Our lakes might not bear the “Great” honorific—because we don’t feel the need to brag—but what Coloradans’ favorite swimming holes lack in notoriety, they more than make up for in the range of experiences they offer. The Centennial State’s lake life beckons this summer. Are you ready?
Yes, Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area is technically in Nebraska. But no matter your age (or where you hail from), Lake Mac’s white-sand beaches, only a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, never fail to provide a launching pad for sun-kissed summer fun.
More from our June 2021 Issue
- In Defense of Bats: Why Colorado’s Unsung Animal Heroes Deserve Our Respect—and Our Help
- What 5280′s Food Critic Gained From Creating a Restaurant for Birds
- Denver Pride and Juneteenth Music Festival Join Forces
- How One Colorado Startup Is Changing Transgender Health Care
- Suzi Q. Smith Ponders the End Times in Her New Poetry Collection
- Find Love in Denver After the Pandemic
- A Q&A With The Podcaster Behind Nature Untold
Play: The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission recently outlawed all possession of alcohol at Lake McConaughy, so leave the pingpong balls and plastic cups at home. (We’ve heard of thirsty visitors burying beer-filled coolers in the sand and covering them with their chairs, but we’d never dream of employing the tactic ourselves.) Besides, booze and boating don’t mix, and tucked in Arthur Bay on the north shore is Big Mac Marina and its ready supply of Jet Ski, speedboat, and pontoon rentals.
Sleep: Whether it’s Fourth of July or Brandi’s 21st (yay, Brandi!), you’re here for Lake McConaughy’s beaches. You’ll find the most pristine white sand at the Lone Eagle (within walking distance of Big Mac Marina) and Little Thunder campgrounds along the northeast shore, from Martin Bay to Lemoyne. Both have grassy spots, but it’s the select number of right-on-the-sand sites you’ll covet. Whenever you visit, be sure to plan ahead: Beach camping used to be first come, first served, but this past April, the commission instituted a reservation system to limit overcrowding and ensure visitors actually pay their fees (it’s usually about $15 a night) during peak season from May 21 to September 21.
Repeat: Some of the best public golf in these parts can be found on the banks of Lake McConaughy at Bayside Golf Club. A links-style course built atop western Nebraska’s undulating hills, Bayside looks like it was plucked from Scotland, the birthplace of golf. From there, it’s a mere 20-minute drive to Ogallala’s Rendezvous Square, where every Thursday night until July 22, the city hosts live music performances by local bands.
Play: An angler’s bacchanal, Lake Mac’s waters brim with everything from white bass to catfish, but most experienced casters are hunting walleye, the trophy of the upper Midwest and a fine freshwater eating fish. Because the featureless bottom of the reservoir doesn’t encourage fish to congregate in one spot, your best chance of finding them is to hire a guide, such as Fish the Plains’ Chad Richardson, also a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With dinner procured, spend your afternoons scouting the indigo buntings and bald eagles that make Keith County the third-best birding locale in the country, according to Dr. Paul Johnsgard, an ornithologist emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Sleep: One of nearly 30 private lodges and campgrounds located on the banks of the reservoir (note: “private” means you can possess and consume alcohol on the property), Van’s Lakeview Fishing Camp is rustic enough to feel like an adventure, yet convenient enough not to be a hassle. Ninety of the 102 campsites (yes, it can get crowded) have electricity and water hookups; if you don’t own a camper, you can rent one on-site ($295 a night, sleeps eight), as well as pontoons, small fishing boats, and paddleboards, all of which are accessible at your leisure from the campground’s docks. Perhaps the best part of Van’s? The showers and laundromat mean you can play all day in the sand without looking (and feeling) gritty the next morning.
Repeat: Lake McConaughy will host the 39th annual Kites and Castles event on July 31 on Martin Bay’s beach. Teams are split into two divisions for the sand castle contest—kids and grown-ups—and the creations are artistic enough to make Michelangelo proud. Even if the tides erase your kids’ “David,” the free kites and warm breezes should be enough to blow their disappointment away.
What To Know About Lake McConaughy
See: In the 1880s, nearby Ogallala, Nebraska, was the rowdy terminus of the Texas Trail, used for cattle drives that began in the Lone Star State. A vestige of those times is Boot Hill Cemetery, where cowpokes went to their graves wearing boots.
Hunt: In-season hunting is allowed starting the first Tuesday after Labor Day (get a permit at ngpc-home.ne.gov and check with the visitor center before heading out), but only if you stay at least 100 yards away from park facilities.
Bring: You can’t expect to withstand the summer sun and enjoy the water without a great pair of shades, and Boulder-based Zeal Optics’ polarized Caddis sunglasses are designed to help you better spot fish in the water. $149
After miraculously surviving the 2020 wildfires, Grand Lake Lodge is ready to celebrate a post-pandemic existence—and its 100th birthday.
