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Score mountain scenery a month after fall snow puts most high country out of reach. Simply hike off the edge of Grand Mesa to a secluded lake on this 22-mile, two-night loop. Time your trip for mid-October, and you’ll get a healthy side of fall colors with your helping of solitude and blown-open views.
From the Coal Creek trailhead at Carson Lake (1), follow winding singletrack under a canopy of 60-foot-high aspens to descend off the mesa’s lip. Gaps provide cross-valley vistas of the flat-topped mountain’s rippling shale-and-sandstone face. Stay straight at the Y-junction with Deep Creek Trail at mile 1.1. In .2 mile, fork right (2) to stay on the Coal Creek Trail as it jumps log-strewn streams, crosses boulderfields, and passes through meadows where ring-necked pheasants hide.
At a swath of pasture at mile 4.4 (3), look for red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and American kestrels swooping above; they inhabit the area throughout the fall. The game paths here can be confusing: Contour northwest to stay on the main trail. At mile 5.1, turn left to follow the Coal Creek Basin Trail down 4.5 miles and 2,800 feet into the scrub oak-covered basin. Water up at the bridge across Coal Creek (4); your campsite is dry. Switchback down a Tim Burtonesque burn area for the next mile. Go through the green gate (5) and hit the little-trafficked pavement for .2 mile to the Kannah Creek trailhead (6). Climb 200 feet in .4 mile (merging onto Spring Camp Trail) to your campsite at mile 9.7, featuring a makeshift stone fire pit and views of Coal Creek Basin (7).
On day two, hoof it up 2,100 feet in 3.4 miles on the Spring Camp Trail’s long switchbacks. Move from banked juniper-pinyon stands through brushy scrub oak as you gradually ascend, earning views of the Grand Valley’s peach orchards. Bear left at the Y-junction with Indian Point Cutoff Trail (8). In .6 mile, reach a three-way junction (9). Stay straight (east) for .9 mile to the turquoise waters of the scree-lined Blue Lake (10), a great cutthroat fishing spot with dispersed campsites a few hundred feet from shore. Next morning, hike a mile back to the junction, and turn right on Spring Camp Trail for a mostly flat 3.5 miles across cow pastures, aspen groves, and thick oak brush with hide-and-seek views of the northern mesa. At mile 19, merge onto the Kannah Creek Trail (11) for the final grueling push—three miles and 1,400 feet of gain to your car at Carson Lake.
Get there From Grand Junction, take I-70 east 12.3 miles to exit 49. Follow CO 65 S toward CO 300. Immediately merge onto CO 65 N/Grand Mesa Scenic Byway. In 29.7 miles, turn right on FR 100. In 1.3 miles, continue onto A Rd. for two miles, then turn left at Carson Lake Rd.
Gear up REI, 664 North Ave., Grand Junction, CO; (970) 254-8970; rei.com
Contact (970) 856-4153; fs.usda.gov/gmug
Season July through November.