Grand Lake Colorado sits at the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a historic 19th century mining-supply-turned-resort-town that sits along the shores of Grand Lake – the deepest and largest natural lake in Colorado. It’s small town center features Old West-styled architecture and a boardwalk now lined with boutiques, restaurants, and ice cream parlors.
My brother, who lives in Colorado, bought a cabin at Grand Lake and invited us over for a summertime visit. I had never heard of Grand Lake or Rocky Mountain National Park. Even though I live in Utah, I’ve never been much of a mountain tripper. I hadn’t even been to all of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks (though I have since). When I travel, I tend to get on a plane and seek out somewhere foreign or tropical or metropolitan. I’m glad I took him up on his invitation. We were blown away by the beauty of the area.
Getting to Grand Lake and Rocky Mountain National Park
We flew into Denver and rented a car. It is then a scenic 2.5-hour drive northwest, up into the Rocky Mountains, past old mining towns and ski resorts, through a high mountain valley, past Colorado’s second largest lake (Lake Granby), and finally into the town of Grand Lake which sits alongside two connected lakes – the larger Shadow Mountain Lake and it’s namesake Grand Lake.
The western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is located just a mile or so north of Grand Lake. This is a large national park and the more commonly used entrance is northeast, near the town of Estes Park. Trail Ridge Road spans the Park and connects the two towns. It is the highest continuous paved road in the US and reaches an elevation of a little over 12000 feet while also crossing the Continental Divide. It is only open during the summer and early fall as snow makes it impassable the rest of the year.
Lodging in Grand Lake Colorado
We stayed with my brother at his cabin. I was imagining something a little more rustic. Once there, I told him that he really should be calling it a mountain chalet. In addition to the three moderate-sized levels, he also has a deck that looks out onto Shadow Mountain Lake in the distance. Lots of vacation rentals of various sizes are available in the area, and can be found on the usual rental sites. Regular readers know that I am a big fan of vacation rentals. The town can be accessed year round for winter sports, and is nice and cool in the summer for hiking, boating, biking, national park exploring, and other summer activities. Adventure equipment rental options are plentiful in the area.
His “chalet” is available to rent on Vacasa. I don’t get any money if you click the link and rent it. He obviously would though… and he is good guy.
The historic Grand Lake Lodge is a popular hotel choice in the area. It dates back 100 years and sites in a prime location on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park overlooking the lake below. It consists of a main lodge that houses one of the area’s finer dining restaurants and 70 guest cabins.
Dining in Grand Lake Colorado
As my brother was an experienced Grand Lake chalet owner, he knew that it would be wise to make a stop in the town of Granby, about 25 minutes away, to buy groceries at the supermarket. The smaller grocery stores in Grand Lake aren’t quite as well-stocked, but can still supply you with most needs. We prepared and ate several of our meals at his place.
There are also plenty of dining-out options in town along the boardwalk. My favorite was Grand Pizza. It is #1 on TripAdvisor for Grand Lake and the pizza was indeed very good. We also ate at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill. It’s the typical barbecue & burger joint you would expect to find on a historic Wild West boardwalk, and includes elk and buffalo on the menu for some extra local flair. Dining out in Granby is also an option, but we never made it back down beyond our first grocery stop.
The National Park
There are numerous hiking opportunities throughout the Grand Lake side of the Rocky Mountain National Park. My favorite was the East Inlet Trail. You can access the trail without actually entering the Park or paying the admission fee. The trailhead and parking lot is located on the east side of Grand Lake.
After hiking a short distance you first arrive at Adams Falls which is the final destination for many hiking this trail. But from there, if you continue to hike eastward on the wide, well-maintained trial, you will walk along the edge of a series of vast mountain meadows. The trail through the larger second meadow is elevated along the meadows edge, offering a great panoramic view of the river meandering through below.
We hiked in 2.5 miles along East Inlet Trail, finishing our ascent by climbing past the second meadow and up into the mountainside beyond. If we had followed the trail to its end – Spirit Lake – it would have been a 16 mile round trip. I’m too old for that.
We drove into the Park proper, through the main gate north of town, several times to hike other nearby trails, spot wildlife, and ascend the Trail Ridge Road. A day pass though this gate costs $25 and a 7-day pass costs $35.
On our first evening, within just a few minutes after driving into the Park, we spotted a large herd of elk grazing in a clearing near the road. Further in, we were able to spot moose grazing along the river that flows through the center of the valley at several different points.
(In order to spot a moose, just look for cars parked in clusters along the side of the road, grab your binoculars, and follow the direction of the camera lenses. It’s true….but it wasn’t particularly crowded or annoying, and everyone was helping each other spot them).
Driving Trail Ridge Road and the Continental Divide
The road through the park eventually starts to climb steeply, affording spectacular views across the valley below. Ultimately, around 12 or so miles into the park, we reached the Continental Divide. This is the high mountainous divide that marks the flow of water to the Pacific Ocean on the western side from the flow of water to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico on the eastern side.
