Anyone who grew up in Colorado (and paid attention in geography class) knows how unique our state is.
Colorado has the highest low point (3,315 feet) of any state in the country. We also have the highest mean elevation (6,800 feet), the most land mass above 10,000 feet (about 75% of it countrywide), and more 14,000-foot peaks than other states (53 ranked and many unranked). Colorado is home to the highest paved mountain pass (12,095 feet, Independence Pass), the highest point on the U.S. interstate system (11,158 feet, Eisenhower Tunnel), and the highest mountain with a road to the top in the country too (14,264 feet, Mount Evans — and OK, purists will say it doesn’t go all the way to the top — but heck, the summit’s right there!). Our sand dunes are the highest in elevation (Great Sand Dunes) and tallest from base to tip (Star Dune) and we have the highest paved road, not only in the U.S., but in all of North America (Mount Evans Scenic Byway). We also boast the highest continuous paved road — Trail Ridge Road — but now I’m just bragging. As places go, we’re pretty high!
I didn’t visit any of those places this week. Call me lazy. Call me a flatlander. Call me whatever you like. Instead, I sought out the biggest, flattest place I could find — one that still lived up to Colorado’s high standards. Yup, this week I pitched my tent on the largest flat-topped mountain on the planet — Grand Mesa. And yes, of course it’s in Colorado.
East of Grand Junction, Grand Mesa rises 11,000 feet above sea level — 6,000 feet above the surrounding valleys — and sprawls for 500 square miles. You would expect a big flat mountain in western Colorado to be hot, parched, and desolate, right? Whelp, not Grand Mesa — it’s home to more than 300 lakes. That’s what brought me to the place (and now you know what my next book is about), and I wasn’t disappointed. In just a few days, I logged 17 miles to eight lakes with views of many more.
All those lakes didn’t come as a surprise. I’d been to the Mesa before, had driven by all those lakes and admired them from on high. Hiking to the highpoint of Grand Mesa, Delta County’s 11,327-foot Crater Peak, and to the Mesa County highpoint, 11,236-foot Leon Peak, I’d noticed all those glistening bodies of water but hadn’t given them much thought. When you have a destination in mind — like a peak — everything else kind of blurs. But this time, I had the lakes in my sights, and I didn’t expect to be distracted. But I was. Because the best thing about Grand Mesa wasn’t the mountains or the lakes. As gorgeous as they all were, that big mesa turned out to be a stunner for reasons I hadn’t imagined.
First off, the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway traverses the mesa from the Gunnison River near Delta, 75 miles north and west to the Colorado River east of Grand Junction. Roughly midway, Land’s End Road juts west off the byway for 12 miles across a narrowing strip of land to a spectacular overlook with views of, well, everything. And if you don’t know what everything is, there are interpretive signs that identify the mountains, lakes, and towns thousands of feet below. Even on a hazy day you can pick out, to the southwest and west, the San Juan Mountains, Uncompahgre Plateau, Grand Junction, Grand Valley, the Colorado River, and canyons of the Colorado National Monument. I even picked out half a dozen 14ers from up there.
I had my second Grand Mesa surprise on the drive to the overlook. The year’s generous snowfall and late melt-off resulted in a rare and explosive super bloom of wildflowers. Everywhere I looked, blanket flowers, larkspur, and columbine packed the roadside, along with other flowers that I don’t know the names of. If you can’t name all the flowers either that’s OK. Take plenty of pictures, then continue to the overlook and take pictures of the interpretive signs that dot the path, identifying them.
The final thrill of Grand Mesa came with the black moon on July 31, the second new moon of the month. I had forgotten all about the black moon until I stumbled out of my tent in the middle of the night without my headlamp. It was like being in a planetarium with all the stars turned on. Grand Mesa’s high altitude and lack of ambient light, coupled with crystal-clear skies after days of rain, offered the most amazing view of the night sky I have ever seen. The Milky Way was clearly visible. Large swaths of light painted the sky, too, and I haven’t figured out what those were. They may have been clusters of distant stars that I typically can’t see.
The next new moon is at the end of August. Head out on a clear day and get a campsite in one of the 11 forest campgrounds on the Mesa. Go check out the scenic views, the wild displays of wildflowers, and the night sky from Grand Mesa. Take in a few lake hikes, too. It may not be the highest place in Colorado, but you’ll be floating on air after the experience.
Susan Joy Paul is an author, editor, and freelance writer. She has lived in Colorado’s northwest side for more than 20 years. You can contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.