Thursday, August 4, 2022, was another day in the upper 90’s here in western Colorado’s Grand Valley. In addition to that, our roofing project continued unabated, which made for another great day to get out of the house and up to The Grand Mesa.
We usually head up to The Grand Mesa during the spring or summer anyway to check out the amazing wildflower display up there this time of year, and Thursday seemed like a good day to do that. We exited I-70 at mile marker 49 and drove through the red rock canyon at the far north end of the byway, and then up and over Hwy 65, which is also known as The Grand Mesa Scenic & Historic Byway, one of 26 scenic byways in Colorado. This road travels over The Mesa for 63 miles from I-70 to Cedaredge, Colorado and scenic it certainly is.
The Grand Mesa is known as “the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.” Now, I’m no geology expert, but this certainly seems plausible. It stands over 11,000 feet in elevation at its highest point, and comprises over 500 miles of flat-topped alpine forest, lakes and, in the spring and summer anyway, wildflowers! Yes, Crested Butte gets all the press for its amazing wildflowers – and rightfully so – but I would say that The Grand Mesa runs at least a very close second to that glory. The wildflowers here are gorgeous!
One place we always stop when we get to it, is the area around Mesa Lakes Lodge. Although we didn’t do it this time, we often stop for lunch or dinner at The Lodge which serves delicious pub food you can pair with beer from The Palisade Brewery and wine from another Palisade local, Talon Winery. Just looking at the menu makes me want to go back, but we didn’t stop for a meal this time around. Here’s a link so you can check it out though: https://www.mesalakeslodge.com/eat-drink
Anyway, we were on a wildflower mission and the afternoon clock was ticking. The Mesa Lakes area is always full of fantastic drifts of asters, daisies, fireweed, and other various mountain wildflowers during the summer, which rim the lakes and climb up the hillsides with abandon. There are seven lakes surrounding the resort, so it can keep a wildflower hunter busy for most of the day, but after about an hour we decided to head further uphill and towards Lands end.
The trip to Lands End is a 12-mile detour off the main scenic byway and onto a road that is only partly paved. It’s pretty well maintained though, and if you’re in the family sedan, you should still be able to make it out there with no trouble. Watch out for a few cattle guards, and some potholes. Be prepared to stop every couple minutes to take in the beauty. In fact, find a scenic spot to get out and walk around. The perfume of wildflowers and pine duff fills the air.
Eventually, you will make it to Lands End. From here, you can see for a hundred miles or more, all the way to The La Sal range in eastern Utah. You can see The Colorado and The Gunnison rivers snaking towards each other, and depending on the conditions, you might even be able to see where they actually meet up on the south side of Grand Junction.
The afternoon may or may not be weighing heavy on your shoulders, but in the summer, thunderstorms do roll over The Mesa and out over the valley below. From this vantage point, the views of these t-storms and resulting rain showers is magical. It’s possibly better than seeing it from the window of a plane. At over 11,000 feet in elevation, you’re about eye level with the clouds which gives you a unique view of the storms.
This view of Mt. Garfield from above certainly gives a different perspective than what you see from I-70. Mt. Garfield from below is 2,000 vertical feet of Mancos shale and sandstone dominating the northeastern skyline from The Grand Valley, but from the top of The Grand Mesa, it’s considerably less imposing; nevertheless, still an eye catcher.
There’s an old building right there at Land’s End, built by The Forest Service in the 1930’s. It’s boarded up now, but I always wonder what it would be like if it were still open. It would make a cool spot for a gift shop and café in the summer. But alas, the only full-time residents of this area are chipmunks, squirrels, and birds of various descriptions.
The chipmunks, in particular, make for a certain type of amusement. When we were there, late on a Thursday afternoon, they acted like they hadn’t eaten in a couple of weeks. If they weren’t so – well – round … I might have believed them. These critters are NOT afraid of humans. In fact, they are so acclimated to getting fed by humans, that I think they would probably climb up on your lap and eat there if you allowed them to. As I stood at Lands End, looking over the block wall and focusing my lens on the t-storm below, I was surprised to look down and see a couple of chipmunks standing right there on the wall looking up at me with their paws outstretched for a donation. I was definitely more startled than they were. Of course, they knew they were there, and I didn’t … but it’s not inconceivable that they might climb onto your clothes if given the chance, and they probably would if you allowed them to. These chipmunks were no more than two or three inches away from my shirt. Am I afraid of chipmunks? No, but I don’t really want to get bit either. Come prepared.
Other Lands End denizens include Steller’s Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers. The jays are unmistakable with their brilliant blue feathers and distinctive crested crown. These birds can be seen at higher elevations throughout Colorado and the west. They pretty much keep to themselves.
And then there’s the Clark’s Nutcracker. This bird is a high elevation bird shaped like a crow, but not as large. Still, it’s a good-sized bird in the corvid family. These birds are omnivores which usually subsist on pine seeds. They hide and save pine seeds, kind of like squirrels do, and they can remember where they hid them for up to 9 months. (Don’t call me a bird brain!) Not coincidentally, they also like the occasional meal of – chipmunk. But maybe they only eat meat on Sundays, I don’t really know. Unfortunately, these birds are on the decline, because of the drought and resultant pine beetle infestation, which is particularly evident along Colorado’s Front Range, but is beginning to show along the western slope as well. What do you do when your main food source dries up? Eat chipmunks, I guess.
Speaking of water, the Grand Mesa is the land of lakes – over 200 of them at last count! The mesa was created by volcanic activity that occurred nearly 10 million years ago, which poured a layer of basalt over the top of the mountain. This basalt layer has kept the mountain intact, and created natural lakes, some of which are quite deep and used as water sources for the towns in the valleys down below. It’s a popular place for people who like to fish and is well stocked with various kinds of trout. There’s plenty of camping areas close by, and people camp alongside the rivers, creeks, and lakes to escape the city and fish the certified gold medal waters. I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this, but the place is paradise.
As a mitigating factor I should also tell you that there are also at least 1,400 black bears living up there, as well as mountain lions and Canada lynx. However, by far the most common predator in June is the 500 million billion mosquitos. A couple of years ago, I bought a mosquito suit made of netting for just such an occasion, so plan accordingly. Fortunately, we weren’t bothered by mosquitos on this most recent trip, so I left the mosquito suit in my backpack.
The other animals you’re likely to see on The Grand Mesa are cattle. Ranchers lease land up there to graze cattle and there is no shortage of them, especially on the loop back to the main road. We ran across a couple of … (cow people?) on horseback moving a small herd of maybe 40 cattle down the road. The lady offered to let us go ahead, but I told her we were a couple of city slickers, and we don’t get to see this kind of thing very often, so we followed behind them for about 15 minutes. These photos were taken from the seat of my 4-Runner, so the quality may be lacking, but it was a fun experience for us. The only time you see cattle being driven down the middle of the road in Denver, where we came from, is during The Stock Show Parade in January.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of The Grand Mesa in western Colorado.