Grand Lake: Rustic Colorado playground on the doorstep of pristine wilderness

Grand Lake Lodge. Photograph by Kenneth Petersen.

Sitting outside the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake is a throwback to when stores were fronted by boardwalks and outdoorsmen wandered freely in and out of Main Street saloons. Vintage photos of Grand Avenue from the early 1900s hang in some establishments, and the street doesn’t look so different from today—though now there are art galleries, fine dining, and modern mountain outfitters among the storefronts. This month the town hosts its Arts and Crafts Fair (June 10 to 11) and will stage its annual Grand Duck Derby (June 17), when 2,000 sponsored rubber ducks race on the lake to benefit community projects

Grand Lake is the western launch pad to 415-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park, which features more than 300 miles of hiking trails, summer wildflowers, and wildlife, including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and moose. Buy a $20 one-day car pass and drive Trail Ridge Road to an elevation higher than 12,000 feet to overlook breathtaking vistas and straddle the Continental Divide. You won’t need a park pass for the half-mile hike to Adams Falls; the trailhead at the east end of town offers easy access to falls that should be roaring after this year’s heavy snowpack. Hikers who continue toward Lone Pine Lake are soon rewarded with views of a stream-crossed alpine meadow beneath soaring Mount Craig. Feet sore? Enjoy Cascades of the Rockies bookstore, a summer stock production at Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, or go-karting at Rocky Hi Speedway.

No visit is complete without a stay at Grand Lake Lodge (open through Oct. 1, cabins starting at $155). Established in 1920, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bills itself as “Colorado’s front porch” overlooking mountain-rimmed Grand Lake, considered the headwaters of the Colorado River. At the east end of town is The Historic Rapids Lodge & Restaurant ($96 and up). It was established in 1915 and offers charming, one-of-a-kind guest rooms, suites, condos, and cabins. Daven Haven Lodge features a selection of cozy cabins ($142 and up), or try the 16-room Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging (rooms start at $150) if you want to be right on the water.

The Rapids Restaurant is the town’s top fine-dining option. The dining room overlooks wooded Tonahutu/North Inlet Creek, which flows into the lake, and the menu includes specialties such as elk medallions in a blueberry demi-glace ($42) and Colorado lamb chops with wild mushroom demi-glace ($41). Backstreet Steakhouse at Daven Haven Lodge offers local trout brushed with Dijon molasses ($24) and buffalo tenderloin tips au poivre in a brandy pepper cream ($28). A drive south along Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby takes you to Stillwater Grill, with farm-to-table French cuisine, including escargot with wild mushroom ($11), steak frites au poivre ($19), and duck confit ($21)

Getting There
→Southwest, Frontier, and United airlines fly nonstop from John Wayne Airport to Denver International Airport. If you don’t want to rent a car, Home James shuttles run from the Denver airport to Grand Lake three times each day.

Fun Fact
→The three-bedroom Ford Cabin at Grand Lake Lodge—with its Franklin stove, kitchenette, and screened porch—is so named because Henry Ford stayed there in 1927. It’s one of 70 cabins available on the lodge site.

→Cover additional miles of wilderness in a rented ATV or multi-passenger off-road vehicle from On the Trail Rentals. Unguided two-hour single rates start at $110, with eight-hour rates for larger vehicles topping out at $350.

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