Here we took the obligatory one foot on either side of the Divide shot. (I’ve also taken the same type of picture at the equator in Ecuador).
All along the route, we continued to look for wildlife, and did spot several male elk with giant racks at the higher elevations. Sadly, we weren’t able to reach the summit as we were turned back by dense fog.
As you would imagine, with two interconnected lakes in the area, water sport opportunities are plentiful. Water skiing, swimming, kayaking, fishing, etc. As I mentioned before, Grand Lake is the deepest and largest natural lake in Colorado. It is fed by the headwaters of the Colorado River – located just north within Rocky Mountain National Park. Shadow Mountain Lake is a man-made reservoir. They are connected by a short channel water-way.
Boating Anecdote That I Must Tell
The Jepsons have a long and storied history of boat problems. I personally have never owned a boat, nor do I ever intend to. However, my Dad has owned a series of small used fishing boats over the years. These have generally come with unreliable used motors. Consequently, as a kid I remember being stuck out on lakes more than I care to remember.
Boating Day 1 – The Jepson Curse
When my brother bought his place, it came with a used fishing boat. And a used motor. Our visit coincided with his first opportunity to get the boat out on the lake. Because we are Jepsons and are boat-cursed, we spent several hours trying to get the motor running. Of course, due to our past boating scars, we worked on it at the cabin first. My mechanic skills are non-existent, his are only slightly better.
After quite a while of cursing the curse, he found the instructions left behind by the original owner. A subtle but important step had been missed. Success! Motor started! So down to the lake we go. Thunderstorms are threatening so we don’t have a lot of time. Get it in the water. Motor starts! Take the boat for a little spin around Shadow Mountain Lake, but it’s short-lived because storm really is a-comin’.
Boating Day 2 – Still Cursed
Next day, better weather, so back down to the lake. Unload the boat, happy that the Jepson curse is behind us. Motor won’t start. $#!%!!! The Curse!!! Load the boat back up, which isn’t easy to do when a cursed motor isn’t working. Take it back to the cabin.
Decided that maybe it was out of gas. Went and got some. Yep, it started. No interest in going back to the lake any more that day.
Last Day – Maybe the Curse is Lifted???
Last day. Beautiful morning. Wanting to launch the boat on Grand Lake and drive it through the narrow channel connecting the two lakes. Me and Mrs. Thorough Tripper have to leave at noon, in order to make the drive to Denver and catch our plane home. She decided she’s had her fill of Jepson boating adventures, and stays behind to pack and clean the cabin.
We unload the boat into water, and…..Motor starts. We’re off! We cross Grand Lake and then boat through the narrow channel, dodging kayakers all the way through, and come out the other side onto Shadow Mountain Lake. My brother is a fisherman and decides that he would like to drop a line in the water and troll a little. He does, no bites, but we are enjoying being out on the water.
With about 30 minutes left of our allotted boating time, we start to head back through the channel to Grand Lake. When we get to the other side, he decides that rather than trolling, he would like to stop the boat and fish with the boat stationary for a few minutes. I remind him of the Jepson curse and strongly suggest that turning off the motor would not be wise, especially since I have a plane to catch. He says to me “If this motor doesn’t turn back on, and we get stuck on this lake, I will personally drive you back to Salt Lake”.
There is no point arguing with a Jepson who wants to fish (just ask my Mom). We turned off the motor and he dropped a line. We sat and waited for bites about 10 minutes. None came and it was time to go. I held my breath and turned the key. And…nothing! Again. Nothing!! The Curse!!!
So here we are, stuck in the middle of Grand Lake, with a dead motor, and a plane to catch. Fortunately the wind was already starting to blow us towards the south shore and we did have oars. Ultimately, we were able to dock at one of really nice expensive houses (with it’s own docks) on the lake’s south shore. We chose one that had a for sale sign, hoping it would be empty to avoid the embarrassment. But it wasn’t. The initially-confused owner kindly told us of a boating service that could come and tow my brother.
Not enough time for me though. We had a plane to catch. I had started calling Mrs. TT as soon as we were stranded. But she had packed her phone in her purse! And was vacuuming! And she is The Thorough Vacuumer! I called and I called and I called and I called in a panic. I reminded my brother (jokingly….kind of) about the 16 hour round trip drive to Salt Lake he would soon be taking. Miraculously, she finally heard my panicked ringing, and answered. She picked me up literally in the nick of time. We did not miss our plane. My brother had his boat towed. And… he still owes me a drive to Salt Lake.
As we hurriedly left town, we reflected back on our beyond-expectations stay in this beautiful part of the world, and look forward to going back. No boats next time though.
And after witnessing the grandeur of Rocky Mountain National Park, I made it a point to do a better job exploring some of the beauty in my own backyard. Check my overview of all Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks. Or my thorough guide to all the great things to do near Kanab Utah, including visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.