CO – Grand Mesa National Forest (09/22)

I’ve learned plans are guidelines with options. I initially planned to return to this location for fall follow-up hikes but then when the opportunity presented to meet Joan in the Uintas (blog link) I changed my itinerary to head north through Wyoming and Montana. With smoky skies that was not a reasonable option, so with thoughts of easy hiking and aspen leaves I made a U-turn. Hello Colorado, I’m back!

Mother Nature had a few other ideas. Rain, rain, rain! It forced me to slow down and take a much needed break. After 130 plus days of traveling this season, I wasn’t complaining. I’d been motivated to keep hiking through the weeks of amazing weather and smoke-free skies. Slowing down felt in line with the season. Shorter daylight hours, cooler temperatures and less than ideal conditions for hiking made reading and relaxing my vice.

It was fun comparing views with those from my first visit in May when the ground was still white with snow, the lakes frozen and melting (blog link). I hiked trails inaccessible during that early spring visit and spent time in town seeking sunshine below the fog.

This stand of aspen are considered the bell weather of fall foliage. I watched it progress over the week I spent in the area. The visitor center staff said it would be another 10 days before the mesa was at peak color.

A few days makes a lot of difference.

Crag Crest Trail

I not so patiently waited for ideal conditions to hike the premier trail at Grand Mesa, Crag Crest Trail. I checked the weather forecast and watched the skies. Meanwhile it rained and hailed, keeping the warmth of the sun away.

Finally on the 6th day I was rewarded with a bluebird day. There were many who hiked this on no views days but with plenty of other options I wasn’t willing to make this sacrifice.

You can see why they call Grand Mesa the land of lakes. There are about 300 natural lakes and 100+ reservoirs on the mesa.

This interpretative sign provides good perspective of the location of the Crag Crest. Most signs and maps spell it Crag but this sign shows Craig. I forgot to ask at the Visitor Center about discrepancy.

This photo of the Crag Crest was taken from the Scales Lake Loop.

This is a good description of the trail.

This trail is designated as a National Recreation Trail, although this sign is about worn off.

The trail meandered through meadows and forests, gently climbing to the crest.

Occasional lake views were offered.

I enjoyed walking through the changing seasons.

The first viewpoint on the ridge included Cottonwood Lakes and mesas above Grand Junction.

The “crest” part of the trail wasn’t flat. Some with height and exposure anxieties might not like this section.

Some of the trail was rocky but other times it was smooth dirt.

It was very windy this day, with the gusts trying to push me off occasionally.

I loved all the views.

After this high point the trail drops down to the area on the right with all the down trees. In retrospect I wish I would have turned around here.

One of the last views looking back from where I’d come.

And then it was down, down, down . . .

Views of hidden lakes are a reward.

This flat section was nice especially with fall colors lining the trail.

On a hot day Upper Eggleston Lake would be a good place to cool off.

This is why I wished I hadn’t hiked the loop, although it was nice to see Crags Crest.

This area smelled of cows and sure enough soon they were on my trail and I was herding them off.

You can imagine how hot this area would be on a summer day. There was also a lot more ascending over the final miles by doing the loop.

This was a 10.9 miles 1,100′ elevation gain/loss loop hike.

Land of Lakes Trail

This is a short paved lollipop loop trail where you’re provided great views on a clear day.

Lost and Mesa Lakes Trail

It was a lovely walk through the woods with interspersed views of Mesa Lakes. The rangers at the Visitor Center said this is a good fall foliage hike.

Oh my Lost Lake was a gorgeous green. Had it been a little warmer, I would have been tempted to swim.

This was a short 3.5 mile 500′ elevation gain/loss loop hike.

Mesa Top Trail

Visitor Center staff recommended this trail for a potential rain day.

It was a nice combination of forest with soft duff trail and open meadows with plentiful views.

I was surprised to find a lupine still in bloom.

There were a few harebells still around as well.

I loved all the details of this mushroom.

The clouds threatened but the rain stayed away until I finished this hike.

I turned around at this aspen grove.

This was a 4.7 mile 200′ elevation gain/loss out-and-back hike. The trail continued but I was motivated to avoid a major rain storm. This trail seems to be popular with equestrians; I met a a group of 5-6 gals riding this day.

Baron Lake Trail

Many of the lakes are more inviting to folks who fish rather than swim or prefer lakes surrounded by granite amphitheaters.

This area has a lot of private in-holdings on federal land. You can see all the cabins surrounding one of the lakes I hiked around.

I hiked from Ward Lake to Eggleston Lake on the trail and returned via the road making it a little less than 4-mile 200′ elevation gain/loss loop hike.

Scales Lakes Loop Trail

This is a winter trail system that didn’t show up on my Gaia or National Geographic Trails Maps. The Visitor Center handed me a map detailing trails from the County Line Trailhead, which is across the road from the Mesa Top Trailhead. I hiked clockwise starting with Dog Loop.

This part of the trail is well signed and is mostly on double track marked with either blue poles or blue diamonds.

I loved this single track section.

The lakes weren’t anything special but I bet you’d find lots of wildlife hanging around at dusk and dawn.

In fact I found quite a variety of scat but didn’t seen signs of moose, which I expected.

I wished the map provided by the Visitor Center included trail names. The transition from Traverse to Tower wasn’t very intuitive.

The view from the overlook was indeed WOW!

I especially liked seeing the Crag Crest.

You can see a bit of the aspen color starting to brighten the sides of the crest.

At least this reassurance sign was present as I neared the end.

Weeds or blooms without color?

The trails were lined with red foliage.

This was a 6.5 mile 200′ elevation gain/loss loop hike.

Fall Foliage

Blooms

There were a few gentian hanging on.

Tips:

  • The Ranger Station Visitor Center is only open seasonally, usually opening Memorial Day weekend and closing late September. However they had WiFi available outside the building and open heated restrooms with a potable water refill station.
  • Dispersed camping is fairly liberal with only a few exceptions.
  • There are a couple of areas such as Island Lake and Mesa Lakes which are managed by concessionaires. I learned they don’t accept the federal passes in day use or campgrounds. I’ve taken it for granted that the US Fee and Recreation Use Pass requirement on federal land are covered by the interagency federal passes.
  • Cows oh cows, there is open grazing. They visited me in the parking lots, at my dispersed campsites and on the roads and trails.

Resources:

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