Part 1: Driving the Loop
I first experienced the Grand Mesa Loop a few years ago when mom and I had gone on a drive to check out the fall leaves. The colors on the Mesa are simply amazing, so I wanted to go back to see what the summer had in store for us. We wanted to make it up there before the snow flies and the road closes, this is Colorado though and there is still some snow on the tops of the mountains. B and I jumped in the ride with Max and headed east. This trip through the Grand Mesa National Forest will be, what is called “the loop.” Starting in Grand Junction we head east on I70 to State Highway 65, over the mesa and through Cedaredge and Delta, then to US Highway 50 west, back to Grand Junction. Of course, you can take the loop either way.
Let’s start with what the Grand Mesa is:
It is a National Forest
It is 11,000 ft above sea level, which makes it the largest mesa in the world!
It is home to Powder Horn Ski Resort
It has over 300 lakes, many trails for hiking, fishing, climbing, hunting and more
It also have cabins, lodging and camping areas
Cooler packed, sunscreen and bug spray applied, dog in harness and away we go! Once you get off of I70, you will be able to turn off your AC as the temperature cools as you climb. One of the most wonderful things about Colorado is the greatest summer sport out there, seems no matter where you go, you will be able to watch teams of men and women baking in the sun on the hot asphalt while waving the magical sign, STOP/SLOW. Welcome to road construction season. Our first wait at the STOP sign was about 20 minutes long, while the sport may contain many hard moves or daring feats, this one happened to be boring. There was, however, a nice stream I could have gotten out of the ride to see and take pictures of, but I chose to stay in the car and work on my window suntan. Once the pilot vehicle drops off its parade of following traffic we get the go ahead to take our turn following him. I have to say, if I HAD to choose a job in road construction, that would be the one I choose, being a pilot vehicle.
The road wasn’t crowded at all, but the campgrounds and trail heads looked like they had quite a few people in them. It was a nice cool, drizzly drive up the north side of the Mesa. There are many pull offs along the way to grab pictures of the awesome views! If only we knew what the mountain ranges are in the picture, something we are working on. We found lots of flowers, a few chipmunks, a hawk with dinner mid air and the Forest Service out looking for some kind of wild life (truck and trailer), but no Moose, Cattle or Snow Mobiles.
We didn’t get to go down to the Land’s End Observatory, but it is for sure on the next trip. The road to the observatory is about 12 miles of dirt. Along the way, you will see the historic Raber Cow Camp, which is an example of camps used when the ranchers moved cattle up the mesa in the summer. The observatory is the original visitor center built in 1936-1937 and the access road was primarily built by 200 WW1 veterans between 1933-1934. Once you reach the observatory, you will be able to see Utah’s La Sal Mountains, the edge of the Grand Mesa, beautiful wildflowers and over the Gunnison Canyon. The views of the sunset from here are said to be exquisite, so pack your blanket and camera and head up there for some amazing photos, that’s what I plan on doing. Want more fun? Just past the observatory is a nail biting hairpin – turn road which makes a 6,000 foot decent into the valley below. Pretty sure you shouldn’t drive and take photos while on the way down, unless you have a copilot.
Heading down the other side of the mesa, you will find more lakes and trails, lots of wildflowers and the visitor center. Something to remember, whether a day trip, a drive through the loop or camping, there are no waste bins so you must pack out your trash and such. That’s a friendly reminder from Max. The visitor center was small, but growing and this Saturday (July 29th, 2017) there is a moose walk, should you find yourself in the area! I finally found the pocket guides I had been looking for. I only purchased five, but it was like I had found the Holy Grail! I will be back for more, unless I find them on another trip.
You will pass Island Lake, can’t miss it, it’s HUGE! While we were there, just catching some sun and pictures of wildflowers, we also spotted a lot of fish jumping. Seems the lake is stocked with trout, and also has a fish known as a splake. Splake? Looking it up now. One of the pocket guides I didn’t get…fish.
Splake: a hybrid of two fish species; a male brook trout and a female lake trout. And you didn’t think you would learn anything.
Continuing down the mesa, you will notice the temperature rise. It was a difference of 20* from the top of the mesa to the entrance to Cedaredge, that’s when the AC came back on. A nice drive through Cedaredge also known as the Gateway to the Grand Mesa and is a Historic Pioneer Town. Guess what’s on the to do list now? We jumped on State Highway 50 and headed west towards home. It was a beautiful drive, however, going back to tackle the outdoor recreation will be a process of more than six months and with the snow coming, it may take longer. Don’t worry though, we will share the experiences along the way.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot