Hal Amen straps on body armor and hops on a mountain bike lift.

[Note: My trip costs were covered by the Winter Park-Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce and Winter Park Resort. All opinions expressed are my own.]

THE RAIN WAITS till we exit I-70 towards Empire. Then it pounds.

Highway 40 switchbacks a few times up to Berthoud Pass, nothing too gnarly. Our Home James driver isn’t fazed. No doubt he drives this in winter.

We top out at 11,300 feet and start rolling down toward Winter Park. The rain flags immediately. It’s one of the things I love about this state — you’re better off learning the map in terms of passes and ranges and watersheds than highways and town lines. Each valley is its own, makes its own weather. I won’t see rain again for the rest of the trip.

The Fraser Valley’s a new one for me. I’ve been coming to Colorado since forever — I recently learned I was conceived here, actually (thanks for the info, Mom and Dad) — but I’ve never made it up to Grand County.

Looking over the edge of a switchback, I can see the Fraser River — or where I assume it is, a narrow depression covered in spruce and dead or dying lodgepole pine. (Grand was one of the first counties hit by the pine beetle. Folks here seem resigned to the loss — popular opinion says the beetle is on its way out, but that means the trees have all already died.)

Ten minutes from the top of the pass is Winter Park Resort. Its village (bars, gear shops, witty t-shirt emporiums) is new, built with money from Intrawest, which bought into Winter Park in 2002. I can’t help wondering what the vibe was like pre-development…. But good for them — it looks as nice as any other in Colorado resort-ville and is small enough to navigate easily on foot.

A condo suite in Fraser Crossing is my home base to check out what there is to do in summer in a town called Winter Park.

Photo: Author

Mountain biking

Winter Park is aggressively marketing itself as “Mountain Bike Capital USA™” — symbolic of the flashy trend of resort downhill biking that’s been evolving within the sport over the last several years. The claim is way open to debate, but they’re doing their best to back it up.

Currently, there are an advertised 600 trail miles in the Fraser Valley. Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park is opening huge amounts of new terrain and features each year. And for the last five years, they’ve hosted the American edition of Crankworx, a mountain biking competition with roots in Intrawest cousin Whistler, BC.

I got to catch some of the Slopestyle qualifiers and finals during my visit. Seeing Cam McCaul grab top ranking with a no-handed tuck front flip was sick (he’d broken his femur attempting the same trick last year). Also fun was just taking in the general mtb atmo — people sitting on restaurant patios in full body armor, cycling around the village with BOB baby trailers in tow.

Even better, I fit in a downhill lesson with Trestle lead instructor David Deveny. My previous mtb experience consisted of banging down a trail in Maine’s Bradbury Mountain State Park on a giveaway junker with busted suspension. This was much better. By the second run, Deveny’s coaching was getting me down black-diamond rock features and launching me off wedge jumps. Trip highlight.

Beginners should definitely look into the Trestle 101 package, which includes all equipment, lift ticket, and a 2.5-hour lesson for $79.

Down valley about 15 miles, family ski resort Sol Vista is also getting into the downhill market. They hosted the USA Cycling National Championships in ’09 and ’10 and this past weeked inaugurated a unique mass-start race event called the Suckerpunch.

Rafting

You’ve got two main options for whitewater, both requiring a bit of a drive.

Clear Creek, back over the pass and running along I-70 through Idaho Springs, has the wilder water, with multiple class IVs accessible on advanced trips.

Photo: gregor_y

The second is the Colorado, whose headwaters rise north of Grand Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Fraser feeds into it at Granby, and from there Highway 40 traces the Colorado west to Kremmling.

Immediately below Kremmling is the expert-only Upper Gore Canyon, and just beyond that is a mellower stretch (put-in at Pumphouse) that’s serviced by dozens of outfitters.

I went out with Adventures in Whitewater — they’re based in Winter Park and float both Clear Creek (half-day trips) and the Colorado (half and full days).

Gerri, our guide, had one of those enviable laughs — raspy and smokerly, but you could tell it came from some deep place of joy. River guides have it figured out.

