The mere mention of Grand Lake brings a smile to my face. We first discovered this charming little Colorado mountain town in the late ’90s. At that time, we were living in Colorado Springs and looking for an affordable place to take the children on a winter ski vacation. Plus, we wanted ski slopes that weren’t too challenging for beginner skiers.
What started out as a nice Colorado winter spot quickly turned into one of our favorite summer mountain towns. The fact that Grand Lake is also located near the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and sits along the shores of a picturesque mountain lake just adds to her overall appeal.
Continuing -Top 5 Favorite Colorado Mountain Towns
In no particular order, these are my top 5 favorite picks for must-see Colorado Mountain Towns … towns that I have returned to time and again because they’re just that lovely.
Discovering Grand Lake
While picking up my children from summer camp (1997), a staff member overheard that I was looking for a recommendation for a winter destination and mentioned we should look into Snow Mountain Ranch. Little did I know, Snow Mountain Ranch would quickly become our go-to place to spend Christmas and ring in the New Year.
Our adventures on the western side of Colorado’s Continental Divide were plenty. Over a ten year period, it was our family tradition to rent a cabin in the woods and savor the amazing views. As the week unfolded, the days were filled with outdoor activities; snow skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, tubing, snowshoeing. The evenings included games and storytelling near a toasty fire blazing in the cabin’s fireplace.
Snow Mountain Ranch is world renowned for its Nordic Center and groomed trails, but not for downhill skiing. For that, we would need to go to either Winter Park or Granby Ranch (previously known as Silver Creek and Sol Vista). Granby Ranch is the perfect place for beginners. Al and I would put the children in ski school while he and I lounged around the fireplace in the ski lodge exercising our arms by lifting mugs of hot chocolate. 😉
The outside deck offered a perfect vantage point for me to photograph and videotape the kids in ski school. As Al and I got more comfortable leaving the children in ski school, he and I would venture off (with the instructor’s knowledge of course) and explore the surrounding area. Those explorations always included lunch and shopping in the quaint little town of Grand Lake, about a 30-minute drive from the slopes. Strolling the wooden walkways connecting the rustic buildings made us feel like we had stepped back in time, a time when life was a little simpler and slower.
When the kids needed a break from skiing, we would rent a couple of snowmobiles near the town of Grand Lake and make a day of exploring the backcountry at 9,000 plus feet in elevation on some of the best groomed and scenic trails around. Views of the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountain National Park were breathtaking. We always wanted to return during the summer to rent ATV’s, but somehow life got in the way. Sure, we returned to Grand Lake many a time during summer excursions but we never seemed to have enough time to hit the trail in an ATV. Oh well, I guess that gives us reason to return … again.
Grand Lake is NOT a winter destination
We loved our winter excursions to the high country, but summer is even better. Although visiting Grand Lake during winter conditions is beautiful and fun, the town is much more of a summer and fall destination. It is, after all, the western gateway into Rocky Mountain National Park. Actually, during the winter, about half the businesses in the town of Grand Lake appear to be closed, especially the galleries and tourist shops. Yeah, I don’t think they sell a lot of ice cream during the winter. Plus, once the snow starts falling, access into the national park is closed off at the western end. Crossing the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter is not an option.
What makes Grand Lake so popular during the summer months is the easy access into Rocky Mountain National Park and the summer recreation available throughout Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. And let’s not forget about the beautiful lake itself; Grand Lake. (The town AND the lake share the same name. Hmm, that can get confusing.)
Grand Lake (the lake) is a popular draw for anglers and water enthusiasts. Personally, I can’t imagine engaging in any activity that would require me actually touching the water as the water temperature appears to always be COLD. I remember one time standing on a dock at the water’s edge and feeling a wave of coolness rise and sweep over me. It felt like I had opened my refrigerator’s freezer door and was greeted by a rush of cold air. Yep, that’s some cold water!
As the summer season winds down, leaf peepers and wildlife enthusiasts flock to the area. Actually, September is one of the most popular months to visit Grand Lake, Estes Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Can you believe this is also when the national park starts closing campgrounds … seriously? ☹
September is when the Elk are in rut, the boys are fighting and posturing for the ladies attention, and their bugling sound is easily recognizable. Spotting a herd of Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park during the rut season is not a problem. Fall is, in my opinion, one of the best months to visit the area.
