As I left Grand Junction, I didn’t have to go far to find a nice, scenic highway. Just a few miles after plunging through the western front of the Rocky Mountains, I came upon the Grand Mesa Byway (CO Rte. 65). This scenic road cuts through a canyon, climbs through a wide valley, then passes some alpine lakes, which are scattered around highway’s highest points (around 10,000 feet/3,050 meters).
After splitting away from Interstate 70 at exit 49, the Grand Mesa Byway begins its climb to the high elevations. First, it passes through Plateau Creek Canyon, twisting alongside the creek as it squeezes between some beautiful cliffs.
The road emerges from the canyon after about ten miles of twisting and turning. Suddenly, I was in a wide, gently sloping valley, known as Plateau Valley. The community of Mesa is here, but it goes by quickly as the road heads south.
As you drive down Route 65, the road gains a lot of elevation — nearly a half vertical mile — but I barely realized it, because I wasn’t going around hairpin turns. After a while, though, I looked back, and realized that with barely a curve, I had ascended to the top of the valley. The view to the north is fantastic.
There are a few good chances to take in this panorama, before the highway gets more curvy and more dramatic.
I knew I was getting up to a high elevation, when snow started appearing by the side of the road. It was early June, and the road itself was clear, but it was obvious that only a few weeks earlier, it was probably closed.
After skirting the edge of the mountain on a narrow shelf…
… there are more good turnouts with panoramic views. Once the climb is behind you…
… you’re treated to the first of two clusters of alpine lakes, located right beside the road.
Just beyond the first few lakes, Grand Mesa Byway reaches its high point, 10,839 feet (3,303 meters). From here, the road drops below the Grand Mesa Rim…
… and you come upon the next group of lakes — the Land O’ Lakes area. Island Lake is certainly one of the most beautiful, and I got a great view of this still-icy pond from the side of Highway 65.
From here, the road swings around the end of Island Lake, and travels up the other side. Not far away is the Grand Mesa Visitor Center…
… and directly across from it, Cobbett Lake, which was also still partially frozen during my early June visit.
I couldn’t visit the Visitor Center, because it was under reconstruction. But I was able to drive up the dirt road that’s next to the visitor center, to…
… Deep Ward Lake. This reservoir isn’t especially beautiful, but it was obviously popular with fishermen. If I had continued out the dirt road, I would have passed by a half-dozen lakes and reservoirs. Instead, I decided to get back on the main road, and continue south.
What goes up must come down, and the Grand Mesa Byway is no exception. After passing the lakes, the road descends, providing some more great overlooks along the way. Civilization isn’t far away: the town of Cedaredge is at the bottom of the hill.
Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive from Grand Junction into Grand Mesa: