From every vista, high or low, lakes peek from behind towering Englemann spruce, sub alpine fir, and Gambel oaks on the way up to the popular hiking trail of Crag Crest, in the Grand Mesa National Forest, Colo.
Farther up, the yellowing-aspen reflect their beauty in these 10,000-foot-high pools. These crystal clear lakes were formed 10 million years ago from the shifting and slumping lava cap that forms Grand Mesa, one of the world's largest flat-topped mountains.
The mesa top is composed of a thick, erosion-resistant magma formed by as many as 25 different lava flows. The soft, sedimentary rock under the lava cap couldn't support the weight of the dense hard rock, hence depressions formed and eventually filled with water making a landscape overflowing with lagoons.
Stream-Fed Lakes Abound
There are over 300 stream-fed lakes, ponds and wet areas atop Grand Mesa. Hiking the 10.3-mile loop trail making up Crag Crest National Recreation Trail No. 711 displays views of Forrest, Rockland, Butts, and Upper Eggleston Lakes.
The trail is steep at times with edges dropping off 500 feet in both directions. It was a pleasant climb with spectacular views in the cool, fall air with spots of latent snow dotting the northern cliff slopes. Although we began the climb in the smoky haze of a distant forest fire, we soon ascended above the fumes to clear skies, clear water, and a clear view of the Brook and Roan Cliffs, Battlement Mesa, the West Elk mountain range, and the San Juan Mountains.
Be Wary Of Altitude
Crag Crest is an "easy breathing" 11,189 feet in elevation only if you have acclimated to the altitude of this region -- otherwise beware of altitude sickness characterized by a sudden headache or nausea. Once at the top, hikers can enjoy the view of five of Colorado's Peaks that tower above 14,000 feet far off in the distant. Grand Mesa rises more than a mile above the converging valleys of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers.
It was mid-day, so the only wildlife our group saw was the occasional pine squirrel; but elk and deer are frequent visitors to these alpine lake areas. I'm sure a quieter group may catch a glimpse of a yellow-belly marmot or pika scurrying from rock to rock. Be careful not to catch your foot on low-growing Oregon grape if you stray off the trail. The east end of the trail is wetter than the west end. Lots of water means lots of mosquitoes, so bring a concentrated insect repellent if you hike in warmer weather. However, we weren't bothered by bites in mid-September.
This day hike will take you about four hours. Sturdy hiking boots are a must and poles a good idea. Pack a lunch and take plenty of water. Consider all-weather gear and wearing layers, as it gets cooler at higher elevations. Start early to avoid late afternoon rains with possible lightning strikes. Binoculars and a camera are not to be forgotten.
Making The Trip
Crag Crest Trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail on March 14, 1978. Since then it has received thousands of visitors seeking the scenic vistas and unique displays of geological history. To get to the East Trail Head near Eggleston Lake, from Delta, take Route 92 east to Route 65 north to Forest Road 121 (Trickle Park Road). Turn right and go 2.5 miles to where it splits; bear left and go 0.9 miles to the trailhead.
After your hike drive over to the Grand Mesa Visitor Center, north of Cedaredge on Route 65, the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, for some additional views of the area. Trail maps and additional information can be obtained by contacting the Grand Mesa National Forest, 2250 US Highway 50, Delta, CO 81416; or phone 970-874-6600. If you also ski, visit the area in the winter and try out Crag Crest National Recreation Ski Trail for similar views.
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