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Top Adventure Sports Town: Grand Lake, Colorado

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Overview

Grand Lake is a fantastic, off-the-beaten-path mountain town on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National park. Renowned for its position along the largest natural lake in Colorado (along with two other stunning nearby reservoirs), Grand Lake is a four-season playground. Within minutes, you could be hiking in a national park, taking a pontoon boat onto a series of lakes, or exploring the nearby Indian Peaks and Never Summer Wildernesses.

In the winter months, Grand Lake is quiet and snowy. There’s unrivaled access to backcountry skiing in the Never Summer Mountains, snowmobiling, and ice fishing on the lakes, and you’re less than an hour from both Ski Granby and Winter Park Ski Resort.


Table of Contents:

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Views of the Rocky Mountain from across a still smooth lake in Grand Lake, Colorado.

Local Adventure Vibe

Like Estes Park, Grand Lake is a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. However, because it’s tucked into the western slope of the Front Range, it’s a lot quieter. Grand Lake has a charming western atmosphere with recreation opportunities in all directions. Because Trail Ridge, the road that bisects Rocky Mountain National Park, closes every winter, and there are no ski resorts right next to town, Grand Lake is quieter than many other mountain towns.

It’s actually the quiet, charming atmosphere that makes Grand Lake such a delightful place. Away from I-70 and Summit County, you don’t get the manic energy of typical tourist-first mountain towns like Breckenridge, but the contrast is great for attracting those interested in mountain solitude. The town is also very family-friendly and makes for a great stop if you are driving Trail Ridge across the park.

In the summer, you can explore the hundreds of trails around, take a dip in the lake, rent a Pontoon or explore mountainous dirt roads. In the winter, ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and backcountry skiing are quite popular.

Aerial View of Grand Lake, Colorado.

The East Troublesome Fire

2020 was a bad year for wildfires in Colorado. The largest Colorado fire on record (so far), the Cameron Peak Fire, scorched 200,000+ acres of northern Colorado. The devastation extends into some of the northern areas of Rocky Mountain National Park is and is visible from points along Trail Ridge. At the same time, Grand Lake suffered historic damage due to the East Troublesome Fire, the state’s second-largest wildfire on record and on that spread over 80,000 acres in less than 24 hours. The effects of the fire are still very visible around town.

There’s plenty of information about both fires online and in print, but it is most obvious along Trail Ridge road in the lower Kawuneechee Valley. It will also make an appearance on the trail to Lake Nokoni and Nanita, though the area around the lakes themselves was spared. When camping or recreating in the backcountry, be fire aware. It’ll take decades for the fire damage to recede into a new-growth forest.

The sun setting on the East troublesome forest fire near Grand Lake, Colorado.

Food and Drink

For a town sporting a year-round population of only 410 people, there are a surprising amount of food and drink locations. The area is also home to a ton of second homes and experiences a yearly influx of tourists due to the lakes and nearby National Park. If, after an outdoor venture, you are craving some grub, check out the following options.

Keep in mind that winter hours will be different and that some locations may close down during the colder months. Visit each location’s website or call them directly to find out the current hours and seasonality.

  • Worlds End Brewpub: This fun food and drink location is also connected to the Worlds End Inn. For information on lodging, visit the Places to Stay section below.
  • Sagebrush BBQ & Grill: Close to downtown and offers a wide variety of food options. Open year-round, excluding Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and TBD yearly staff party.
  • One Love Rum Kitchen: Caribbean-inspired menu items and drinks.
  • Historic Rapids: Connected to the Historic Rapids Lodge. Menus change seasonally; visit the website for more info.
  • Sly Fox Restaurant: Located on the Grand Lake Golf Course, this American fare location offers up both summer and winter menus but does close periodically, visit the website or call for more details.
  • Grand Pizza: Open but only takeout, according to the website. Please call or visit the website to see about off-season hours (late fall, winter, and early spring).
  • White Buffalo Pizza: Call to find out the most recent information regarding hours, menu, and services.

The scenic view of Grand Lake, Colorado, USA.

Best Places to Stay

Grand Lake makes for a perfect mountain location to kick back and enjoy the lazy days of summer. Conversely, setting up a winter shop in the area will unlock a ton of unique recreation options. Pick your season and plant yourself in the area for a few days to get the best experience.

Camping

While staying at a nice lodge is appealing, for the summer months, there are plenty of easy-access campgrounds that are well-maintained and more affordable. Some popular examples in the Grand Lake area include…

Backcountry camping in Rocky Mountain National Forest is also possible, but you need to reserve a site way in advance. Here’s a link to the official page on camping in RMNP.

