Things to Do in Grand Lake, CO

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.

Main Street in Grand Lake, Colorado

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.

favorite Colorado mountain towns and why you should visit, #VisitColorado, #ColoradoLoveOur 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.

Grand Lake, Colorado
My daughter during one of our fall excursions.

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!

Grand Lake, Colorado, wildflowers along the shores of a mountain lake, #picturesqueColorado, #mountainLakes
The town of Grand Lake sits at the shores of Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest and deepest natural lake.

Wildlife!

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.

Rocky Mountains

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.

Lodging

Winter Park lodging, Alpine slide Colorado, #alpineslide, #winterparkfun
One summer, my daughter and I stayed in a condo in Winter Park. We loved riding the Alpine Slide!

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.

Rocky Mountain National Park road, how to get to, Colorado scenic road, #sightseeing in Colorado

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.

trail ridge road Colorado, Roads above treeline, Rocky Mountain National Park, #can I drive an RV, #coloradoroads
A small section of Trail Ridge Road near 12,000 feet in elevation. This photo was taken a few years ago in late August and early in the day before tourist traffic picked up.

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.

making family memories in Colorado, family destinations in Colorado, family-friendly ski towns, #loveColorado, #familymemories, #familyinColorado
Any time of year is a great time to visit Colorado’s high country for making family memories – me, my daughter, husband, and son.

For those of us that spend our time exploring mountain states with big rigs, I highly recommend picking up the Mountain Directory for Truckers. This is not an affiliate link, but a product I’m glad we own. It has saved us from driving on roads, that due to our size, we shouldn’t. At the very least, it helped prepare us for the grade and width of a given road.

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Grand but quaint

Let’s continue the journey on my “top 5 favorite Colorado mountain towns”.hummingbirdColorado mountain townsToward the top of my favorites list is Grand Lake, Colorado.  We first discovered this charming little mountain town in the winter of 1997.  We were looking for an affordable place to take the kids on a winter ski vacation.

Now keep in mind, Al and I were bona fide flatlanders at the time with absolutely no interested in schussing down a mountain slope, but since the kids were young and would be growing up in Colorado, we felt it was important to expose them to the popular Colorado sport of snow skiing.  After all, what Coloradoan doesn’t know how to snow ski?  Moi !

Grand Lake Colorado
the town of Grand Lake sits at the shores of Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest and deepest natural lake

The slopes at Granby Ranch (previously known as: Silver Creek or Sol Vista) were highly recommended to us as a great place for beginners, and it turned out to be the perfect venue for the kids to take up the sport of snow skiing.  Al and I would put the children in ski school while he and I lounged around a roaring fire in the ski lodge exercising our arms by lifting mugs of hot chocolate to our lips.

The outside deck offered a perfect vantage point for me to photograph and video tape 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 instructors knowledge of course) and explore the surrounding area.  Those explorations included lunch and shopping in the town of Grand Lake, about a 30 to 45 minute drive from the ski slopes.

snowmobiling in Colorado
snowmobiling the back country near Grand Lake, CO. Rocky Mtn National Park and the Continental Divide can be seen in the background. The Kamikaze duo of Al and Ashton on the left. The conservatives Logan and me (behind camera) on the right.

When the kids needed a break from the slopes, we’d rent a couple of snowmobiles in Grand Lake and make a day of exploring the back country at 9,000 plus feet in elevation.  Our preferred place for lodging for these winter excursions was at Snow Mountain Ranch, a fifteen minute drive south of the town of Granby.

YMCA of the Rockies
We rent a rustic cabin in the woods for Christmas celebration. Snow Mountain Ranch, Colorado

Over the next ten years, this part of Colorado was where we would spend Christmas and ring in the New Year.  It became our family of four tradition and we had a blast snow skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, tubing, and snowshoeing.  The majority of the time, we would rent a rustic cabin at Snow Mountain Ranch, a great place for family fun – winter or summer.  There’s so many activities available at Snow Mountain Ranch as well as multiple lodging options, including a camping (summer only).

scenic towns in Colorado
Grand Lake is loaded with quaint shops, unique art galleries, and fun restaurants.

The town of Grand Lake is actually more of a summer tourist destination, and you’ll find several shops closed during the winter months.  Although snowmobiling is a very popular sport here, offering some of the best groomed back country trails in Colorado, the ski slopes are pretty far away, thus it’s not considered a ski destination.

Grand Lake, Colorado
Grand Lake is the western gateway into Rocky Mountain National Park

What makes Grand Lake so popular during the summer months is the access into Rocky Mountain National Park.  Grand Lake borders Rocky Mountain National Park on its western edge.  Folks from around the world visit this beautiful part of America.

