Grand Lake in Grand Lake, Colorado, is a sacred place. The Ute Tribe called it Spirit Lake when they fished in the waters years before the Europeans discovered the area. The tale of a white buffalo emerging from the center of the vast lake through the mist had great significance to the Ute, and the story was passed down from tribal elders. Thus it was both the name of the great body of water and the legend of the Ute people.
Grand Lake, Colorado, is located 98 miles from Denver. You can fly into Denver International Airport and rent a car to drive there, which takes about 2 hours. You can also go 46 miles from Estes Park, Colorado, taking the famous Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in America. It crosses over the Continental Divide and rises up to 12,000 feet in elevation. The road closes in the winter months, but it’s a spectacular ride through the mountains above the tree line during the summer.
Grand Lake is one of the largest and deepest of all the natural lakes in Colorado. The water covers around 500 acres and is close to 400 feet deep. In the mid-1800s, European hunting parties discovered Grand Lake. Small hotels and outfitters popped up to support the visitors who came to play and the miners who struck silver but eventually moved on.
Today, the scenery and the outdoor activities continue to attract visitors to the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. There are endless things to see and do, especially in the summer months. The Colorado River headwaters feed the lake and are 20 miles north inside Rocky Mountain National Park, a significant reason why the area is so popular. Here are nine suggested outdoor activities to enjoy while visiting this historic Colorado town. Then, when the day winds down, you get to watch the stunning sunsets over Grand Lake.
I was a guest of Grand County for many of the activities mentioned in this article. All opinions are my own.
Head over to Headwaters Marina. Marina Director and Captain of the Grand Lake Boat Tour Rick Tomkievich takes visitors for hour-long tours of gorgeous Grand Lake. It’s a beautiful way to get acquainted with the history and famous residents (past and present) and to enjoy being on the lake. Captain Rick narrates the tour and drives the beautiful 16-passenger Barletta Pontoon Boat. You are invited to sit back, relax, ask questions, and take as many pictures as you like. It’s an informative tour and a terrific introduction to Grand Lake.
Pro Tip: Go as soon as you arrive in town in the morning to enjoy cool breezes off the lake and less traffic from pleasure boaters.
Also at Headwaters Marina is the Kayak Shak. A.J. and Drew Murphy will outfit you with either a solo or tandem kayak for a fun hour-or-two paddle on Grand Lake. Each rental includes a personal flotation device, safety whistle, watch, and dry bag for your personal items. Kayaking is a perfect way to enjoy the lake and the beautiful scenery, including Mount Craig, also known as Mount Baldy, which rises to 12,007 feet. Mount Craig’s glaciers melted over 12,000 years ago to help form Grand Lake.
You can rent a one-person paddleboard for up to 4 hours at the Grand Lake Marina. You can book online for your convenience and get instant confirmation of your reservation and time. All ages are welcome. It is recommended to paddle early in the mornings on Grand Lake because the wind picks up later in the day, making it harder to paddle against the current. The Wake Coffee Shop on the dock serves organic coffee at 7 a.m. if you are an early riser.
Pro Tip: You can rent a pontoon, fishing, pedal, or sport boat at either marina.
If you are an expert fisherman or a beginner hoping to learn how to fly fish, Kirks Fly Shop has guided tours specializing in memorable excursions. The outfitter offers trips from May to November that includes everything you need for a day on the water, including snacks, drinks, and lunch for energy while fishing. They offer wade trips, fly lessons, river floats, overnight floats that include camping, guided backpacking, and guided llama fly fishing excursions. In addition, Kirks offers 4- or 8-hour guided lake fishing trips on Grand Lake, which are an excellent alternative to a walk and wade on a river for those with mobility issues. Kirks offers a guarantee that you will catch fish because they are experts and have been operating in the area since 2002. In addition, they offer guided hiking and backpacking tours in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Pro Tip: If you choose to fish without a guide from the beach, from a pontoon boat, or the dock, a Colorado fishing license can be purchased at Kirks Fly Shop.
Less than a mile from the village of Grand Lake is the trailhead entrance to one of the best-known hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Adams Falls Hike. Adams Falls is an easy 0.9-mile hike for most hikers that brings you to a stunning waterfall named after an early settler, Jay E. Adams. The waterfall drops 55 feet through a narrow gorge and feeds into Grand Lake. Hikers can stop here to take in the views or climb up a bit farther to see the sights from above the falls. You can see the entire lake from that vantage point. It is a must-do when visiting the city.
Pro Tips: Apply sunscreen and bug spray during the summer months. Make sure to have proper hiking shoes and plenty of water. Hydration is critical for hiking at higher elevations.
Winding River Resort is a family campground and lodge. Their location is perfect because they are situated on the Colorado River, bordering on the Rocky Mountain National Park and the Arapaho National Forest. Even if you choose not to stay at the lodge, there are stables at the resort, and trail rides are offered eight times a day with your choice of a 1- or 2-hour ride through the National Park. Once you make a reservation, stop at the gate and let them know you are riding that day. The scenic trail rides offer a glimpse of wildlife as well as mountain flowers and gentle streams. It’s an incredible experience to commune with nature on the back of a beautiful horse. It feels like the old days.
Rocky Mountain National Park is over 100 years old. The RMNP Act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on January 26, 1915, to protect the 416 square miles of tundra, mountain peaks, and deep valleys for future generations. The park is home to 60 species of mammals and 280 species of birds. Inside RMNP, you might see elk, antelope, and moose. At higher elevations, you might see marmots or bighorn sheep. There are over 355 miles of hiking trails, from easy trails to multi-day treks along the Continental Divide. The two halves of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road. You could plan to spend a few hours hiking, a full day, or even hire a guide such as Kirks Fly Shop to plan challenging treks. No matter what hike you choose, be prepared and enjoy being in a gorgeous natural setting.
Pro Tips: Hiking at higher elevations requires plenty of water, proper hiking shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, removable layers, and a hat. Download a map of your hike on your phone or have a hard copy. Always make sure to have snacks for energy. To be realistic, a 3-mile hike one way is actually a 6-mile hike and could take hours to complete. Never hike alone, and be sure to let others know your hiking plan each day.
Stop in at most stores in town or at the Kauffman House Museum (the last stop on the tour) and purchase a map for 50 cents that details 25 different historical places in town. This self-guided tour will teach you all about the history of Grand Lake while you locate each building or site.
Jon Lapsley Ish and his family opened the Rapids Lodge in 1915. He offered guests running water, baths, and electricity powered by a water wheel in the North Inlet Creek. He built the lodge using the lodgepole pines cut from a sawmill he constructed on the site. The hotel and the restaurant still stand today, serving customers alongside the North Inlet fed by melting snow beds in RMNP. The service and food are terrific, and the menu includes steaks, chops, seafood, pasta, and vegetarian dishes. Combine that with the Inlet’s historical setting and rushing water, and you have a fantastic meal. I recommend eating outdoors to sit by the Inlet; it’s impressive.
Pro Tip: This is a popular place, so reservations are recommended.
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