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Although the town of Grand Lake is built for family fun, Grand Lake Lodge is really for parents. There’s a playground, a pool, and a social hour every afternoon, during which kids can indulge in milk and cookies. But those amenities are simply diversions so you can revel in what the iconic destination affords. All 70 of the cabins have been recently renovated, yet the main attraction remains the lodge’s location. Perched above town and surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, the property’s Deer Deck is positioned for prime viewing pleasure with a panoramic vista of Shadow Mountain, Mt. Wescott, and Mt. Craig (locals call it Mt. Baldy), all reflected in Grand Lake below. While your kids are off exploring, watch as the sun slips behind the peaks and the stars begin to light up the sky. Thanks to the platform’s deck-long fire pit, you won’t even register the drop in temperature. Grand Lake Lodge will be more festive than usual this summer, as its centennial celebrations culminate and COVID-19 restrictions loosen. On Mondays, guests will be treated to free yoga; Thursdays are for sipping and painting. And if your kids are old enough to be left alone in your nearby cabin, you can escape to the lavish on-site Huntington House Tavern for grilled elk chops with a blackberry demi-glace and the most breathtaking view in a town full of them. Rates from $180
A Family-Friendly Guide to Grand Lake
A family vacation is an eternal struggle, an us-versus-them battle between parents and kids. Fortunately, there are no losers in Grand Lake.
For Parents: Grand Lake’s only public beach comes complete with picnic tables and shade and is small enough for you to occasionally lift your head from the latest James Patterson novel to check on your little ones.
For Kids: During the summer, Lakefront Park is rife with tykes and teens testing their fortitude in the frigid waters and trying to build castles in the grainy sand. When their teeth-chattering threatens their dental work, send your brood to Miyauchi’s Snack Bar, a retro ice cream and burger joint right behind the beach, for a side of onion rings.
For Parents: Set on the dividing edge between Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake, this picturesque park benefits from the full majesty of hulking Mt. Baldy across the water and provides an ideal backdrop for a mantel-worthy family portrait.
For Kids: Save a few bucks by buying picnic fixin’s at Mountain Market, where the selection ranges from organic to Oscar Mayer. Then spread out a blanket and play some lawn games at one of the most scenic locales in Colorado.
Headwaters Marina Scenic Lake Tours
For Parents: On this hourlong excursion, which circumnavigates Grand Lake, you’ll catch a glimpse of a red-roofed mansion getaway built by heirs to the Hallmark greeting card fortune and see an abode featuring a stoplight whose green glow means the party has started and everyone in town is invited.
For Kids: Send them to the bow to keep a lookout for Bruce the Moose, a local celeb who maintains his youthful figure (he’s almost 40!) by doing laps in Grand Lake. Bruce can sometimes be spotted diving to the bottom to snack on algae, emerging from the depths like an antlered porpoise to scare—and delight—unsuspecting kids (not to mention their parents). $20 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under
For Parents: Starting from the East Inlet trailhead, leading into Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s just three-quarters of a mile to Adams Falls, a 55-foot-tall gusher.
For Kids: The northeast shore of Grand Lake, near the East Inlet trailhead, is a welcome respite after a summertime trek. Although there’s no beach, this is the best spot to swim, SUP, and splash because it’s almost never in the shadows of the surrounding peaks, making the water temps a bit warmer—but, to be clear, it’s still not warm.
For Parents: The family-owned restaurant raises its own cows at its ranch in Franktown, so it’s no wonder Squeaky B’s six-ounce Angus burger is considered the best in town. Whatever diner-esque fare you order, chances are it pairs well with the covered outdoor beer garden.
For Kids: The beer garden abuts an expansive outdoor patio, where little ones are free to run wild and burn off the sugar rush from salted caramel apple pie milkshakes—or take in 18 holes at Lilliput, the free on-site putt-putt course.
What To Know About Grand Lake
Hike: The East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires have closed a number of Rocky Mountain National Park trails. Visit nps.gov for updates or call the park at 970-586-1206.
Boat: Sailboats dot the water during the annual regattas (July 3 and August 7 this year). The lake has only one ramp, though, so weekend boaters will tie up to the public dock overnight and suffer a $100 fine rather than having to wait in line every morning.
Bring: The Kid Comfort Child Carrier from Longmont’s Deuter earned REI’s nod as the best kid carrier for daytrips in 2021 because, in part, of its suspension system, which shifts 70 percent of the load to the carrier’s hips. From $300
The waters of Chaffee County’s Cottonwood Lake provide every opportunity to escape. All you have to do is surrender.
