Colorado’s Grand Mesa, also known as “The World’s Largest Flat Top Mountain,” has plenty of slope to challenge and excite even the most experienced backcountry skier

The Grand Mesa may indeed be the world’s largest flat-top mountain but there’s another side to it. Plenty of them, in fact. The slopesides of the mountain are rife with opportunity for all levels of backcountry skier, often on untouched snow. Even better, the distinctive terrain of the Grand Mesa provides an authentic feel to the experience!

Grand Mesa View
One of the many splendid views that one will experience on the Grand Mesa. Lyle Wilkens

Known locally as “the Mesa,” the 500-square mile range stands more than 10,000 feet in the Grand Mesa National Forest. Despite the expanse, skiers familiar with its slopes frequently opt for nearby opportunities to backcountry ski. One of the more popular day trips is known as Old Powderhorn, which is easily accessible from the parking lot located a few miles west of the Powderhorn Ski Resort. You will likely see families of sledders on the small hill at the bottom of Old Powderhorn, a scene that is dog friendly. 

The advantage of skiing the backcountry on the Mesa is that there are fewer people than found at the resort. More importantly, skiing the backcountry possesses a certain perspective that resorts lack. The requirement to hike uphill before heading back down creates an “earn your turns” mentality. The ascent may be difficult, but the descent is an incredible reward. 

Getting Started

To get started, beginners can opt to skin up the ski resort Powderhorn. It’s a great place to hone skills and get in shape before heading to Old Powderhorn for the real deal. Powderhorn’s slopes range from moderate to steep. But take heart, the runs at the small resort do not take long to climb. The majority of the Mesa has relatively low avalanche danger due to the low angle of the terrain. Most hikes are fairly short (around an hour) with the option of extending it with exploration of the flattops. The options are endless; however, the Mesa’s established and well-known locations like Old Powderhorn are limited. West of the resort, the slopes are more prone to avalanches, but Old Powderhorn tends to be safer.

John Tabor prepares for the most action-packed portion of the activity, following an hour-and-a -alf uphill hiking from the car. “Ripping the skins” and storing them away in his pack, Tabor is ready to reap the rewards of the climb. Lyle Wilkens

The more experienced backcountry skiers can beeline to Old Powderhorn. It is located a couple miles up the road from the resort on Highway 65. There is also some touring west of the resort, accessible from the resort itself. For Old Powderhorn, park in the lot that has an outhouse. You will see it a few miles past the well-signed turn for Powderhorn Resort. 

Typically, the early morning is the best time to hit the slopes. However, it is not uncommon for most north-facing slopes to be skiable throughout the day. Skiing in the early season offers fresh, untouched routes, though potentially low coverage and all the potential dangers that that entails. Mid- to late season features the best snow. The best time of year is in March (and sometimes even April) when the storm spring cycles bring fresh powder to the mountain. 

Rental Equipment

Grand Junction is located 40 miles from Old Powderhorn. If you need rental gear, options include Summit Canyon Mountaineering on Main Street for skis, boots, and poles. It also has a couple split boards to rent. Colorado Mesa University’s Outdoor Program has telemark backcountry rentals. 

backcountry skiing
After a mid-season storm cycle, Palisade local John Tabor enjoys the best benefit of backcountry skiing on the Grand Mesa: fresh powder!Lyle Wilkens