Grand Lake, Colorado
this photo of Al and Bear was taken in Sept. of 2008 at the lovely park along Grand Lake

The lake itself is also a popular draw for anglers and water enthusiasts.  Personally, I can’t imagine engaging in any activity that would require actually touching the water as the water temperature appears to always be COLD.Grand Lake, Colorado

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 freezer door and was greeted by a rush of cold air.  Yep, that’s some cold water!Rocky MountainsAnother popular draw to the area is the wildlife.  The moose population over the past twenty years has grown substantially in this part of Colorado.  It’s not uncommon for a moose to walk down Grand Lakes’ main street early in the morning and Elk are easily spotted roaming throughout the National Park.Rocky Mountains

PikaThere’s several campgrounds in the area as well as plenty of other lodging options. However, we’ve never personally overnighted in Grand Lake, thus can’t speak from experience.

There’s three different routes to access the town of Grand Lake….

During the summer, a leisurely drive through Rocky Mountain National Park via Trail Ridge Road from the town of Estes Park to the town of Grand Lake 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.

The route we often took during our winter excursions:  From Interstate 70, we would head north on Highway 40 through Berthoud Pass heading toward Winter Park.  Although fine for a regular vehicle, there’s no way Al would pull the RV UP this road.  The grade is such that it would put a tremendous strain on the engine not to mention all the switchbacks.ColoradoThe preferred RV route:  From Interstate 70, head north through the town of Silverthorne on Highway 9.  In the town of Kremmling head east on Highway 40 to 34 east.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying many visits to this charming mountain town.  You can read about one of my favorite day trips from Estes Park to Grand Lake by clicking here.  And if you’re interested in what others have to say about Grand Lake, you can click here for Lisa’s experience. (Lisa posted some great photos showcasing the area)

Next, I’ll finish up with my next two favorite Colorado mountain towns……

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Winter Park

Although Colorado is well-known as a winter destination, summer is a fabulous time to visit.  There’s no need to worry about road conditions during the summer like you do in the winter, with the exception for road construction, the occasional rock slide, mud slide, or sink hole….lol.  Seriously summer in Colorado is awesome.

Winter Park Village, Colorado

On a previous road trip, daughter and I found ourselves hanging out in the town of Winter Park.  We’re quite familiar with this town, having spent many a Christmas just up the road at Snow Mountain Ranch.  However, this was our first summer visit.

Hmmmm, daughter and I wondered, “What does a mountain ski town have to offer in the summer?”  First and foremost, relaxation.  We stayed in a condo in the Winter Park Village, at the base of the slopes.  Upon arrival, we spent the next couple of hours sitting on our balcony, enjoying good conversation, drinking a cold beverage, and admiring the spectacular view.

One of those balconies was ours….

The view…..daughter and I are drawn to what appears is a huge concrete gutter twisting and turning up the side of the mountain.  Is this some sort of special drainage for heavy snows?  Nah, I know better, but I’m perplexed.  With uncontrollable curiosity, we rush out of the condo, down the flight of stairs (elevator takes too long) and over to the item in question.  Answer……..oh, how cool…..it’s an Alpine Slide.  We check the hours of operation and decide that’s first on tomorrows agenda.

English: The Alpine Slide on Jackson Hill.
English: The Alpine Slide on Jackson Hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Alpine Slide is some serious fun.  You take the ski lift up the mountain, and shush on your little sled down the mountain.  They have two runs; one for newbies who are a bit more tentative and the other for the daring with a need for speed.  Need I tell you which run I chose and which one daughter chose?  Ah, to be young and fearless.  However, my second go (once is not enough) I opted for speed.

a marmot peeks over the alpine slide chute

Winter Park is a small quiet community.  It’s very family friendly and oriented.  The “Village” sits at the base of the slopes and offers condo rentals, restaurants, shops, mini golf, ski lift, AND the Alpine Slide.

Granby Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Grand Lake are an easy scenic drive north of Winter Park. The numerous lakes and streams in this part of Colorado offer a variety of fishing and boating experiences in addition to the plentiful hiking, biking, and horseback riding possibilities.

Marmot

Getting to Winter Park is relatively easy and takes just a couple of hours from Denver.  From Denver, take I-70 west to Hwy 40 north. Hwy 40 and Berthoud Pass have been improved immensely over the years with the addition of guard rails and a third lane.  Three lanes going up and one lane coming down, BUT the folks coming down the mountain can use that center lane for passing.  I think that’s why that center lane is known as “the suicide lane”.  Try driving it in the winter when the road is covered with snow.  Fun times!  Our first time driving Berthoud Pass was well over fifteen years ago, before the third lane and guard rails were added.  Yikes!  It’s much improved since that first visit and summer driving is a piece of cake.

Throughout summer, Winter Park hosts a variety of events and activities.  For the latest and up to date happenings click here.