Colorado Scenic Byways: Grand Mesa

In western Colorado, the Grand Mesa towers more than a mile above the landscape. Aspens paint thick dark forests with streaks of gold, while some 300 lakes mirror the changing sky. The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway climbs up and over this massive plateau, cresting at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet.

The 63-mile route crosses the Grand Mesa from Interstate 70, 5 miles east of Palisade, to Cedaredge. Along the byway, travelers can enjoy hiking, fishing, leaf peeping in the fall and various festivals.

At the northern point (Interstate 70, Exit 49), the road enters Plateau Canyon and parallels a twisting creek. Russet grasses and silvery sagebrush dapple the canyon floor. Rabbitbrush bursts with yellow blossoms.

Aspens turn brilliant gold in autumn.

Vegetation becomes thick with junipers and scrub oaks as the byway gains elevation and enters Plateau Valley. A white, wood church heralds the arrival into the tiny ranching community of Mesa.

The ascent up the Grand Mesa becomes especially colorful in the autumn. Shrubs and aspens carpet slopes with shades of green, yellow and gold. Open range cattle lumber alongside the road. A turn-off leads to Powderhorn Resort where snow sports enthusiasts head in winter.

The route climbs through stands of golden aspens accented with smatterings of scarlet and fiery orange hues. Higher, they blend their colors with rich, dark green forests of firs and spruces. Mother Nature may add to the palette by powdering them white with snow. Dark gray boulders stud a huge rockslide site.

Skyway Point captures a view of several of the mesa’s 300 lakes, which teem with brook, cutthroat and rainbow trout.

Atop the mesa, the byway reaches its highest elevation, 10,800 feet. A 12-mile spur leads west to Land’s End Overlook. Along the way, the vegetation transitions from fir and spruce trees to high desert brushes. Two restored cabins from the former Raber Cow Camp hug the windswept terrain. Before trucks made it possible for wranglers to tend cattle on the mesa top and return home the same day, ranches set up summer bases like this one. Up to 20 people at a time stayed in the two shelters. A spring provided water for cooking, drinking, bathing and cooling perishables.

At the overlook, travelers can walk to the edge of Grand Mesa to soak in the views. The Grand Valley stretches below. Hills, mesas and mountain ranges roll like waves to the horizon. On clear days, the La Sal Mountains can be seen 60 miles to the west and the San Juan Mountains 90 miles to the south. On misty days, the scene turns into ethereal silhouettes. Only the wind interrupts the quiet.

Back on the main route, the byway continues five miles to Lake Cobbett. Housed in a beautiful log building, the Grand Mesa Visitor Center borders the lake. Inside, a wide window frames an inviting vista of Surface Creek Valley to the south. Walking trails wind along the lake and into the woods.

From there, the road begins its descent. Thick stands of aspens lace the fir and spruce forests. At lower elevations, tall scrub oaks appear. Together, they cover the side of the mesa with a kaleidoscope of colors: the firs’ deep green; the aspens’ lime green, lemon yellow and gold; the scrub oaks’ burnished russet.

The byway traverses ranchlands, farms, orchards and vineyards.

The road dips into Surface Creek Valley, a land of farms, ranches, orchards and vineyards. At Cedaredge, the byway reaches its southern gateway. The small community merits exploring before returning home. Art galleries, antique stores and craft shops line the streets. Three silos, the last structures of the ranch that Cedaredge now occupies, mark the site of Pioneer Town. The museum captures the essence of an early western town with original buildings from the surrounding area, including a train depot and packing shed.

If You Go

The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway follows Colorado 65 from Interstate 70, Exit 49, 5 miles east of Palisade, to Cedaredge. The total length is 63 miles; drive time is two hours. The route is great for panoramas of the Grand Valley and distant mountain ranges. The two-lane paved road is open year-round, with no vehicle restrictions. Fall colors and area festivals make autumn a great time to explore.

Cedaredge Chamber of Commerce, (970) 856-6961

Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau, (800) 962-2547

Palisade Chamber of Commerce, (970) 464-7458

Grand Mesa Byway Association, (970) 856-4153

Rose and David Muenker, who live in Denver, are co-authors of the Colorado Front Range History Explorer, which features history-oriented sites and attractions of our state’s most populous region, and Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.