Byway #5 – Exploring Colorado’s 25 Scenic and Historic Byways: A two-year tour by sport bike, auto and 4×4 – Grand Mesa Scenic Byway


The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway

The ride out

An intrepid group of five sport bike riders set out on this Grand Mesa Byway journey early on a Friday morning. Little did they know that this journey held a bit more than they had bargained for in more ways than you might think.

I was really looking forward to this byway ride, because it was the first byway tour I would take by sport bike. This time around, I decided to ask if any of my riding buddies wanted to join me. I typically ride with a lot of different sized groups closer to home. Many riders though, don’t like the extended rides that take all day – more than 6 hours. There are some of us though, who love the extended rides that begin in the early morning and go until the sun sets. We don’t do them often…maybe twice a month, but we do enjoy these kinds of rides.

I met up with the group early for coffee and a bite to eat. The weather in the Denver area had been a tad off-balance for a few days, ie. rainy, cloudy, windy, etc. This day was no different with broken clouds and sun, and a slight breeze. From Denver, we would head straight west into the mountains. But, this morning, there was a shroud of gray clouds hanging low over the highway that would take us to the byway. Like I said though, this was an intrepid group of riders.

My riding buddies ride various types of sport bikes, from sport touring to standard sport. These bikes were a Honda VFR, Kawasaki Concours, Triumph Street Triple, Ducati Multistrada and my Kawasaki Z750. The group…

The Grand Mesa Byway is about 250 miles from where we started our ride, so to get out to the Mesa and take time to enjoy the scenery; I decided to take the highway all the way to the beginning of the byway. The highway is I-70 and isn’t so bad in this part of Colorado, because it goes through the Colorado Rockies, which is incredibly gorgeous (of course, I’m biased). By the time we reached Georgetown, the clouds disappeared in our mirrors and the sun began warming all of us.

On long rides, we take rest breaks every now and then. Typically, those breaks coincide with a fuel up, but this particular stop at the Copper Mountain turn-off, was a pit stop. I took advantage of the break and shot a few photos. The views here are not from the Grand Mesa Byway….we still had about 170 miles to go.

Tenmile Creek passing by the Copper Mountain ski area.

Our next stop in Glenwood Springs was for fuel. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my bike and have been riding it for five years now. It has a little more than 39,000 miles on it now though, and it is beginning to show its age. When I pulled up to the fuel pump, I could not remove my key from the ignition and I needed it to open my gas tank. Luckily, it was Friday and the gas station we stopped at also has a shop, so I went inside to see if they had some WD-40 which I figured would help loosen up the tumblers in the ignition. They gave me a can of some sort of spray, which worked and the Zed was filled and ready to go for another 160 miles.

We were back on the road again headed west. Now, let me explain the Colorado geography for a moment. Colorado is famous for its Rocky Mountains, but the landscape also includes high plains, and semi-arid desert and canyons. And much of that semi-arid desert canyon area is on the west side of the state, which we were headed into. As we rode, we came up on another thing we hadn’t really bargained for…wind. Now, we knew about the wind prediction for the day, but this particular wind had brought the haze from the fires in the Southwest up into Colorado and so the skyline had changed from the crisp blue of the Copper Mountain area, to a whitish-gray haze. The haze wasn’t so bad, but it was the wind that was bit of a struggle, considering we were riding sport bikes with gross weights ranging from 450 pounds to 650 pounds. After struggling for about 70 miles, we finally reached the Grand Mesa Byway turn-off at the highway 65 junction.

The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway

I was so happy to finally have made the byway at this point that I had to stop and take a few photos.

This is the part of Colorado where you can find many different types of canyons. When you enter the byway from I-70, you drive/ride immediately into a twisting, winding canyon of white sandstone, flanked by Plateau Creek. This twisty road goes on for about 10 miles before exiting it and then coming upon the town of Mesa. This town is quite small, but boasts two restaurants and a hotel. The restaurant we stopped for lunch at was the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and Motel. It figures, huh? Can’t visit Colorado without getting a taste of the old west.

The restaurant cooks up a tasty lunch. I ended up having the special…turkey, bacon swiss on Rye with avocado. The other orders included, a roast beef w/au jus, prime rib sandwich, an all American burger, and a plate of spaghetti.

