Grand Mesa National Forest

Grand Mesa National Forest, the largest flat-top mountain in the world, spans 346,555 acres in western Colorado. The flat top itself has an area of about 500 square miles. It is managed together with Uncompahgre and Gunnison forests, so the three are usually referred to as a single group abbreviated as GMUG. The National Forest Service manages these lands from Delta, Co. with ranger’s districts located in the nearest town of Grand Junction.

A forest service road in Grand Mesa National Forest
A Forest Service road in Grand Mesa National Forest – Photo by Cathy Laliberte on Unsplash

About Grand Mesa National Forest

Grand Mesa, together with its seamless neighbors Gunnison and Uncompahgre, offers over 3,000 miles of scenic hiking trails on a total of 3 million rough and rugged acres. These lands offer a feast for the eyes from every peak and valley. Here the average high in July is only 66 degrees and the average annual rainfall is only ten inches. A person only has to experience this cool, sunny paradise once to understand why it is one of the most perfect locations in the United States to kick back and enjoy nature’s sights, sounds, and solitude.

This Interactive Map of the area will not only give you the lay of the land, but allows you to search for specific features such as nature trails, horse trails, and fishing spots. Use the settings icon to toggle between a street, geographic, or topographic map view. What’s even more useful, if you go to the settings icon and select “create geo PDF,” you can generate a printable version of the map however you have it configured on your screen.

History of the Forest

The early Spanish explorers called the flattop mountains ‘mesas,’ meaning ‘table,’ and that is still what we call them today. The Grand Mesa was carved out of the earth by ancient rivers eroding away the land around it; the Colorado River shaped the top half of The Grand Mesa while the Gunnison River shaped the bottom half, leaving behind a raised, flat expanse of land that is wider than it is tall, looming 6,000 feet above the surrounding valley (which now includes the town of Grand Junction.) The mountain itself is comprised of many layers of rock all stacked on top of one another. The top layer of basalt (formed by the rapid cooling of lava flow containing magnesium and iron) was formed about ten million years ago, while the still older slices of shale and sandstone can be found further down.

The forest that eventually formed on and around the mesa would go on to sustain the Ute Native Americans. The Ute supplemented their diet of elk, deer, and antelope with small gardens alongside the roots and herbs growing wild in the forest such as amaranth, wild onion, rice grass, and dandelion. The yucca plant was used for soap, and berries such as raspberries, gooseberries, and buffalo berries were plentiful. The skilled hunters of the Ute tribe were esteemed for supplying fine leathers to trade, while the women of the tribe became renowned for their skillful quill work which they used to decorate the leather.

A mountain road in Grand Mesa National Forest – Photo by Linda Knicely on Unsplash

Recreation in Grand Mesa National Forest

Grand Mesa’s 300 lakes keep fisher folks, boaters, swimmers, photographers, and bird watchers busy all day long, but it may be the climbs and cliffs that Grand Mesa is best known for. Looking for your next challenge, mountain climber? GMUG contains five of Colorado’s 58 fourteeners, so there is no lack of adventure on this formidable terrain! The tallest, Uncompahgre Peak, stands at 14,309 feet.

If you are indeed an experienced hiker looking for a climb rated ‘difficult,’ you may want to try climbing Uncompahgre via Nellie Creek Road. Be warned, even before you get out of the car, you’re in for steep rocky terrain. Don’t even attempt to approach the trailhead without 4wd. The trail is 7.7 miles, moderately trafficked, and does not loop. Dogs are welcome, so long as they are leashed.

Reviewers of the trail barely dwell on the difficulty level as they describe the unbeatable beauty, comparing the hike through the mountain meadows and past the racing river to a Disney setting. Others claim the trail wasn’t as challenging as they thought it would be, particularly for a fourteener. It is recommended that you get an early start for this hike. In fact, most people camp out near the head the night before and set out first thing in the morning. For more information and reviews, see here.   

Wilderness Areas

GMUG has a total of 498,152 acres of designated wilderness area. However, none of these areas are in the Grand Mesa portion of the jointly managed GMUG. This is not to say that you won’t see wildlife in Grand Mesa, however. Black bear, lynx, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, moose, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon inhabit this beautifully wild forest. Bring your binoculars with you!

In fact, according to locals who have hiked and rated the trails, the top 5 best trails for wildlife viewing in Grand Mesa are:

Looking for the trail that feels like a breeze and looks like heaven? West Bench Trail is relatively flat, shaded with aspens, and decorated with bouquets of colorado wildflowers. The trail ranges from light to moderate use. People have reported viewing bears, eagles, owls, and martins from West Bench. One reviewer even reported that her experience on the trail was “euphoric,” and, “made her feel like Pocahontas.” Well then, what more can you ask for?

A Black Bear - Grand Mesa National Forest is home to many of these
West Bench is one of the top places to see wildlife in Grand Mesa National Forest

Visit Grand Mesa National Forest

Visitors and locals alike know that Grand Mesa is a must-see for anyone who enjoys wild Colorado. From fishing and hiking to cabin camping and horseback riding, this forest offers everything an outdoor enthusiast could ask for. Thinking of making your trip soon? Keep up with the USDA’s latest announcements on rules, regulations, restrictions, and events in the area by visiting their Alerts and Notices page. These alerts can have information pertaining to everything from where you can fly your drone (hint: they’re not allowed in designated wilderness areas) to road and weather conditions for individual sections and trails.  

You won’t be able to stop taking pictures of the spectacular things you’ll see and do at Grand Mesa. But don’t forget to live in the moment and enjoy the here and now that only nature provides. For more information on America’s national forests, visit The National Forests.com and click on “forests.”

 Have fun, stay safe, and leave no trace!

-by Heaven Morrow

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