Hiking

There are no 14ers in Grand County. “That’s a good thing,” our contact from the Chamber tells us. It means they don’t have to cater to the peak-bagger crowd.

Byers Peak (12,800ft) is probably the most popular climb in the area. So popular, actually, that the forest service has gated the road 1+ mile from the trailhead to discourage use. Get there from Fraser by taking 73 southwest to Forest Roads 160 and 111.

Devil’s Thumb is another that was recommended. From Fraser, take 8 and make a left when it hits Forest Road 128. After 7.8 miles, turn right for the trailhead in Devil’s Thumb Park. The trail leads to the Devil’s Thumb rock formation up on the Continental Divide (~4 miles one way).

The only hiking I did was on the Jim Creek trail, a relaxed 2.3-mile walk that ends with waterfalls and passes wildlife-trafficked wetlands and meadows. Fall foliage season would be the best time for this one — the slope opposite the trail is covered in aspen.

Photo: Author

Other activities

Horseback riding – Grand County is dude ranch country, and there are several options for riding within easy distance of Winter Park. I went with Fossil Ridge Horses on an hour-long trail ride that topped out at the summit of the defunct Idlewild Ski Area chairlift.

Fly fishing – The Colorado, the Fraser, and many of the creeks in the valley offer good fishing, both guided and independent. Check out Devil’s Thumb Ranch and Grand County Fly Fishing for more.

Alpine slide – Winter Park Resort has “Colorado’s longest alpine slide,” a winding cement chute with a 610-foot vertical drop, navigated on a rider-controlled free-rolling plastic slide. It’s serviced by the Arrow chairlift. Cost: $15.

Disc golf – Winter Park’s 20-hole course is also accessed via the Arrow lift ($15 ticket is good all day, unless you ride the lift down or hop on the alpine slide).

Accommodations

Resort – Your three slopeside options are the Zephyr Mountain Lodge, Fraser Crossing / Founders Pointe condos, and the Vintage Resort Hotel. A quick search for a family of four staying Aug. 17-24 turned up a studio w/ kitchenette at the Vintage for $98/night, eligible for a 20% off “summer special.”

Just across the highway is the Winter Park Mountain Lodge, which is cheaper still.

In town – Winter Park proper is five minutes down the road from the resort and has lodging options that can drop as low as $50-$60/night, including the Sundowner Motel (America’s Best Value Inn), Valley Hi Motel, and Olympia Lodge. Condos and B&Bs are also available.

Mountain homesRentable private residences are concentrated between Winter Park and Tabernash. Rates seem to hover around and above $150/night. Check the website or call an agent at 800.979.0332.

Camping – Arapaho National Forest’s Idlewild and St. Louis Creek campgrounds have good location. Idlewild is closest to the action, with 23 wooded sites just off Highway 40 between resort and town. St. Louis Creek is on the way to Byers Peak from Fraser and gives easy access to the singletrack system via Creekside Trail. Neither campground has flush toilets, and both run $16/site.

There are more developed private facilities up near Grand Lake, such as Winding River Resort ($30 for a tent site w/o hookups).

Photo: Hernando's

Eating/drinking

Hernando’s Pizza & Pasta – Best place I ate, and I think that’s a common opinion — get there early or call ahead. The walls and ceiling are decorated with creatively defaced dollar bills…good to stare at with a beer in hand while waiting for a table.

Randi’s – This Irish pub features a recently renovated bar room and outdoor fireplace patio, which hosts live music most summer Saturday nights.

Mountain Rose Café – A tiny joint serving big breakfast plates, right across from Randi’s. I sat down ~7am and there were already a half dozen Crankworx riders finishing up their morning carbo-load.

Seven Trails Grille – An upscale option at the Sol Vista base lodge. I dumbed it down with the Greek pizza and wasn’t sorry.

Cheeky Monk – Stand-alone pub right outside the Zephyr Mountain Lodge with a selection of Belgian beers on tap, plus a few local microbrews. If Ry is working the bar, tell her a couple dirty jokes and she’ll be your best friend.

Grand Lake Brewing – I tried their Stumpjumper IPA at Seven Trails and wasn’t overly impressed, but I’d like to visit the brewery next time I’m around.