Outdoor Adventures Atop Colorado's Grand Mesa

No matter the season, Grand Mesa is an outdoor-lover's paradise

From Interstate 70 through western Colorado, the Grand Mesa appears as a long lump dominating the southern panorama between Parachute and Palisade. Outdoor enthusiasts from nearby Grand Junction escape here to camp, hike, mountain bike, fish in hundreds of lakes or simply escape from the summer heat.

"The Mesa" is a 53-square-mile, flat-topped mountain that the Ute Indians considered sacred. With a 10,000-foot elevation, 300 inches of snow but minimal winter infrastructure, it is a vast, virtually private winter sports playground.

Highway 65, its only paved, plowed road, snakes up the steep northern and southern sides and crosses the rolling, wooded landscape on top. Hundreds of frozen lakes resemble pancake-flat clearings amid snow-laden trees. Elk, deer, foxes, coyotes, ermine, weasels, squirrels and chipmunks call the Grand Mesa home, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife has begun reintroducing moose.

Powderhorn, a quiet, family-friendly ski and snowboard resort on the Grand Mesa's steep north flank offers easy slopes for new or sometime snowriders, yet half of the trails are geared for intermediates and the rest for advanced skiers.

Still, cross-country skiing first drew me to Colorado's Grand Mesa, whose three trail systems are just that: trail systems, not Nordic ski areas. There are no warming lodges, rental equipment or ski lessons. It is, in short, a place for self-sufficient recreationists. The not-for-profit Grand Mesa Nordic Council underwrites cross-country trail grooming, so while there are no use fees, I always drop something into the trailhead donation boxes.

I first set skis on snow at Skyway, and within minutes of the parking area at Mile Marker 32 (at 10,660 feet above sea level) I felt as if I could reach the sky. Skyway's five loop trails vary from just under two miles to about six miles and are combinable into routes of various lengths. With a maximum 150-foot elevation change, the trails are easy. My favorite is the northeastern lobe for its dramatic views of the Bookcliffs, deeply eroded shale walls resembling taupe book spines on a shelf.

Though the four County Line trails have a separate parking pullout at Mile Marker 30, I often ski the one-and-a-half-mile connector trail. County Line is easy skiing but provides epic southward views toward the San Juan Mountains. At this elevation, snow falls frequently, lingers long and usually remains silky underfoot. To me, a full-moon ski or snowshoe on either of these high-altitude trail systems is ethereal.

Ward Creek at Mile Marker 25 is the most extensive trail system. The elevation difference between the lowest and highest points is more than 500 feet, making it the most challenging, too. Segments of these interwoven trails are as short as one-third mile. Some are groomed and all are marked. Numerous junctions offer abundant options for a long or short trek.

As the farthest from Grand Junction, Ward Creek attracts the fewest weekend skiers, and as the lowest and also south-facing area, its season tends to be the shortest. The Grand Mesa Visitors Center, staffed by information specialists most winter weekends, has heated restrooms open daily -- not a trivial consideration in winter!

To minimize conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreational users, the U.S. Forest Service established much of the east side of the highway for skiers and the west side for snowmobilers. After slogging, gliding and cruising the Nordic trails on my third visit, I opted for a snowmobile tour, because I wanted views to come one after another more quickly and with less effort.

Of the few lodges and cabins open in winter, all provide doorstep access to snowmobile trails, plus snowmobile rentals and tours. Mesa Lakes Resort is closest to Powderhorn, Grand Mesa Lodge has nicely spaced cabins and Spruce Lodge is the prettiest and best-appointed.

Half-day snowmobile tours cover 35 to 40 of the Grand Mesa's nearly 200 miles of trails, stopping at the best vistas. From the Land O' Lakes Overlook, I gaped at a panorama that arcs from Aspen past Crested Butte, Lake City, Ouray and Telluride into Utah. From Crater View I could see Powderhorn, the West Bench Trail that skirts the Mesa's north rim, Chalk Mountain and the Grand River Valley.

Lands End, on the Mesa's northwestern tip, put all of western Colorado and a good part of Utah in my sight. Buildings frequented by summer visitors are silent and shuttered in winter. This is also the western terminus of the 120-mile Sunlight-to-Powderhorn Snowmobile Trail (SP Trail) stretching to the fringes of the Sunlight Ski Area near Glenwood Springs.

Colorado's Grand Mesa remains a winter haven, where I go to recharge amid an infusion of white snow, (hopefully) blue skies, sunshine and simple movement across a frosty winter landscape.