Backcountry camping is allowed in the Indian Peaks Wilderness but requires some planning as well. First, you’ll need to establish which zone you’re camping in. Grand Lake is on the western side; any Indian Peaks Wilderness camping zones on the east side would be too far. Focus on areas you can reach from Monarch Lake Trailhead, Meadow Creek Reservoir, and Roaring Fork Trailhead. You can reserve a spot via recreation.gov when you find a zone you want to camp in.

There are more camping options toward Willow Creek Pass, like Denver Creek Campground. The Never Summer Wilderness also has some great backcountry options.

Outdoor Adventures

Grand lake is a perfect summer basecamp for adventures galore. Check out some of the best ones below. Remember, any trips into Rocky Mountain National Park requires an entrance pass and may require a timed entry pass as well. The most up-to-date information is here.

Hiking/Backpacking

The area is loaded with possibilities, so don’t treat this list as a complete roundup. These hikes are just easy to access and can provide anything from a few hours of adventure to multiple days.

Adams Falls: This 0.8-mile hike is an easy stroll for the whole family in Rocky Mountain National Park. It takes off from the East Inlet Trailhead and should be doable for most people. If you want to see more waterfalls, check our best waterfalls in RMNP article.

The Adams Falls overlook on the East Inlet Trail near Grand Lake, Colorado.

Coyote Valley Trailhead. Another easy Rocky Mountain National Park adventure, this 2.1-mile trail takes in the scope of the massive Kawuneechee Valley. Moose and elk sightings are common.

The Coyote Valley trail is a wide, wheelchair accessible trail that follows the mighty Colorado River in Kawuneeche Valley.

East Inlet (Lake Verna): The East Inlet Trail, located on the eastern end of Grand Lake, leads to five stunning alpine lakes and a few smaller ponds along the way. A hike to Lake Verna, the second in the series, takes in beautiful views of the western side of the park and passes by Adams Falls and Lone Pine Lake. It’s a 13.4-mile roundtrip hike with over 2,000 feet of gain, so, a great one-day challenge.

The morning sun rises over Boulder Grand Pass to light up Lake Verna.

Crater Lake: Possibly the most well-known regional hike, Crater Lake is an absolute stunner. The lake is beautiful, and the views of Lone Eagle Peak from both Crater Lake and the smaller Mirror Lake are otherworldly. Anticipate crowds on the weekends. There is a fee at the Monarch Lake trailhead. Total distance: 14.8 miles with ~2700 ft. of gain.

Crater Lake is the perfect place to brave a lake jump.

Crater Lake is the perfect place to brave a lake jump.

Buchannan Pass: Overshadowed by Crater Lake, the hike to Buchannan Pass is understated and gorgeous. There are beautiful campsites in Fox Park and just above it near treeline that will help break up the journey. The views from the western side of the pass are inspiring, and the trail passes interesting features like forests, slot canyons, avalanche paths, subalpine meadows, and sweeping alpine views atop the Continental Divide. There are eastern and western access points. From Grand Lake, you want the western access from Monarch Lake. Total distance: ~18 miles, 3,700 ft. of elevation gain.

Dramatic peaks of the western Indian Peaks Wilderness at Buchanan Pass.

Stone Lake: Starting from the Roaring Fork Trailhead, this trail can be combined with a quick jaunt up Irving Hale for an extra scenic punch. Stone Lake is a beautiful place to spend some hours or camp out for a few days. Upper Lake is only a few points of a mile farther and offers superlative views of the impressive Hiamovi Tower. Total distance: ~12.5 miles with 3,120 ft. of gain.

Relaxing by Stone Lake.

Lake Nokoni/Nanita: This is a long and fascinating hike. You’ll pass burn areas from the East Troublesome Fire, which are admittedly a little depressing. However, the forest takes back over as you ascend to the prettiest lakes on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Multiple campsites exist on the way, although no camping is allowed near the lakes to help them retain their wilderness quality. Total distance: ~21 miles with ~3,600 ft. of elevation gain.

Stunning ridges and clear water in Lake Nokoni.

Rock Climbing/Bouldering

While not as well-known as other areas, there are a surprising amount of climbing opportunities near Grand Lake. Check out the bouldering options within the town limits, for starters.

If you’re looking for bigger walls, Grand County’s got you covered. The best catalog of potential routes is on mountainproject.

Trail Running

With wilderness in every direction, Grand Lake has some great running trails. Get your heart pumping on one of the routes below.

