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Grand Lake Is the Best Town to Base Your Rocky Mountain Adventure

Colorado Outdoor National Parks
by Eben Diskin Aug 14, 2020

There are two kinds of Rocky Mountain vacations. The first is a pillar of the Colorado lifestyle, where climbing a 14er, off-roading through the forest, and white-water rafting are baseline requirements. The second is a more laid-back experience where lakeside reading and eating ice cream with mountain views doesn’t feel like a wasted day. Grand Lake, Colorado, allows you to have either, or better yet a mix of both.

Grand Lake was settled in the mid-1800s by European hunting parties who built summer lodges there. First serving as a village for miners and hunting guides, prospectors flocked from all over the country to make Grand Lake their home when silver was discovered in the local rivers. Although the mines dried up and the silver rush abated, the town remained a popular fishing, boating, and hiking destination for over 100 years. A lot has changed since then, but the town’s rustic and relaxing Western vibe hasn’t. With easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park, the surrounding lakes, and excursions into the remote wilderness, Grand Lake is the perfect base for your remote Rocky Mountain adventure.

The Great Lakes of the West

Photo: Markel Echaburu Bilbao/Shutterstock

When you first arrive in Grand Lake, the first thing you should get acquainted with isn’t your neighbors or the hiking trails — it’s the altitude. At 8,369 feet, the elevation can hit your body pretty hard if you’re coming from sea level. Leave any serious hiking for few days into your trip after you’ve acclimated, and instead start out by getting on the water.

Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Granby Lake are like the Great Lakes of the Rockies. Despite its name, Grand Lake is the Lake Eerie of the bunch, the smallest body of water in the area — but since it abuts the town itself, it’s the most convenient option for a quick excursion. As you walk around town you’ll find yourself watching enviously as people sail, paddle board, and kayak on the water. With a quick visit to the Grand Lake Marina, you can be one of them. The marina rents pontoon boats, sport boats, kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards.

Lake Granby is the largest lake in the area, and it’s only a 10 minute-drive away. In addition to canoe and pontoon boat rentals, Beacon Landing Marina on the lake’s north bank also offers guided fishing charters. These private half-day angling adventures will take you on a relaxing cruise around the lake, while a seasoned guide instructs you in the finer points of hauling in a big lake trout.

Several secluded campgrounds sit on the shores of Lake Granby, perfect for setting up a base and taking advantage of the hiking trails. The Arapaho Bay and Sunset Point campgrounds, for example, provide easy access to the Strawberry Lake Trailhead. Much of the land around Granby Lake, including its islands, are protected wildlife areas, meaning you can’t just dock and go exploring wherever you want. The good news, however, is that from your boat you might spot antelope, bobcats, moose, deer, elk, and mountain lions wandering around their natural habitat. Grand Bay in particular — where the lake meets the Colorado River — is known for its abundance of moose and elk.

Explore Rocky Mountain National Park

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Maybe you got lucky and saw a moose in Grand Bay, but that’s only the beginning of wildlife-spotting opportunities that await in the Rocky Mountains. The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is under a five-minute drive from Grand Lake, and beyond the pearly gates are an eden of elk, moose, mountain goats, sheep — and yeah, some bears, wolves, and coyotes.

If a weekend of camping in the rugged Rocky Mountain wilderness is a keystone of your trip, there is no shortage of campgrounds scattered throughout the park with access to great hiking trails. To camp, you’ll need a Wilderness Permit and have to pay the $30 Wilderness Administrative Fee. Since the park is absolutely massive, at over 265,000 acres, there are dozens of campsites to choose from. The park website has handy maps of all the area’s campsites, as well as nearby trailheads and hiking routes, so you can pick the location that suits you best. More information on camping permits and reservations is available online.

Photo: Rexjaymes/Shutterstock

If camping’s not your thing, you could just enjoy the drive through the mountains. From Grand Lake it takes about an hour and a half to drive the Trail Ridge Road through the mountains to Estes Park — the entrance to the park on the opposite side of the mountains — and the drive will take you through some of Colorado’s most breathtaking scenery. Don’t be surprised if you see cars pulling over every few minutes to photograph elk or moose by the side of the road, or stopping at viewpoints to capture the sweeping mountain views. Just make sure your depth perception is up to snuff, because these winding roads often don’t have guardrails, and the drop-offs are pretty steep.

