If you haven’t yet explored Grand Mesa in Winter, now’s the time to plan a getaway. Its legendary snowfall and spectacular views are reason enough to start packing.
DON’T LET THE VIEWS FROM I-70 FOOL YOU.
It’s easy to judge the wilderness area outside of Grand Junction by the seemingly empty high desert plateaus visible from the interstate. You’re missing out on exploring what is arguably the most accessible backcountry area in the Rockies – Grand Mesa National Forest. As a weekend destination or a day trip, Grand Mesa in Winter is easy to access.
This area is a mecca for wintertime cross-country skiing thanks to the work of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council (GMNC). This nonprofit operates and maintains three cross-country ski areas, offering around 30 miles of mostly snowcat groomed beginner-intermediate trails.
WHAT EXACTLY IS GRAND MESA?
A COMMUNITY? A HOTSPOT? A GEOGRAPHICAL FEATURE?
ALL OF THE ABOVE.
Considered the largest mesa in the world, the Grand Mesa landmass encompasses more than 500 square miles. You cross it in winter on one major paved, plowed road; in summer, you can drive miles and miles of 4WD terrain. The road is State Highway 65, the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway. It runs up and over the mesa, connecting the Cedaredge, Delta, Hotchkiss, and Paonia communities with I-70.
Drive the Byway from either direction. Within minutes of leaving the valley floor, you find yourself crossing from a high-mountain desert into an unexpected landscape. Aspen groves roll into thickets of towering evergreens. The temperature drops. A silver-blue lake sparkles through trees. The broad views vary depending on which direction you face. Look east to span the Elk Mountain Range to the San Juans and La Sals. Look out beyond the Battlements and the Bookcliffs over the vast, western horizon. Words like breathtaking and majestic don’t quite say enough.
HERE’S WHAT YOU’LL FIND
Toward the top of the rolling, meandering drive, you may notice a pole in the Grand Mesa Lodge parking lot. It measures snowfall, topping off at 13 feet. It’s not wishful signage. The snowpack regularly reaches 12 feet. This area gets socked in for days. So skiers enjoy an early and long season of abundance. Check out the current snowpack via the lodge’s online live-cam.
GRAND MESA NORDIC COUNCIL
The draw? A wintertime playground attracting cross-country skiers who flock to the three trail systems maintained by the donation-driven volunteer-run GMNC. We’re talking grassroots, friendly, low-key cool skiers and immaculately groomed trails. Easy-to-moderate depending on snow conditions, it lends itself to a fun family outing for all ages and skills. You will find a few steep downhill sections. Find these clearly marked on trail maps with arrows indicating single-direction traffic to protect skiers heading around blind corners. There’s nothing to be afraid of, as GMNC board president Joe Ramey shares. “You’ll never be shamed by locals if you take off your skis to walk a steep section. Just stay to the side of the trail and off of the track.”
The track is a point of pride for GMNC. Look for their sparkling new bright red PistenBully 400 snowcat. It grooms corduroy for skate skiing alongside classic parallels for up to 21 miles of terrain. (See Skyway and County Line areas on MP’s Trail Map.) Plus, you’ll find an additional 11 miles of snowmobile-groomed track in the Ward area. This provides connectivity to backcountry skiing in the Ward area, with marked, but not maintained, trails.
MP Trail Map: Grand Mesa in Winter
GRAND MESA NORDIC COUNCIL TRAILS
There is far more terrain here than can be properly explored in a weekend. So locals suggest choosing one of the three areas and simply pick a trail. You cannot go wrong. Here are a few favorite routes. Find detailed GMNC trail maps at each trailhead parking lot, plus signs posted at junctures throughout the ski areas. Signs are oriented to the North so that you can easily navigate using the GMNC mapping system. Be sure to look for classic, metal donation tubes. Donors keep this ski area free, providing a priceless experience.
Please note: No dogs are allowed in this area.
- Snowshoe Loop. While single-file snowshoe traffic is allowed adjacent to ski lanes throughout GMNC areas, here is a trail for snowshoes only.
2. Sunset. A short out-and-back with outstanding western-facing views of the Grand Valley.
3. Scales > Scales Lake > Vista Ridge > Kannah Crossing > Tower
Shuttle two cars between the Skyline and County Line Trailheads. You will enjoy enormous views from the ridgeline. Plus and an almost-6-mile traverse across the two ski areas, crossing a broad, high alpine field. Keep your eyes out for lynx, foxes, and bald eagles.
COUNTY LINE TRAILS
Generally, the easiest of the 3 areas because there is less elevation gain.
4. Dog Loop. Dogs are expressly not allowed at Skyline. However, they are welcome at the two other ski areas, as long as they “leave no trace.” (Be prepared to carry out waste.) Verbally control your pooch, keeping it out of the way of skiers. The County Line dedicated dog loop = Call of the Wild meets Best in Show, in a very good way.
5. Overlook Trail. You’ll get a workout and views on this rolling climb through spruce glades to a bluff overlooking Island Lake. Selfie Op? Panoramic views of the Western Slope from Capitol Peak to the San Juans.
Backcountry trails are indicated in RED here. This is not necessarily because of extremity of terrain, but because these ungroomed trails are marked but not maintained.
6. Ward Trail. A snowmobile-groomed out-and-back. This trail is great on its own. But it also offers connectivity to a series of glorious, marked backcountry loops. These run through aspen and spruce forests and open glades.
Caption. From the valley floor, you might never imagine the deep evergreen forests and aspen glades on top of the mesa. The Grand Mesa National Forest borders the White River N.F. to the north and Gunnison N.F. to the east. Together, these areas form one of the largest contiguous wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. Here, skiers head up the Ward Trail, a wide, groomed rolling climb to marked, but not maintained, backcountry routes.
(photo credit and map illustration: Richard Camp)
CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING NOT YOUR THING? NO PROBLEM
Snowmobilers can traverse a 120-mile system from Sunlight Mountain to Powderhorn Ski Area. Or they can go deep into backcountry terrain on maintained and marked trails only accessible by rig. Thunder Mountain Lodge near the U.S.Forest Service Visitor Center offers snowmobile rentals and guided tours.
When the GMNC permit with the U.S. Forest Service ends on April 15, the ski area becomes a destination for winter cycling on fat bikes. These can rule certain slopes some years until June. Once the snow melts, the Mesa undergoes a transition to camping, SUPing, and mountain biking. Powderhorn Ski Area offers lift-served mountain bike access for all skill levels. Or, beginners can gain confidence and skills on easy, rolling terrain in the County Line area. Summer roads and singletrack routes take off from the wintertime trailhead parking lot. Know that while these trails are easy to navigate, they do not always follow ski routes.
The Palisade Plunge is planned for completion this spring. A 32-mile mountain bike trail descending 6000 feet from the top of Grand Mesa to the town of Palisade. Read about it now in our SPRING 2021 edition. Look here for details about the grand opening to be announced soon. You’ll also enjoy the online rollout of MP’s Trail Map and Palisade Itinerary.
MP’s Trail Map Series – here to motivate you to start planning and packing for your next getaway.