Looking down the Ute Trail, as it traverses over the alpine tundra within Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado on a partially cloudy morning in late July, high above the treeline

Mountain Biking

Between mountain parks and epic wilderness single-track, mountain bikers should find plenty to love in and around Grand Lake. Keep in mind that the East Troublesome Fire damage is widespread and may have impacted the routes or accessibility of certain trails. Here is an updated (2022) map of area trails and their status.

Scrambling

Grand Lake isn’t particularly known for access to scrambling, but keen adventurers can find plenty to love if they’re willing to put some miles in. All of the suggestions below are long and committing days but will allow you to scramble along sections of fantastic rock. Keep in mind that you can fold a lot of the options into backpacking trips as well. Remember, anything in RMNP requires passes and potentially a timed entry slip. You can find out more information here.

Scrambling is a vague term to describe routes that are above regular hiking and just below roped climbing in difficulty. Scrambling is rated between a Class 3 and low Class 5 on the Yosemite Decimal Scale, or YDS for short.

Neva-(IPW): This mountain is most commonly accessed from the east, but you can get there efficiently from the west and likely experience fewer crowds. Start at Junco Lake Trailhead, take the Caribou Pass trail up to Caribou Pass, and climb the ridge to your south to start the route. The scrambling involves a lot of Class 3 and a Class 4 crux wall that will test your mettle. From the summit of Neva, the most efficient descent is to turn west/northwest and follow the ridge down to Columbine Lake. From there, you can pick up an established trial that will reconnect with the Caribou Pass Trail. Total mileage and vertical gain: ~9 miles, ~+/- 2875 ft. Hardest scrambling: Class 4.

The summit of Neva is the highest visible pinnacle.

Gorge Lakes Traverse-(RMNP): This mega day is best accessed from Trail Ridge at Milner Pass and includes 4-5 mountains. The scrambling portion occurs between Cracktop and Mt. Julian and can easily exceed Class 4 if you want it to. The easiest route is Class 3+. This is an out-and-back hike, so budget a lot of time if you plan to touch all five peaks (Mt. Ida, Chief Cheley, Cracktop, Mt. Julian, and Terra Tomah.) Total mileage and vertical gain: ~15 miles, +/- 5,000 ft. Hardest scrambling: Class 3+

Chief Cheley Peak with Mt. Ida behind and to the left.

The Gorge Lakes Traverse encounters Chief Cheley Peak with Mt. Ida behind and to the left

Lead Mountains East Ridge-(RMNP): This is not the only scrambling route on this mountain, but it is the best way to start exploring the area because you can loop it with Lake of the Clouds and Hart Ridge. The scrambling isn’t terribly long, 45 minutes if you’re hauling, but it is exposed and features long stretches of Class 3 and Class 3+ scrambling on sturdy rock. There are Class 4 options as well if you want a challenge. Most of the Never Summer Range in Rocky Mountain does not contain good scrambling rock; Lead Mountain is an outlier. Total mileage and vertical gain: ~17-18 miles, +/- ~5,500 ft. Hardest scrambling: Class 3+/4

Lead Mountain and “Never Summer” Mountain from Hitchens Gulch.

Lead Mountain and “Never Summer” Mountain from Hitchens Gulch.

Cooper Peak-(IPW): Cooper Peak is the little mountain that could, this kind of ugly peak is home to at least 4 routes. Of the routes, one is a Class 2+ affair (easiest), one is a 45-degree snow couloir climb, and two are scrambling routes. The North Ridge (Class 3) is a surprising and interesting route with a series of three rock towers making up the most dramatic portion. However, the best and most dramatic route is the exposed Class 4 south buttress, which you can see rising ominously from the shores of Gourd Lake. Total mileage and vertical gain: ~20 miles, +/- 3,900 ft. Hardest scrambling: Class 4.

The South Buttress of Cooper Peak

Water Sports

With three large lakes near town, the water options are top-notch. The lakes will be quite cold, even in the summer months, but you can get away with a quick dip from June-September. If you decide to rent a pontoon boat, keep in mind that some windy June days will be very cold, and if the wind blows too hard (fairly common in the mountains), the marinas won’t launch boats.