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In August 2020, the world was still very much on fire. Metaphorically, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to keep us largely inside and afraid. But Colorado was aflame, too: Multiple wildfires were threatening some of the most beautiful places in the state. It didn’t seem like a good time to take a trip.
Nevertheless, I loaded up my car with enough supplies to get me through a night of car camping at Cottonwood Lake, hoping to discover enough details to write a helpful guide for readers and then scream back home. Twenty-one hours later, I emerged from the little alpine lake nestled in the Pike and San Isabel national forests restored, feeling more prepared to meet whatever conflagrations I’d soon encounter.
1:27 p.m. Driving to the campsite, I pass Cottonwood Lake on my left, but I’m so worried about navigating the one-way dirt road (and dodging anglers) I don’t catch a good look.
2:47 p.m. Cottonwood Lake Campground is less than a half-mile beyond the lake, tucked into aspen trees. It has 25 first-come, first-served campsites, and I snag spot 16—a cute two-level with sitting area, graded pad with room for two tents, fire ring, and partial views of the mountains. After pitching my tent, I inflate the stand-up paddleboard and prepare to bake under the sun.
3 p.m. Raindrops. The heavens never open, but the sun retreats, and the temperature dives into the 60s. Not exactly SUP weather. Time to hike.
3:07 p.m. I opt for an unnamed social path along South Cottonwood Creek, which flows into the lake’s western edge. A good decision. The wind sets the aspen leaves trembling along my way; once creekside, I hum along with the shallow waters as they rush around rocky outcrops and over short ledges. My reverie is jolted by a private property sign decorated with, ahem, used shooting targets. I walk back—briskly—in the other direction.
3:50 p.m. I pass two waders roll casting for the stream’s cutbow and rainbow trout. The fish here aren’t exactly hogs, but they’re beauties nonetheless.
4:15 p.m. Finally, I arrive at Cottonwood Lake. Set at roughly 9,500 feet in the Sawatch Range, the lake’s banks slope upward into pine-covered cliffs, and the landscape is reflected in the water. Boats with motors aren’t allowed, so the only sound is the plunk of lures from the hollows that dot the north shore. I find a log and watch the day turn darker and colder, listening to the soft splash of fish rising to their dinner.
6 p.m. Back at camp, the campsite host comes bounding up the road, whisper-shouting, “Look at that big ole mama!” A gigantic black bear is standing behind the aspens, surveying us. I fight the urge to run toward it, then away from it, before settling on some sort of half-hidden-paparazzi pose behind a tree. The bear shakes her head before padding deeper into the woods.
9 p.m. After putting out the fire, I look up at the sky. Strangely, there are no stars. Campsites are only 50 or so yards away, but surrounded by trees, I feel completely alone—in a good way.
8:15 a.m. Sun’s out, SUP’s out. The brightness of the morning has burned through yesterday’s gray. I float with the current, listening to a family of five set up at one of the six picnic areas on the eastern side of the lake. Two little blond girls lead their mom on an obscured but easily accessible path on the south bank. I’ve got a video meeting at noon. There’s no service here—normally a blessing—and I’m sure my Slack is bleeding with notifications. Also: emails. I open my eyes to start paddling to shore, but instead I see South Cottonwood Creek bisecting mountains in the distance. I lie back down.
What To Know About Cottonwood Lake
Stay: Cottonwood Lake Campground ($20 per night; max of eight visitors per site) has vault toilets but no drinking water, so bring your own.
Hike: Segment 13 of the Colorado Trail is accessible via the South Cottonwood trailhead, which is about 3.5 miles north on the road you came in on, aka County Road 344.
Boat: There’s a gravel boat ramp for launching rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. No motors are allowed.
Bring: The inflatable Carbon Hoss SUP is one of Steamboat Springs–based Hala Gear’s broadest models, providing bountiful stability for new paddlers. $1,399
Blue Mesa Reservoir
To take advantage of all the opportunities Colorado’s largest lake (with nearly 100 miles of shoreline) and vast waters provide, you need to be familiar with its most intimate details. Consider this your treasure map to Blue Mesa Reservoir.
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1. Adventures Of The Pod People
With more than 150 sites, marina access, and proximity to sizzling burgers at Pappy’s Restaurant, the Elk Creek Campground in Curecanti National Recreation Area is the most convenient base of operations. It became even more so in 2020, with the installation of three Adventure Pods; two pet-friendly ones were added earlier this year. The tiny, 60-square-foot cabins provide a turnkey, camping-adjacent experience: a sturdy roof, solar-powered lights, two stand-up paddleboards, a cord of firewood, a dedicated fire ring, and a mattress that’s infinitely more supple than the ground. (Linens aren’t provided; pack your sleeping bag.) $129 per night from May 31 to September 2, $149 on holidays
2. Party Cove
In the Cebolla Basin, you just might find the kind of revelry that only warm sun, cool water, adult beverages (warning: operating a boat with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or greater could result in a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail), and Toby Keith can inspire. About a mile south of Blue Mesa’s main mass on this inlet, trees start sprouting from the water, providing an easy way to tie up and amass a flotilla.
