It was midsummer when we found ourselves at the Grand Mesa visitor's center talking to the friendly gentleman behind the counter. "Seventy-degree highs, crisp blue skies and golden aspens ... September is a beautiful time to visit Grand Mesa," he assured us. "It may get a little cool at night, but in the daytime, the fall weather is perfect."
We were scouting a location for our upcoming EarthRoamer owner's rally, and Grand Mesa was our location of choice. Grand Mesa-the world's largest flat-top mountain-is located on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Unlike much of the surrounding terrain-desert and red rock reminiscent of eastern Utah-Grand Mesa is an oasis in the sky. Imagine transplanting a 50-square-mile area of Minnesota to a 10,000-foot plateau in Colorado, and you'll have a pretty good image of Grand Mesa. Hundreds of lakes and an abundant network of four-wheel-drive forest service roads provide an incredible lure for adventurers.
Fast forward three months to September, two days before the EarthRoamer rally, and we're focused on a weather forecast for Grand Mesa. Over the past week, the weather has deteriorated daily, and now a large storm from the Northwest is threatening snow and cold temperatures. We aren't too concerned about EarthRoamer owners, but our employees will be tent-camping and many have never winter-camped. EarthRoamer was founded on adventure, and after adding a huge party tent and tent heaters to our gear list, we decide to stick to our original plan to set up camp on the western end of Grand Mesa, at the upper end of Land's End Road.
The fall colors were in full splendor as we drove through Vail and the spectacular Glenwood Canyon on the beautiful four-hour drive from our headquarters in Broomfield, Colorado, to the beginning of Land's End Road, which gains about a mile in elevation over its 10 miles of snaking switchbacks and is nothing less than exhilarating. The base of the drive began with blue skies, freshly snow-covered trees and a muddy road, but it was clear that we were about to enter another world. As we gained elevation, the sky becomes more ominous and foreboding and there was significant snowfall near the top of the mesa.
At the top of the Mesa, we were greeted by 6 to 8 inches of fresh snow. We proceeded a short distance to our campsite location to check on road conditions. On our summer scouting run, the road was deeply rutted and rocky but dry and solid. Now it was a sloppy, snow-covered mud bog with snow-obscured rocks and deep holes-but easily passable in our EarthRoamer XV-LTs.
We established camp areas for EarthRoamer owners and employees just as the Rally attendees begin to arrive. EarthRoamer owners and employees alike were grinning from ear to ear as they bounced through the half mile of muck that led to camp. Throughout the afternoon and early evening, attendees continue to trickle in, camp is established, and food preparation began for our first night's camp dinner.
Weather conditions were changing by the minute, with visibility ranging from a couple of hundred feet at its worst to spectacular views all the way west to Utah at its best. We drove to the visitor's center to check on upcoming weather conditions, and we discovered that we were facing the prospect of 12 to 18 inches of fresh snow with poor visibility. The lady at the visitors' center seemed a little surprised that anyone would have plans of camping on the Mesa at this time of year with an approaching winter storm.
Heading back to camp, we ultimately decided to stick with our first night's plan to camp near Land's End Road and reevaluate our situation in the morning from our new camp at Bogan Flats at a significantly lower 7,500-foot elevation. If visibility and road conditions permitted, we would travel our originally planned route of Forest Service roads through Grand Mesa and Gunnison National Forests. Our backup plan, if visibility and road conditions were too bad, was to drop down off of Grand Mesa via a southern route and proceed to Bogan Flats.
After guiding the few remaining EarthRoamer XV-LTs to their campsites, everyone gathered in the relative warmth of the mess tent as we all enjoyed a late evening of delicious food and spirited story telling. As the EarthRoamer owners eagerly retired to the luxurious warmth of their heated XV-LT's, EarthRoamer employees reluctantly left the mess tent for a frigid night of winter tent camping.
True to the forecast, we awoke the next morning to blowing snow and an additional accumulation of 3 to 4 inches. As we broke camp, the wind and snowfall intensified. We weren't too concerned about the snow accumulation, but with temperatures fluctuating near freezing, we feared icy road conditions. Add in low visibility due to fog and blowing snow, along with snow-covered trackless roads, and we were facing whiteout conditions. Clearly (pun intended) it was time to get off the Mesa.
After a quick driver's meeting to announce our plans, we began the caravan out of the snow-covered bog back to the main road. One by one, EarthRoamer XV-LTs bounced and ground their way through the bog in low-range, back to the main road. After the last vehicle cleared the bog, the caravan regrouped and began the trip to the visitors' center in near white-out conditions.
After a quick stop at the now closed visitor center for a group photograph, the caravan proceeded along Route 65 to better weather at lower elevations. As we dropped off of the Mesa, the weather cleared, revealing spectacular golden aspens. Snow turned to rain, and began washing away the mud collected from the Mesa. Shifting out of four-wheel drive, we enjoyed a breathtaking display of fall-colored foliage dusted with powder. It was warmer here and the wind was minimal, due to the protection of the closely surrounding mountains, but there is still snow on the ground. After another savory dinner featuring rib-eye steaks, laughter and conversation were heard late into the evening as the campers wound down after an exciting day of adventure.
The next two days were spent with four-wheel-drive training, exploring the local scenery and 4x4 trails, and a class on proper winching and recovery techniques. After class, we headed out to explore the town of Marble, Beaver Lake just east of Marble, and Lost Trail Road, a 4x4 road that leads to Lead King Basin.
This entire area of Colorado is a four-wheeler's paradise, with an extensive network of forest service roads and old mining trails that could easily take a lifetime to explore. Spectacular 14,000-foot peaks tower over the area, and iconic Colorado scenes like the Maroon Bells and Crystal Mill are within a few miles. These trails are best explored in late summer after the winter snowmelt. After winters with a particularly large snowfall, the roads are sometimes impassible through the entire summer, so with recent snowfall, we knew we wouldn't make it too far, even in low-range-and sure enough, we hit a particularly muddy section and our left rear wheel sank into a deep mud hole. The rear limited-slip wasn't enough to keep the tire from spinning, so we tried Reverse-no luck. With helpful assistance from a couple of guys cutting firewood, we quickly had the 16.5 Warn winch rigged and ready to pull out the stuck EarthRoamer when a guy in a small pickup coming down the trail decided to try to pass us. Two more minutes and we would have been out of his way. As he tried to make his way around us, he smacked his topper into the side of our rig. We completed the recovery-and the guy didn't even stop to assess the damage. Fortunately, the damage was limited to scratches in the paint on the window frame, and there was no body damage.
It was late afternoon, so we decided to make our way back to camp. After one final feast and an evening of tall tales around the campfire, we called it a wrap on another successful EarthRoamer Owner's Rally.