Grand Mesa Observatory

The Grand Mesa is named that because it is the largest flat top mountain in the world. It spans miles and miles across and at its highest point is around 11,000 feet. At the lower elevations, you begin in the high desert with sage brush, conifer and pinion pine. As the mesa rises, aspen groves sprawl across the lower slopes until you climb to the higher elevations where you finally feel like you are in the mountains again and in the sub-alpine forest. At the top of the mesa are dozens of lakes and streams, as well as steep cliff drop-offs all around the mesa. The area is very well-known for its recreation including fishing in the summer and snowmobiling in the winter.

After doing my research, I knew exactly what I wanted to see at the top of the mesa…I wanted to see Lands End Observatory. With a name like that, you can imagine what kind of sight I was in for. And except for the thick haze, I was not disappointed.

The road to get to the observatory is a gravel road and is very well marked from the byway. I would not suggest taking a motorcycle on this road, unless you have gravel time in the seat. This particular gravel road made my wheels a bit more squirrely than I had experienced before. I did not let that deter me though, because I was on a mission. After about 5 miles on this road, I came upon the Raber Cow Camp. And about a half mile from the Cow Camp, the road becomes paved all the way out to the Observatory (minus about 100 feet of gravel in between). Along various points of this drive, the road comes within feet of the mesa’s rim, which stands at 10,000 feet. The views are spectacular…I can only imagine what they look like when there is no haze.

Looking back after climbing the road from Mesa you see the contrast in the landscape.
Yes, that is snow along the rim of Grand Mesa.
This is the historic Raber Cow Camp with upper and lower cabins.

The east side of Lands End Observatory looking south.

Something I had not mentioned here was the fact that my riding buddies stayed behind at the gravel road turn-off. One of them needed to fuel up, so he stayed on the byway to its end in Cedaredge, while the rest of the group waited (very patiently) for me at the turn-off.

On my way back from the observatory, I noticed a truck parked on the opposite side of the road ahead of me and two people walking with their dogs down a gently sloping hill to the rim’s edge. As I watched, I also noticed what I thought was smoke from a fire being blown up the side of the mesa. I immediately pulled over and took out my camera and followed the couple to the rim’s edge. As I walked, I realized it wasn’t smoke I was looking at, but rather, mist from a waterfall. At this point, I wish I could describe exactly what I was seeing and even the photos don’t do the sight any justice…with that said, here goes…

As I walked back to my bike, the couple’s dogs followed me. They were cattle dogs, so I figured the couple to be ranchers. One dog’s name was Dudley and the other was Sadie (I believe). The husband stopped before getting into his truck to tell me about another waterfall further past the observatory (in the opposite direction and I really needed to get back to my group). When he told me about the waterfall, he also mentioned how beautiful it was and that it was part of him and his wife’s first date. I truly wish I had it in me to have asked his permission to take a picture of him and his wife. They were truly the epitome of Colorado high desert ranchers. Words do not describe this couple’s attitude, demeanor, nor their looks; both of them with bright blue eyes, wide smiles and a look of complete reverence for the land.

The smile on my face all the way back on this gravel road was completely un-erasable.

I could not find the water fall in my Internet searches, accept for this – Coal Creek Falls, but I’m not sure this is the correct name.

Going Home

I met up with my riding buddies and we continued down the byway to Cedaredge. There, we too, fueled our bikes and chatted for a bit before saddling up to begin our journey back home.  As the guys were standing by their bikes, someone noticed that one of the bike’s tires was flat. And unfortunately even though he had a tire repair kit, the tire plug was not working the way it needed to work. So, he made a phone call to a motor sports shop in Delta (about 15 miles away) to ask for help – a repair kit, or tire and a pick-up.

We sadly waved good-bye to our friend and finally headed homeward over McClure Pass (part of another planned byway tour), into Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and through Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnel to Denver.

All told, I logged 595 round-trip miles and 13 hours on my motorcycle.

The round trip directions from Denver:

  • Denver west on I-70 to the Hwy65 junction.
    • Hwy65 is the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway
  • 63 miles south on Hwy65 to Cedaredge
  • South on Hwy63 to the Hwy92 junction and then east
  • Hwy92 east to the Hwy133 junction and then northeast
  • Northeast to Carbondale and the Hwy82 junction
  • North on Hwy82 to Glenwood Springs
  • East from Glenwood Springs on I-70 to Denver

Teaser

A little taste of what the scenery is like on the West Elk Loop Byway

Hwy133 to Carbondale. The sign for Hays Creek Falls is very small and in the left of this photo. The falls are barely noticeable from the road.

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