  • Swim: There is a public beach at Grand Lake, and it has a nice little swimming area to dip your toes into. There are also picnic benches and a large stretch of sand.
  • Grand Lake Pontoon: The best way to see the lake is to rent a pontoon boat from the Grand Lake Marina.
  • Grand Lake + Shadow Mountain Lake Pontoon: If you have more time and want to explore Shadow Mountain Lake, which connects to Grand Lake via a channel just wide enough for a pontoon, consider Trail Ridge Marina.
  • Lake Granby: While you can’t connect the two other lakes with Lake Granby, this one’s the largest of the three by far, and a 4 hour pontoon boat ride is barely enough time to navigate the shoreline and the coves. There are multiple marinas to choose from, like the Highland Marina, Indian Peaks Marina, and Beacon Landing Marina.

If you have your own boat, there are a few boat ramps around.

A storm coming down from Rocky Mountain National Park over Grand Lake Colorado.

Fishing/Ice Fishing

If you’ve never tried it before, get into fishing on a series of lakes or the mighty Colorado River, which originates north of town and flows into Grand Lake. Here are some local resources to help get you started!

Resort Skiing

Grand Lake isn’t right next to a ski resort, but there are two less than an hour away.

Ski Granby Ranch:

The smaller of the two Grand County resorts, Ski Granby Ranch is a fun, laid-back, family-friendly ski area that tends to avoid the crowds and lines at Winter park. It has a decent amount of ski runs but is, overall, a small resort.

Stats:

  • Total Acreage: 100 acres
  • Base Elevation: 8,202 ft.
  • Top Elevation: 9,202 ft.
  • Vertical: 1000 ft.
  • Number of runs: 41
  • Beginner runs: 37%
  • Intermediate runs: 37%
  • Expert runs: 26%
Winter Park Ski Resort

This is the big Grand County resort. Winter Park Ski Resort benefits from a great location near Berthoud Pass and hauls in a consistent amount of dependable snow each year. You can also take a train there, which departs from Union Station in Denver, climbs up the mountains, breaks through the divide at the Moffat Tunnel, and pops out near the resort.

The resort dwarfs Ski Granby Ranch in size but does suffer from a huge uptick in crowds. Nevertheless, the variety of terrain and more than 3,000 vertical feet from top to base mean you can usually find areas that aren’t overrun. Additionally, the Mary Jane part of the mountain is renowned for its glades and bump skiing.

  • Total Acreage: 3081 acres
  • Base Elevation: 9,000 ft.
  • Top Elevation: 12,060 ft.
  • Vertical: 3,060 ft.
  • Number of runs: 168
  • Beginner runs: 24%
  • Intermediate runs: 22%
  • Advanced/Expert: 54%

Aerial View of popular Ski Town of Winter Park, Colorado

Cross-Country Skiing

A Park is a geographic term indicating a large, elevated, and relatively flat area between mountains. Colorado has several, and much of interior Grand County is in what’s known as Middle Park. The edges of the county are rimmed with some of the most beautiful mountains you’re likely to find in the state, but the wealth of flattish terrain provides ample opportunities to cross-country ski. Here are some of the better-known outfits and trails near Grand Lake.

Backcountry Skiing

In a lot of ways, backcountry skiing is the ultimate winter recreation test. You have to climb up to ski down, all the while being cognizant of omnipresent avalanche danger. If you’ve never done this before, get an avalanche certification. Then, follow our guides for obtaining the right backcountry gear and how to plan a trip. If you’ve never skied before, get ski lessons and focus a few years on your progression before even considering a backcountry ski adventure.

  • Never Summer Mountains: This compact range has access to some of the best big mountain ski lines in the Front Range. Time it well (March-April), and you could be skiing over 3,000 vertical feet in one run.
  • Parkview Mountain is the tallest summit in the Rabbit Ears Range and has a series of well-shaped alpine bowls to choose from. The best access is the road up Willow Creek pass. This is deep backcountry; orientation and wilderness skills are necessary to avoid getting lost.
  • Bluebird Backcountry: This is a unique concept. A ski patrol-managed but entirely human-powered resort. There are skin tracks you can use, and you can hire a guide, but it’s up to you to get up and down. You can find out more about this not-quite-a-ski-resort-ski-resort by visiting their website.

American Basin in the Never Summer Mountains, Colorado.

Snowmobiling

Grand Lake is known as the snowmobiling capital of Colorado. There are over 300 miles of snowmobiling trails with 150 miles groomed. You also have some excellent rental options to consider. Here’s a snowmobiling route list and map.

Some snowmobile rental shops and guided tour services include:

Conclusion

Grand Lake is your next four-season destination. With hundreds of thousands of national forest and national park acres to explore, the adventure possibilities are frankly, overwhelming.


Skyblue Featured Video: Granby Ranch – where all trails lead to family adventure


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