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Step, sliiiide. Step, sliiiide. I repeat the mantra in my head as I glide my cross-country skis along the skinny track. Almost immediately, I duck into a conifer forest peppered with leafless aspens. Even though the trail is groomed, it feels wild out here. There are no ski lodges or chairlifts, and I haven’t seen another person in a mile. It’s just me, my skinny skis, and a whole lot of winter solitude.
It’s early December and the Grand Mesa is already buried in snow. The largest flattop mountain in the world, the Grand Mesa covers more than 500 square miles above 10,000 feet on Colorado’s Western Slope. And this geologic table in the sky is easily accessible—just 90 minutes from Grand Junction.
The sides of the Grand Mesa, etched into the Earth more than 10 million years ago, are virtually vertical—and therefore prone to sliding. Backcountry skiers don’t have a ton of options out here because of the avalanche danger. That’s a shame because that mesa top sees more than 400 inches of snow annually on average—some 100 inches more than Breckenridge and 150 inches more than Vail. Also nice: The fluffies begin flying as early as October. That means the Grand Mesa Nordic Council—the local nonprofit that manages the area—typically begins grooming trails around Halloween.
In avalanche-prone terrain like this, backcountry skiing is sketchy at best. But, cross-country skiing is practically made for the flat-and-rolling terrain along the mesa top. Snowshoeing is an option too, but those trails are often sequestered from the cross-country tracks because they’re littered with divots that can cause accidents. To see the best views, to go the farthest afield, there is no better option than a pair of slick, skinny skis.
For this, I’m grateful. As I glide farther down the Outlook Trail, which I accessed via the County Line trailhead outside of Cedaredge, I settle into the rhythm of my skis and focus on the sounds around me. There were only a handful of skiers in the parking lot, and we’ve all gone our separate ways (which you can do around here because there are more than 30 miles of trails). Now, I only hear the creaking of lodgepoles swaying in the breeze, the fall of snow crystals settling on the earth, the crunch of my Nordic boots as they flex with every stride, and my own steady breaths.
When I cruise up to the overlook and its panoramic view of frozen Island Lake, there isn’t another soul in sight.
Grand Mesa Trip Planner
One of the best-kept secrets in Colorado, the remote Grand Mesa is rife with year-round outdoor activities. But if you go, keep in mind: There aren’t many services. Grand Junction is the nearest major city, about an hour and a half away in good conditions. Otherwise, the small town of Cedaredge (population: 2,400) is a gateway to the south, and the unincorporated community of Mesa sits to the north, but you won’t find many services there either.
- When to go: It’s not unusual for the Nordic Council to begin grooming in late October or early November. Check its website for up-to-date information and grooming reports.
- Trail info: There are three trail systems on the Grand Mesa: Skyway, County Line, and Ward. Skyway and County Line sit roughly two miles apart from each other and amount to more than 19 miles of groomed trails for classic and skate skiing. If you’re up for a big day, you can park at either trailhead and ski a 13-mile loop that connects both. (More serious skiers tend to favor Skyway, while families and beginners flock to County Line, which allows dogs and snowshoers.) If you prefer a more rugged experience, head to the Ward trail system a few miles to the northeast, where you’ll find roughly four miles of groomed trails and another 7.5 miles of ungroomed trails.
- Permit info: Unlike most Front Range cross-country skiing networks, there is no charge at any of the Grand Mesa trails. The Nordic Council does all the grooming for free, but you can support them by donating or becoming a member.
- Gear rentals: There are plenty of Nordic ski rentals in both Denver and Grand Junction. If you want something closer to the Mesa, Silent Country Cycle + Ski offers deals in Eckert and Odin Recreation does in Mesa.
3 Cross-Country Ski Trail Networks Closer to Denver
If you can’t make the journey to the Western Slope, these Nordic skiing epicenters are great options that require less time in the car.
- Total miles of ski tracks: 24
- Fee: TBD for a day pass ($32 last season); $209 for a season pass
- Distance from Denver: 1 hour
The Eldora Nordic Center expanded this season, so it’s a great place for beginners. Not only do they have a rental center onsite, but you can also reserve private lessons in advance. And, it’s pretty darn close to Denver.
- Total miles of ski tracks: 51
- Fee: $29 for a day pass (adult); $120 for a five-time punch card
- Distance from Denver: 1.5 hours
Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby is already a mecca for outdoor fun with everything from dog sledding to fat biking. But the YMCA facility is also home to a large network of groomed trails, many of which are pet-friendly. Bonus: If you’re a YMCA of the Rockies member, access is free.
- Total miles of ski tracks: 75 miles
- Fee: Day passes from $30 for non-guests; $300 for a season pass
- Distance from Denver: 1.5 hours
Tucked just down the road from Snow Mountain, Devil’s Thumb Ranch is home to a huge trail system. Non-guests can access the network, but consider their services: private lessons and plenty of gear rentals, including child sleds and skijoring equipment.