Entering the park currently requires advance reservations for two-hour entry windows. It costs $2 to make a reservation on, and permits are issued per vehicle ($25 for cars and $15 for bicycles). The reservation system is designed to spread out visitor numbers to prevent the park from getting overcrowded at peak hours. Reservations are not required after 5:00 PM — though you still have to pay the $25 entry fee — so a sunset drive through the mountains is an enticing option.

Get down and dirty on the Continental Divide

If you thought Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park was a nail biter, just wait until you take on the Corona Pass Road in Winter Park. Although typically known as a popular winter ski destination, Winter Park is also a springboard for summer and early-fall adventures, and at just under an hour’s drive from Grand Lake, it’s a perfect day trip. While experienced athletes can take on mountain biking on the steep terrain, novice adventurers can get their adrenaline fix on a UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) tour.

Grand Adventures offers group UTV tours up the Corona Pass Road over Rollins Pass, taking you to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation. The pass is a 15-mile route with incredible views of the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountains, and Fraser Valley, and it follows a historic railroad that operated over Rollins Pass in the early 1900s. Each group will drive their own four-seat UTV and follow a guide up the mountain, so nominate your most trustworthy friend and buckle up (though you all have a chance to take the wheel if you want to). Despite the ultra-fast, bumpy ride, the tour is suitable even for small kids or the elderly, so long as they’re game for getting super muddy.

The dense greenery gives way to winding dirt roads skirting the mountainside above the treeline, and at the very top, glacial packs of ice can be skied even in July. Keep your eyes open for moose and wildflowers by the roadside, and be prepared for some seriously deep mud puddles. One passenger in our UTV may or may not have lowered his goggles to film the views, and ended up with a face (and iPhone) full of mud. So if it wasn’t already obvious, don’t wear clothes you actually care about on this trip.

If you’re worried about not being accepted at any dining establishment afterwards, remember this is Colorado, where a little mud never hurt anybody. Hit up The Ditch on 40 in downtown Winter Park for New Mexico-style burritos, topped with your choice of red or green sauce — or Christmas-style, a mix of both.

Indulge in barbecue, beer, and way too much ice cream

Once you’ve had your fill of the surrounding nature, there’s not a huge amount to do in downtown Grand Lake, beyond strolling the boardwalks and perusing tourist gift shops and other clothing and art boutiques (though there is mini golf at the Meandering Moose, which is still fun no matter your age). What you will find is plenty of lively watering holes and restaurants, even with current social-distancing restrictions.

The scent of barbeque drifts down the street and mingles with the crisp mountain air, making it pretty easy to kick back with a beer and some pulled pork while looking across the lake. Sagebrush BBQ & Grill is a local favorite for its extensive barbeque and beer options; it also has the famous Rocky Mountain oysters if that’s on your Colorado bucket list. Another must-stop is One Love Rum Kitchen, which serves casual Caribbean fare and tropical-inspired cocktails. The World’s End Brewpub has lots of shareable plates, like flatbreads and Buffalo wings, and plenty of local taps.

If you’re trying to ease into the altitude, or simply don’t want to be hungover for the next day’s activities, skip the alcohol and indulge in the second-best vice on planet Earth: ice cream. There’s no data to back this up, but Grand Lake probably has more ice cream shops per capita than any town in the US. Between ice cream, frozen yogurt, gelato, fudge, candy apples, and milkshakes, you could hit a different dessert spot every day and still not try them all. You might gain 15 pounds, but science has incontrovertibly proven that vacation calories don’t count.

Where to stay in Grand Lake

Whether you get drunk on beer or ice cream, you’ll never be more than five minutes from home. There are several accommodations near downtown Grand Lake, as well as many Airbnb and VRBO listings for private cabins and condos. But for truly breathtaking views from your bedroom window check out the Grand Lake Lodge just a three-minute drive from town perched on a hill overlooking the lake. This stately lodge, which just celebrated its 100th birthday, is situated at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even if you can’t spring for a stay and choose to stay in more humble digs nearby, you really need to still come for a drink. A gin-spiked lavender lemonade makes for the perfect sundowner on the mountain-top patio, complete with cozy fire pits and unmatched views of the surrounding mountains and forest.

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