then follow Lands End Road down to US50 for our return to Fruita.
Although the road was gravel and a long drive, it was in decent shape and gave us fantastic views of the valley below as we descended. Since our plan was to return to the south end of the mesa from Montrose in a couple of weeks to hike Crag’s Crest Trail, this was a nice loop to drive on our first trip.
Land’s End Observatory is perched on the edge of Grand Mesa and offers panoramic views of the valley below, the La Sal Mountains in Utah to the west and the San Juan Mountains to the south. It was a bit hazy during our visit, but the views were still extraordinary.
Crag’s Crest Trail
Our second visit to Grand Mesa was made with one goal in mind – to hike Crag’s Crest Trail which is located high atop the mesa. We waited for a couple of weeks in the hope of catching even more Aspen trees in all their Fall splendor. This popular trail is designated as a National Recreation Trail, with views extending in all directions. It can be hiked as a 10.3-mile loop, as a 6.5-mile roundtrip crest hike or as a lower portion 3.4-mile roundtrip trek. Unfortunately, the lower portion was closed indefinitely due to a Spruce Beetle epidemic when we were there, so doing the full loop was out.
We began our trek from the west trailhead, following the crest portion with a starting elevation of 10,360′. For the first two and a half miles, we huffed and puffed to the crest in the deep forests of Colorado Pine and Spruce. This was a bit higher than we’ve hiked in quite a while!
For the next two miles, we walked a narrow ridge flanked by dizzying drop-offs on both sides, with spectacular vistas all around. Tall mountain ranges were visible to the south, with golden Aspens shining brightly from the mountaintops and hillsides.
Embarrassing moment: Steve hiked ahead as I took pictures from an overlook, as usual. I somehow went the wrong way when I returned to the trail, and after a while, we both realized we had gotten hopelessly separated. With no cell signal, we couldn’t communicate and I ended up going almost a mile in the wrong direction! Of course, Steve eventually came looking for me, and we both wondered how I could get lost with all of the current GPS technology we use.
Lesson learned: After taking pictures I should pay attention to where the trail is headed and actually use some common sense! Duh! The good news is that we both added over a mile to our hikes as we searched for each other, and we’ve decided to call it a positive addition to our workout 😉
Hiking the ridge was amazing, and the full parking lot when we returned proved it’s a very popular trek. The crest rewarded us with the majesty of Colorado’s prized skyline, and the added bonus of golden Aspens dotting mountains as far as we could see.
Next up: Early leaf peeping at Kebler Pass