My son asked me where I was going. My reply, “The West Bench Trail.” He looked at me as if I was crazy. “You really think you’re going mountain biking today on Grand Mesa? Isn’t there a lot of snow up there?” “No,” I explained. “We’re skiing.” For while it may be April and we’re all about biking down in the valleys, ski season is still going strong, especially in the backcountry.
A few years ago, I was bemoaning the end of ski season to a friend. As often happens in April in Colorado, it was cold and snowing and the resorts were mostly closed for the season. My friend, The Outdoor Junkie, just laughed at me, “My season is just getting started,” she said. “Springtime in the backcountry is the best.”
Now you may have read about my two backcountry adventures this season at the “lost” ski areas of Pioneer and Mesa Creek. For this outing, my friend Laura and I decided not to break out the skins, as we were uncertain of the conditions. As we are in the midst of the spring freeze-thaw cycle, we decided to cross-country ski on an ungroomed trail part-way up Western Colorado’s Grand Mesa.
Touted as the “world’s largest flat-top mountain,” the Grand Mesa has miles upon miles of groomed cross-country trail up on top. Maintained by the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, these trails wind through open meadows, stands of aspen, pine and fir and across frozen lakes. They are a skinny skier’s paradise. The trails are pristine, freshly groomed nearly every day and they are fast.
The West Bench is a totally different beast. A mountain bike trail in the summer, the West Bench trail goes over hill and dale, winding through the forest for 3 miles to the top of Powderhorn Resort. Completely ungroomed, the trail is open to snowshoers, dogs, and skiers. Without maintenance there are very few rules and the conditions can be challenging.
When we went, on a gray, cold spring morning, the snow had refrozen over night into solid lumps of ice in the shape of snowshoe tracks. It was tough going initially, but so beautiful that we didn’t want to turn back. As we got further into the woods the snow was better protected from the sun and was perfect. Better yet, within about one mile, the snowshoers had given up and we could follow a single ski track.
Even on a gray day, the Grand Mesa forest is gorgeous. Endless stands of Aspen predominate the landscape, their white trunks blending, yet still contrasting with the snow drifted around them. When the sun would break through, the shadows of the aspen trees painted the snow with zebra stripes in a mesmerizing pattern. Given that it is spring, Mesa Creek was running, eroding the snow drifts from underneath and providing a deep contrasting blue to all of the white and gray around us. Remote and peaceful, we saw only one other person and he was in the parking lot, setting out for a ski, just as we were leaving.
The wind was cold and the many clouds kept the sun mostly hidden, so it wasn’t the spring skiing day we had anticipated. Still, it was a gift to spend the day in the forest with a friend, chatting, gliding and enjoying the beauty around us. Winter is melting fast and these final days of skiing are like gold.
When You Go….
The West Bench Trail starts from a parking area next to some Forest Service outhouses just before the entrance to the Mesa Lakes Lodge and cabins. As you ski past the outhouses, there is a pedestrian/bike bridge which is not cleared in the winter. Don’t take it. Instead ski to the right and around a low spot which will get you across the creek. From there, the trail goes through a campground, evidenced only be the top 12 inches of lantern poles sticking up through the deep snow. Soon, there is a sign announcing the West Bench Ski Trail.
From this point, the trail is very well-marked with blue diamonds nailed onto trees, and there is usually a skied-in track. Up and down, the trail traverses across several slopes before flattening out along the bench. In this area there are some lakes to cross. In the dead of winter, they are frozen solid. We figured they were still frozen, but we stuck close to the blue poles that mark the shoreline, just to be safe.
After three miles, the trail comes to the top of the Take Four lift at Powderhorn Resort. There is a ski patrol hut with a bench, as well as several benches closer to the lift where you can relax and have a snack or lunch. This is an out and back trail, so simply follow your tracks back to your car. Or if you are feeling energetic and have the right gear and equipment, the trail continues another 3.5 miles to the western USFS boundary.
The nearby Mesa Lakes Lodge serves meals and has rustic cabins to rent.
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