Crag Crest

Date: June 30, 2010
Round Trip Distance: 7 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 10,435 - 11,216 feet
Cellphone: 0-4 bars
Usage: Hiking - Biking - Equestrian - Dogs
Start: 07:45 End: 11:30 Elapsed: 3 hrs. 45 mins.
Facilities: Vault toilet
Trailhead: Crag Crest West Trailhead
Fee: none

The Crag Crest Trail is a designated National Recreation Trail located high atop the Grand Mesa in the Grand Mesa National Forest. The trail runs along an east/west ridge that reaches elevations above 11,000 feet. On a clear day you can see for over a hundred miles from Crag Crest. The trail can be hiked in a loop by beginning at either the Crag Crest East or Crag Crest West trailheads and then returning via the Lower Loop. Today we began at the west trailhead and hiked 3.5 miles over the ridge summit and then returned the same way. You could do the same and create a hike of any length you like. We saw several people that were backpacking in to camp and fish at one of the many lakes.

This sign is posted at the beginning of the trail at the West trailhead. I wanted to point out that all of the distances are one-way. If you are going to hike the entire loop then you will be hiking about 10.5 miles.

We set out on the trail on a nice bright morning after the sun had been up for about an hour or so. We had spent the night at a cabin across the highway at Grand Mesa Lodge. If you have never rented one of these cabins I highly recommend it. They are complete with a fully stocked kitchen, including microwave, fridge, stove and pots and pans, and have indoor plumbing and electricity. Quite the treat when you need a break from roughing it.

The trail starts out heading east, as you can see from the sun's glare on the pictures, and is very gentle and pleasant to hike. After about a half mile we came to the fork of the Lower Loop. We took the fork to the left. The Lower Loop trail goes to the East trailhead by Eggleston Lake.

The trail begins to climb more abruptly as it approaches Wolverine Lake. There are several sets of switchbacks as the trail ascends the lava slope of the ridge. Most of the trail is very solid but there are a few short spans that require a little more care when choosing your footing.

After about a half mile of climbing the trail levels off again. I'm always amazed at all the work that is put in to build some of these trails and the Crag Crest Trail is no exception. After all of the work put into getting up the lava slope there is a dike, of sorts, that helps to keep the trail high and dry as it passes through some marshy forested sections. This was some very pleasant hiking with marsh marigolds springing up on both sides of the path.

After hiking for about 1.5 miles we were at the junction of the Cottonwood Trail. The Cottonwood Trail leads from this point over to Cottonwood Lake No. 1 and to all points beyond. At Cottonwood No. 1 it is joined by the Lake of the Woods Trail. We continued on the right fork along the Crag Crest Trail.

The trail began climbing at a moderate pace, through stands of Englemann Spruce, until we reached the ridge. The views from the ridge, which drops off as much as 400-500 feet on both sides, are spectacular.

At times the trail travels along the crest of the ridge and at other places it traverses around some of the more gnarly points. The trail reminds me of many of the lower parts of some 14,000 foot Colorado peaks that I have climbed. The exposure to falling is very limited along the ridge if you don't venture off the well worn trail. It's not the kind of place that you would want to be caught in a thunderstorm though.

We continued along the crest of the ridge until we had hiked 3.5 miles and then we turned around and headed back. I think we were both wishing we hadn't promised to be back to the cabin by noon so that we could have completed the loop.

This picture was taken looking towards the west on the way back down the trail. I believe the closest body of water in the photo is Forrest Lake with Hotel Twin Lake just beyond.

This was a relatively short hike compared to some of our adventures but the altitude adds just enough stress that I lean toward rating the trail 'Strenuous'. I only went through 100 ounces of water and 20 ounces of Gatorade. It's a good idea to keep well hydrated and to have plenty of high carbohydrate type snacks when hiking at altitude. For that reason I was packing all energy bars and bagels. We sprayed on a coat of Off before we began the hike and it took care of the mosquitoes without exception. I think the higher we ascended the fewer mosquitoes there were but regardless we never had a problem even in the areas where they were thick.

The Crag Crest trail is without a doubt the best alpine hike on the Grand Mesa and quite the contrast to the dessert hikes in the valleys to the west. It is great to have a cooler place to go to escape the heat this time of year. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.