Fun in Grand Mesa National Forest, western Colorado’s land of lakes and magnificent overlooks
By Tom Nichols
I never heard any of my outdoor-loving friends in Arizona mention Grand Mesa National Forest. There are so many wonderfully eroded canyons and expansive mesas in Utah and Arizona, so many famous peaks and alpine parks in Colorado’s Front Range, it’s little wonder that Grand Mesa National Forest, the nation’s biggest tabletop mountain, is never mentioned.
Capped by volcanic basalt and shaped by ice, Grand Mesa is dotted with slump-blocked depressions filled with melting snow and summer rain, forming mini lakes. Utes, the last group of ancestral people to live in the region, spent summers here collecting food and material. The mesa is also known as Thunder Mountain for the fierce summer storms that race across the high country.
We camped at Cobbett Lake, nestled among Rocky Mountain firs at 10,000 feet, in the Land O’Lakes area of Grand Mesa.
Mary, our camp host, welcomed us and explained that some human-designed lakes on the mesa, like nearby Ward Lake, are part of a water-delivery system that gives priority to ranches and orchards 4,000 feet below near Cedaredge.
Unfortunately, recreation is at the bottom of the heap at Grand Mesa and all national forests. Water withdrawals in late summer cause lake levels to recede while meandering cattle leave camp hosts with the unpleasant duty of shoveling manure.
I asked Mary many questions, as I often do if I sense a camp host is in no hurry. I learned about Johnny Peppers grown in the valley. They are similar in shape to Anaheim peppers, but milder, she said.
Also, watch out for mosquitos in the valley. They carry West Nile. As for mosquitos at Cobbett and nearby lakes, they carry no viruses but can be thick as a dust storm near shore, especially from mid June to early August, she said.
Then, the question I ask every camp host. Where is the best place to eat? Mary, a native of Grand Junction, but no booster, said there’s no worthwhile eating establishment there. Del Taco is the best you can do.
We chatted with Mary for so long we had to remind her to take our $8 fee for a night of camping. (It’s $16 if you don’t have a senior national parks and forests access pass.)
On our first morning, we traveled to nearby Island Lake to hike a couple of miles along the shore, below Crag Crest. Heeding Mary’s warnings, we doused ourselves with repellent, shielding ourselves from several minor swarms. We enjoyed sunny skies and midday temperatures in the 60s, exchanging hellos with families fishing for lake trout and kayakers preparing to push off.
Later in the afternoon, we drove south to Cedaredge to talk to family and catch up on news, but arrived too late to visit Pioneer Town, which features fruit-harvesting equipment and unique wooden silos, nine and eleven-sided.
The second day, we hiked at Crag Crest National Recreation Trail from the west trailhead at 10,200 feet. The east trailhead was closed for logging; a hiking couple told us the lower part of the loop was difficult to follow.
We worried that the upper portion of Crag Crest, a 10-mile loop described as difficult, would be too strenuous for us. Instead, we planned an out-and-back hike of about five miles.
Surprisingly, we enjoyed a gradual ascent through patches of fir, rock and grass, taking in many open views to the south and east before we made the crest portion of the trail.
After hiking a bit more than 2 miles, we admired views of the San Juan Mountains and La Sal Mountains, in Utah, before returning to the west trailhead. It took us less than two hours.
Crag Crest was very fine, but The No. 1 attraction in Grand Mesa is the view from Land’s End Observatory, a ranger station and perimeter wall built with brown basalt by WPA workers.
Interpretive signs point to the Colorado National Monument, the magnificent Roan Plateau and Book Cliffs, and the very steep gravel road connecting Land’s End to U.S. 50 and Grand Junction. (Land’s End can be reached easily on a 13-mile gravel road with a gentle grade from a turnoff on Colorado 65.)
On our way north, we camped at Jumbo Reservoir, set in Douglas fir and aspen in the Mesa Lakes portion of Grand Mesa. It was the final, restful night of our three-day tour.
Although I’d never heard of it, Grand Mesa turned out to be a treat, like many of the lesser known places we’ve explored since 2015.
If you are traveling through western Colorado, skip the food in Grand Junction and savor Land’s End.