There’s nothing like visiting Colorado’s Grand Mesa in the thick of a blizzard
In a good winter, visiting the Grand Mesa is like visiting Siberia — and this is a very good winter.
My wife, Ann, and I lucked out because Highway 65 onto the mesa was just reopening at about noon Friday after avalanche mitigation. The hulking landmass in western Colorado catches the brunt of storms approaching from the west, so it gets copious amounts of snow. When we arrived, the mesa had received about 24 inches of snow in the prior 36 hours. It wrung out another 4 inches or so before the storm broke.
A highway worker was removing the road-closed sign just past Powderhorn Ski Area when we pulled up. That was about halfway to our destination at the Grand Mesa Lodge. Climbing up the remaining snow-clogged road to 10,500 feet in elevation at the tail end of a blizzard was exhilarating. We nearly had the route to ourselves.
Owners Mike and Rose do a remarkable job keeping their internal road open to the 14 rustic cabins. You can’t help but feel like a rat in a maze as you negotiate the short, twisting route with snow piled 8 feet high on both sides.
When we reached our brown cabin, it looked like a gingerbread house with a ridiculous amount of white frosting piled on top. The snow layer on the roof was easily 3 feet thick. Fortunately it’s built on a hillside, so the southeastern view to Island Lake was clear and spectacular.
We met up with two other couples that had their own cabins. Each couple hosted dinner on a different night and we amused ourselves with intense games of Yahtzee, Uno and the like. And, of course, a few beverages.
Saturday was the payoff with a bluebird sky, pleasant temperatures and immaculately groomed cross-country ski trails. The Grand Mesa Nordic Council does a fabulous job maintaining a 20-mile network in the County Line and Skyway trail systems, which can be connected. My friend Bob and I picked a 10.5-mile loop that passed through marshmallow-cream valleys, narrow passages through dense spruce forests and rolling meadows. I could feel the workweek tension dissipate with each move. The majestic San Juan Mountains were visible far to the south.
The skiing was so good that I had to return solo on Sunday to make another loop of about 7.5 miles to compare with the first. I knew the skiing back in the Roaring Fork Valley had to be good, but the Grand Mesa experience is so unique I didn’t suffer from alpine envy.
Friends went to a third cross-country area on Grand Mesa called the Ward Trails. That network is designed more for touring, with 11 miles total of trails and slightly more than one-third of it groomed. It’s like skiing on signed trails in an expanded Northstar Nature Preserve east of Aspen.
While it was a joy to get away from cellphones and computer connections, we didn’t have to suffer without championship football. The wonderfully rebuilt main lodge now includes a bar and restaurant. An eclectic mix of snowmobilers, skiers and locals cheered and groaned, depending on their loyalties, as both NFL games extended into overtime.
The three-day weekend seemed like a world apart — Siberia maybe — though just 2½ hours drive time from Carbondale.
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This summer in Aspen is likely to include indoor and outdoor concerts, maskless gatherings and no state or county-mandated restrictions on social distancing at restaurants or anywhere else.