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Length: 7 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Advanced beginner
Why we love it: The high elevation atop Grand Mesa means you’ll get in a good workout while still enjoying a groomed surface
When to go: Late fall through spring, depending upon snow conditions
Pre-hike buzz: Coming from Grand Junction, the quickest bet is Octopus Coffee, a drive-through located at 759 Horizon Drive, Suite F, just north of I-70 at Exit 31
Restrooms: Outhouse at the southern trailhead
Dogs: Allowed per U.S. Forest Service regulations
The Grand Mesa Nordic Council maintains and frequently grooms several systems of cross-country trails, including the central County Line network, which features the groomed Ward Trail plus several ungroomed backcountry trails where telemarkers can practice their turns. The lack of steep terrain reduces the risk of avalanches in this area, but it’s always important to check conditions before you go and take appropriate precautions.
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The Ward Trail can be accessed from either the Grand Mesa Visitor Center in the north or the Ward Creek Reservoir trailhead on the system’s southern edge. The Ward Trail ascends nearly 1,000 vertical feet over a distance of about 3.5 miles from south to north, so if you prefer to get the climbing over with first, begin at the southern (Ward Creek Reservoir) trailhead.
From the reservoir, the Ward Trail crosses Ward Creek, then skirts around the lake’s eastern side, where you’ll enjoy skiing through dense stands of aspen and pine trees. After looping briefly to the south, the trail turns north for several kilometers, gradually climbing towards Ward Lake. Less than a mile from the end, the route bends to the northeast to parallel Ward Lake’s northern edge before arriving at the junction with FR-121.
From this road you can either retrace your steps or return along the backcountry Skinned Horse Trail, a 2.25-mile route that intersects the Ward Trail about 1.25 miles from its southern end.
Getting there: From Denver, follow I-70 west to Exit 49 (Debeque Canyon). Follow CO-65 south for about 12 miles to Mesa, then continue another 22.5 miles to the junction with Forest Road 121 (Trickel Park Road). Turn east here and follow FR-121 as far as you can toward the Grand Mesa Visitor Center, which is closed in the winter. The northern end of this trail begins just east of the visitor center. To reach the southern trailhead, continue on CO-65 for 2 miles past the visitor center to Ward Creek Reservoir.
—Photo courtesy of Shutterstock