As much as I love Elk, I’m a tad more drawn to Moose, and Grand Lake is the place to spot these fascinating animals. During one of our summer visits, I was on a quest to find and photograph a moose. I hear that it’s not uncommon to see a moose walking down Main Street early in the morning.
It wasn’t that easy for Al and me to find Bullwinkle. We had to spend a little time moose
hunting searching for me to get that photo-op. Hint: ask a local. The gal in the ice cream shop shared a few moose hang-outs with us.
After driving around for about an hour to the popular ‘moose hang-outs’, we were near the verge of giving up when Al spots the most gorgeous bull moose feeding in a small pond. Score! We pulled off to the side of the road and stayed a safe distance away knowing moose can be mean and deadly. Thank goodness for zoom lenses. He was such a treat to watch!
Between the amazing wildlife, the beautiful scenery, and the fond memories of our family adventures, it’s no wonder why Grand Lake, Colorado remains a favorite.
There are several private and national forest campgrounds in the area and of course plenty of little hotels. However, we’ve never personally overnighted in Grand Lake. We have stayed at the base of Granby Ranch mountain in a ski-in-ski-condo.
But our preference was renting a cabin at Snow Mountain Ranch which is about a 30-45 minute drive away from Grand Lake. The ranch also offers room style lodging and in the summer they have a campground.
While RVing, we quite often camped in the national park (close to the town of Estes Park) and then visited Grand Lake for the day. Camping and lodging options near Estes Park are plentiful considering its close proximity to Denver.
The drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake is not to be missed, but do note, the road does not open until the end of May and usually closes in October depending on snowfall.
How to get there?
There are three different routes to access the town of Grand Lake. All three routes are easily navigated with a regular vehicle but not so much with an RV.
Most scenic: From Denver, head west to the town of Estes Park, Colorado. From Estes Park, you’ll enter Rocky Mountain National Park. A leisurely drive through the national park via Trail Ridge Road is a memorable scenic drive with stunning views accompanied by wildlife sightings. I highly recommend this drive, but keep in mind, this road is not RV friendly. Depending on your personal comfort level with mountain driving will determine whether or not you should take your RV via this route. We’ve never driven this road with our RV in tow, nor do I think we ever will.
(This post is intended for entertainment purposes only and all road information should be researched and verified before driving. Road conditions change regularly.)
My recommendation: If you drive a motorhome and pull a toad, I recommend you not tow, but rather, drive each vehicle separately. If you’re pulling a trailer/5th wheel, go early (before 8:00 a.m.). The tight switchbacks on the western side of the Continental Divide on Trail Ridge Road will require swinging into the oncoming lane (depending on your length and direction of travel) to make a few hairpin turns. The majority of scenic pull-outs and parking lots will not accommodate most RV’s, especially during busy traffic periods.
Altitude and elevation need to also be taken into consideration. The 50-mile drive between Estes Park and Grand Lake will take you up and over the Continental Divide with elevations exceeding 12,000 feet. Plan at least 2 hours to drive the 50 miles (no services) and more if you plan on stopping at any of the numerous scenic pull-outs. Note; the combination of grade and altitude may be too challenging for older vehicles. Also, anyone with health issues should take the high elevation into consideration. I highly recommend talking to a ranger for more information before embarking on this drive.
RV route: Although longer, these roads will be a little easier to navigate with an RV. From Denver, take Interstate 70 west to the town of Silverthorne and then head north on Highway 9. Once you get to the town of Kremmling, take Highway 40 east to the town of Granby, then north on 34 to Grand Lake.
Winter route: This is the route we often took during our winter excursions driving our F150. From Interstate 70, we would head north on Highway 40 through Berthoud Pass heading toward Winter Park. Although fine for a regular vehicle, we would not personally pull the RV up this road. The grade is such that it would put a tremendous strain on the engine not to mention navigating all the switchbacks.
During winter conditions, beware of avalanches. One year we cut our vacation short knowing weather (i.e. snowstorm) was rolling in. The day after we drove Hwy 40 over Berthoud Pass there was an avalanche that crossed the road and damaged some vehicles. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, and we were very glad we didn’t experience this personally.
Next week, I’ll take you to another one of my favorite Colorado mountain towns.
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