The Blue Mesa area can get gusty, but the strong breezes aren’t all bad: The exposed surfaces at the Bay of Chickens and Iola Basin make for some thrilling windsurfing.
4. Wake Zone
The Dillon Pinnacles are arguably the most alluring hiking destination near Blue Mesa. To reach the distinctive rock formation requires a four-mile out-and-back trek, but the views of the reservoir as well as the distant San Juan Mountains make it more than worth it. You can also skip the overland trudging altogether, because the best look at the volcanic spires is actually from the water, just to the west of Middle Bridge. After you’ve given the cliffs a good eyeball, toss out a tow rope: It’s a great spot to water-ski if anglers aren’t around.
5. School Days
The reservoir’s huge groups of kokanee salmon ricochet around the lake from late July to early September. If you find yourself at the reservoir earlier in the summer or later in the fall, don’t fret; there are still plenty of trophies to be had, especially among the potbellied lake trout that feast on the smaller brownies and rainbows in the lake. In fact, Blue Mesa holds the record for the fattest lake trout ever caught in Colorado, at 50 pounds, five ounces. The trick? Toss out a vertical jigging rig—a long line weighted by a sinker that has several spaced-out lures—and pray Tubbo doesn’t break your rod.
6. What Goes Down…
Hermit’s Rest Trail is a bit of a misnomer. There is indeed a secluded respite at the bottom of the canyon, but “rest” is in short supply. Hiking back out—you’ll gain 1,800 feet in elevation—will test the capabilities of even your finest moisture-wicking shirt. If you’re not up for the climb, the trailhead is still worth a look. Eight peaks of at least 12,000 feet, including two fourteeners, loom in the distance above the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The nearly three-mile, pine-scented downclimb is less exposed than the guidebooks suggest. Still, on a hot summer day, you’ll want to stall at the bottom of the canyon, dipping your toes in the chilly water, because once you decide you’ve had enough of a breather, the most difficult part of the hike lies ahead.
7. Step By Step By Step
Ambitious adventurers can rent an inflatable kayak from Wheelies and Waves in Gunnison and hoof its 32 pounds down the 232 steps of Pine Creek Trail. Once those well-maintained wood-and-stone steps run out, keep to the trail for about another mile. Although putting in at the foot of the stairs, which end where water pours through the base of the Blue Mesa Dam, seems like a brilliant plan, the shifting rocks of the shoreline are more trouble than carrying your load a while longer. All the lugging will pay off once you’re paddling in Morrow Point Reservoir, a thin ribbon of water between the canyon’s cliffs. Single kayak rentals from $45 for four hours to $150 for the week; wheeliesandwaves.com
What To Know About Blue Mesa Reservoir
Stay: You can find more solitude than Elk Creek offers at Gateview Campground, located at the southern tip of the Lake Fork Arm at the western end of the lake, which has six first-come, first-served sites and is accessible by a narrow gravel road.
Boat: There are few other places in the Centennial State better for boating. If you are without watercraft, rent fishing or pontoon boats from the Elk Creek or Lake Fork marinas.
Bring: A luxury the Adventure Pods do not afford? Refrigeration. Fort Collins–based OtterBox’s Venture 65 cooler insulates food for up to 16 days and, with a capacity of 65 quarts, holds more than a comparable model from Yeti. $350
Don’t Miss These Other Colorado Lakes and Reservoirs
There are more than 4,000 lakes in Colorado. While you can’t visit them all, here are five waterside locales you shouldn’t skip.
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Pearl Lake State Park
This shoreline campground north of Steamboat Springs has an amenity Cottonwood can’t match: yurts, at spots six and 16, that overlook a tranquil lake (motorized craft are allowed, but big wakes are not) ringed by wildflowers in the summer.
Eleven Mile State Park
Snag campsite 910 at this Park County refuge, roughly 40 miles southeast of Fairplay; it’s in the backcountry campground, but the hike is only a mile and you can hire someone at 11 Mile Marina to schlep your gear in by boat. The site boasts a rocky shore from which to cast a line and an inlet for launching SUPs, canoes, and kayaks. The only distractions here are the tail-slapping beavers that share the cove.
Chatfield State Park
The reservoir’s swimming beach is a popular destination. Enjoy the people-watching—and look up to spot the hot air balloons that often soar by. $10 daily vehicle pass
Big Soda Lake
Sure, this watering hole in Lakewood’s Bear Creek Lake Park is within view of C-470. That just means it’s mere minutes from most places in the metro area. $10 day pass per vehicle