The spectacular Crag Crest Trail is literally atop the spine of Colorado's Grand Mesa near Grand Junction. The Mesa, as locals call it, is a scenic beauty, a recreational paradise and a natural wonder.
At 350,000 acres, it is thought to be the world's largest flat-topped mountain. The lowest point of the Mesa's surface is at roughly 10,000 feet, with occasional pinnacles, spires and ridges soaring hundreds of feet higher. Dimpled with some 300 lakes, graced with deep forests of Colorado pine, spruce, fir and aspen and laced with trails, it is equally alluring to anglers, hikers and mountain bikers.
Just one paved road, Colorado Highway 65 (the Grand Mesa National Scenic and Historic Byway) crosses the Mesa between the eponymous hamlet of Mesa on the north and somewhat larger Cedaredge on the south. The Crag Crest Trail (FS Trail 711) near the southern end of the highway is a 10-mile loop, designated as a National Recreation Trail.
You can hike the entire loop from trailheads at either end, the upper or lower section as an out-and-back hike, or just the 6.6-mile upper or 3.4-mile lower section one-way with a vehicle shuttle. The upper section is for foot and equestrian traffic only. Mountain bikes are permitted on the lower portion, but in truth, few people ride there.
The west trailhead is near mile marker 27. The east trailhead is at the Crag Crest Campground, off FS Road 121 (Trickle Park Road), one of many unpaved forest routes branching from CO 65. Short side trails also connect the lower trail with the Grand Mesa Visitor Center and the nearby Ward Lake and Cobbett Lake Campgrounds, which essentially means there is a third entry.
If you are camping, you will most likely start at the closest trailhead. If you are day hiking, the west trailhead is the most convenient. The rewards are almost immediate. After just a few hundred feet, the trail leaves the trees and crosses one of many wildflower-filled meadows. High above, to the left, are the rooster-comb cliff bands of the crest itself.
If you want to get the hard part over with while you are still fresh, make the Crest your morning goal. Hike one mile, and at the well-signed junction of the upper and lower parts of the loop, bear left (straight) up a lung-busting series of switchbacks for approximately one-half mile where the Cottonwood Lakes Trail FS comes in from the left. Continue straight across the meadow to the crest portion — call it the best portion — of the route.
For two miles, you will be hiking on a narrow ridge flanked by dizzying drop-offs on both sides and spectacular Colorado vistas all around. The San Miguel, La Plata and San Juan Mountain ranges are visible to the south. The West Elk Range spreads to the east. The stark and eroded Bookcliffs, Roan Plateau and Battlement Mesa spread panoramically across the northern horizon. Utah's small LaSal Range can be seen to the west.
The ridge feels like the top of the world. The high point is at 11,189 feet, and at about 4.5 miles along, you will begin descending (sometimes steeply) past Bullfinch Reservoir Number 1, Upper Eggleston Lake and the east trailhead. Eggleston Lake is at the lowest point of the route. Continue along the gentler, lower section of the Crag Crest Trail (FS Trail 711-1A) that again meanders through forests and clearings to the west trailhead.
The usual Colorado cautions are in order. Carry plenty of water (drink regularly) and snacks. Use sunscreen, insect repellent and sunglasses. Start early so that you are off the highest, most exposed sections of the trail by afternoon when rain and, more significantly, thunderstorms are common. You really don't want to be on the exposed ridge when lightning starts cracking.
The Forest Service discourages winter use but does not prohibit it. The upper trail is only suitable for parties of well-equipped and experienced winter mountaineers. The trailhead parking lots are not plowed, so park at the Visitor Center near mile marker 25. From there, a shorter loop comprising two connectors (746/747 and 749) and the western portion of the Crag Crest Trail is nicely "snowshoeable" but it is not marked. It's better to stick to the adjacent marked and groomed Ward Lake winter trail system.
For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service, Grand Mesa Visitor Center at 970-856-4153. The Visitor Center is open daily from Memorial Day through the end of September and weekends during the rest of the year. Alternatively, call the Grand Junction office (year-round) at 970-242-8211. For campground reservations at Cobbett Lake call 877-444-6777. All other campgrounds are first-come, first-serve.