Spencer Christensen is conflicted when he talks about Colorado's Grand Mesa.
"As a person who likes the Grand Mesa for personal reasons, I want it to be kept secret," he said. "But as a business owner who has the Grand Mesa Lodge, it's just the opposite. The more people who find out about it, the better."
The world's largest flat-top mountain, the landmark looming in view just about anywhere you go in western Colorado, is a "secret?"
It can indeed feel that way, said Melissa Newell. A scenic byway, the paved Colorado Hwy. 65, runs from enveloping canyons off Interstate 70 outside Grand Junction to the lesser-known portal of Cedaredge, Colo. This town of apple orchards is Newell's home.
The town is a "hidden gem," she said — not so unlike the mountain lining the sky above.
"It's definitely a hidden gem still," said Newell, who has avidly explored the Grand Mesa since moving to its base seven years ago. "People who've been around longer will say it's getting a little bit busier, but it's still pretty remote and takes quite a bit of effort to get here for a lot of people. So it still has that sweetness about it."
A land of lakes
Sweet like the fruit of the valley, one might say. Generations of farmers have thanked irrigation canals and other diversions that have delivered water from lakes spotting the mesa spanning some 500 square miles above 10,000 feet.
"This is truly a land of lakes," reads one U.S. Forest Service sign perched at one spectacular viewpoint, overlooking the San Juan and West Elk mountains above 14,000 feet, the Book Cliffs and, yes, waters like blue strokes of a paintbrush across the canvas.
The Forest Service counts more than 300 lakes across Grand Mesa National Forest. They have been credited to the mesa's unique, natural forces — not glaciation, as is the case for other alpine lakes. Rather, groundwater has filled compressions formed over millennia by the mesa's ever-shifting volcanic rock.
The benefit of the lakes reaches beyond growers — to driving, hiking and mountain biking sightseers and anglers like Christensen. His lodge is situated by the Grand Mesa's largest lake, Island Lake, teeming with rainbow and splake trout.
Along with the lakes, "there's all the little creeks that connect them," Christensen said. "You could literally fish up on the Grand Mesa every single weekend for 10 years and fish a different place every single time."
Just as varied are the opportunities on foot and bike. Most promoted is the Crag Crest Trail, a loop covering 10 miles, the lower part of which is open to bikes. The upper part straddles a thrilling ledge between steep dropoffs.
Another destination: Lands End Observatory, a lookout built by the Work Progress Administration in the 1930s. Aptly named, the building is perched by a cliff, overlooking the mingling land and sky. Utah's La Sal Mountains appear to float out in the distance.
When the desert below gets notoriously hot in the summer, the Grand Mesa's lakes and altitude offer a cool escape. In the fall, the colors are unrivaled across the region.
In the winter, the mesa packs snow more synonymous with other parts of Colorado.
"We tend to have earlier, better snow than a lot of other areas," said Newell, who helps lead the Grand Mesa Nordic Council. "You'll see a lot of Aspen and Vail ski teams coming up here around Thanksgiving when we have better snow than they have."
The Nordic Council grooms about 50 kilometers of trail between mid-November and mid-April. The Grand Mesa's wide-open terrain is ideal for snowmobiling, too.
Maybe you'll spot those training athletes on the trail network. The best part, otherwise, Newell said: "You can get out there and not see anyone for miles."
The mesa feels far removed from resorts up and down I-70, she said. But it's not without its own downhill retreat: a much smaller ski area called Powderhorn. With its establishment in the 1960s, founders picked a name to honor the Western heritage here; powderhorns were horns of an ox or cow used to store gunpowder.
The Grand Mesa was a classic backdrop of that old era. Tales are told of "fish wars" — of hired guns defending preferred waters — and of wars between cattle ranchers and sheepherders. Another tale regards an episode in the wake of the Meeker Massacre. Following the infamous uprising by Ute fighters confined to a reservation, it is said Nathan Meeker chased the band to the mesa to retrieve his captured wife and child.
There are other Ute tales. Of "thunderbirds" said to rule the sky above the Grand Mesa. Of ritualistic farewells to lost kin, giving the mountain another name: Thigunawat, roughly translating to Home of Departed Spirits.
It's a reflection that might come to one amid the mesa's prevailing silence. At Grand Mesa Lodge, Christensen regularly observes the surprise of visitors.
"Everybody's awestruck," he said. "They come up here and say this place is super magical."