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
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
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.
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 Recreation.gov, and permits are issued per vehicle ($25 for cars and $15 for bicycles).