The town of Grand Lake—named after its backdrop, Colorado’s largest and deepest natural body of water—sprouted up as a pit stop and supply point during the Centennial State’s mining days. This tiny town (its year-round population hovers around 450) fills to the brim in summer months with vacationers, while it’s sans-ski-resort status means that it nearly shutters in winter. The Front Range gem is at the top of our list of warm-weather mountain getaways. Below, you’ll find recommendations for enjoying this lakefront community. Pro tip: Mark your calendars for August 22, when the inaugural Spirit Lake Blues Festival will bring national acts such as Ana Popovic and My Blue Sky to Grand Lake’s shores.
The Odometer: 102 miles, one-way
Eat: For a town that boasts such rustic charm, Grand Lake hosts a healthy mix of hole-in-the-wall eateries and high-end culinary options. Head to the Western-themed Sagebrush BBQ & Grill if you’re looking for dinner in the former category; the cow-print tablecloths and metal buckets of peanuts—the floor is accepted as the refuse pile for the shells—on the tables are kitschy enough to draw you in without even opening the extensive menu. (But when you do, order the locally raised trout or rack of ribs.)
Turn the tables the next night at O-a Bistro, an elegant café that offers a prix-fixe, multi-course dining experience. Meals start at two specific times, 5:30 and 7 p.m., so make reservations. Or, head to the jointly owned crêperie next door for cheaper prices at lunch; we recommend the smoked salmon or sun-dried tomato and spinach crepes for a savory treat.
The all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at the Fat Cat Café can’t be beat for a morning pick-me-up, but Blue Water Bakery’s bagel sandwiches are a close second, thanks to the doughy, hand-rolled bread that makes up the foundation of the filling roll.
Eat Dessert: It seems like there are more ice cream shops per capita than permanent residents on Grand Lake’s main drag, but the best creamy confections can be found down the hill on the shores of the lake. The menu at Miyauchi’s Snack Bar rotates through a range of flavors; order the cleverly named Grasshopper—mint ice cream with Oreo chunks—if it’s available.
Tip: If salty is more your taste, duck into the Quacker Gift Shop, a bizarre store filled with rubber duck tchotchkes and herbal soaps, but most importantly: hand-roasted (and hot!) pecans, almonds, and cashews.
Imbibe: If you’re looking for libations, be prepared to relish in that small-town, old-fashioned feel—the area’s watering holes cater to locals and families, which means Bingo nights and kid-friendly bars. If you’re looking for a waterfront cocktail, you can’t go wrong with massive margaritas at Pancho & Lefty’s, or Mustachio’s on the Lake, which is technically in Granby but worth the 12-minute drive. (Tip: Try the loster ravioli while you’re there.) Head to El Pacifico Restaurant and Bar for karaoke nights, or back to Sagebrush for a nightcap: The restaurant keeps Grand Lake Brewing Company beers on tap as an homage to the brewery opened in 2002 by Karen and Richard Wood. (Its taproom has since moved to Arvada.) Immerse yourself with locals and order a beer at Grumpy’s, where you’ll also find mounted deer heads and occasional live music.
Recreate: Take advantage of the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado by renting a pedal boat, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. If you’re more of a land-lover, Sombrero Ranches offers a two-hour guided horseback jaunt simply called “the Ride” that follows the picturesque Tonahutu Creek Trail through Rocky Mountain National Park. Or traverse RMNP on foot—Adams Falls, which drops 55 feet through a narrow gorge, is only 0.3 miles from the trailhead.
Too tame? Head toward Grand Lake’s sister body, the massive Shadow Mountain Reservoir, and take the East Shore Trail; it overlaps with the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, one of only eight National Scenic Trails in the country.
Tip: The East Shore Trail is located in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, so make sure you know the regulations for each—no dogs allowed in RMNP, for example.
In Case of Rain: If a summer squall moves in and you’ve browsed all the shops (Humphrey’s Cabin Fever is the best for quirky knick-knacks and vintage furniture), the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre should be your go-to for indoor diversions. The nonprofit company has been producing its versions of Broadway plays since 1989 and opened a beautiful new facility in 2011. 42nd Street, The Addams Family, and All Shook Up are playing through mid-August, while Forever Plaid, a 1950s-era musical, runs through September 26.
Stay: Cabin living may sound primitive, but the Grand Lake Lodge’s 70 modern units are not your average cottages, thanks to carpeted floors, microwaves, TVs, and access to the lodge’s outdoor pool, breakfast buffet, and arcade. For large parties, we recommend the Ford Cabin, named after the famous automaker who stayed at the lodge in 1927, while couples should book the specifically named Honeymoon Cabin (cabins start at $140 a night, 15500 U.S. Highway 34). Or, this being Colorado, you could always camp.