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Best known as the gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park’s more remote west side, the quaint town of Grand Lake is oft-forgotten once Trail Ridge Road—a top 10 designated America’s Byways scenic drives and the park’s main thoroughfare—closes for the winter. Heck, even the Ute Indians who made the Kawuneeche Valley (now encompassed by the west side of the park) their summer home vacated the area once the temperatures dropped, referring to the snow-capped mountain range as the “Never Summers.”
But just because the park is socked in with snow by mid-October doesn’t mean Grand Lake should be overlooked as a winter vacation destination. Taking the “long way” over Berthoud Pass only adds a few more miles to your drive rather than going through RMNP, and the area receives an average of 130 inches of snow per year, making it a paradise for both powder-hounds seeking fresh tracks as well as hygge hopefuls craving an idyllic cabin retreat. Couples will adore the charming small-town atmosphere, and families will be impressed by the array of old-fashioned activities for all ages, like sledding, ice skating, and game nights. And everyone will be mesmerized by the stunning scenery.
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The Odometer: 101 miles from Denver, one-way
If you thought you could only experience the majesty of RMNP in the summer, think again. Winter is a great time to venture into the park, and many trails are accessible for skiing and snowshoeing. Located just one mile from the town of Grand Lake, the Kawuneeche Valley Visitors Center is open all winter for educational information, souvenirs shopping, and special events like ranger-led snowshoe hikes.
This remote region of the park is also one of the best spots for viewing wildlife like elk, moose, fox, and bird species from the comfort of your vehicle’s heated seats. Head the opposite way on Highway 34 towards the Green Ridge Campground on Shadow Mountain Lake to catch a glimpse of bald eagles in their winter nests through a handy viewfinder.
The Grand Lake Nordic Center shares a border with the park and boasts beautiful terrain for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (well-behaved dogs are also permitted on these trails). If you happen to be visiting around a full moon, don’t miss the popular night ski event, during which locals and tourists gather to enjoy torch-lit trails and a bonfire featuring hot adult beverages. If you prefer to break your own trail, check out the North Inlet trailhead for a nice trek to Cascade Falls.
Families with little ones will appreciate the free ice skating offered at the Grand Lake Center, the town-owned recreation facility, as well as the free sledding/tubing hill at the aforementioned Nordic center.
More adventurous types can learn for themselves why the area is dubbed the “Snowmobile Capital of Colorado” by hiring a guide at On The Trail Rentals to help navigate the area’s extensive trail system through the Arapaho National Forest. Experienced riders can take their sleds up to Stillwater Pass to charge deep powder stashes. Just make sure to check trail conditions before you head out.
If you really want to do as the locals do, call Bernie Keefe, the man behind the Fishing With Bernie water reports, for an ice fishing lesson on the largest (and perhaps most picturesque) natural lake in Colorado, and the town’s namesake water feature. Already experienced in the art of augering (aka drilling)? Grand Lake plays host to several major ice-fishing tournaments from January through March, which offer the chance to cash in on your big catch.
Arts & Culture
Grand Lake has long been an inspiration to artists, and recently the town was designated as one of Colorado’s 26 Creative Districts for its year-round heritage and cultural offerings, like art galleries, historic landmarks, and creative events like craft festivals, writer’s retreats, and theatrical performances at the award-winning Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater. Many of Grand Lake’s galleries are artist-owned and operated, and often you can catch the creatives in action, such as at pastelist Marjorie Cranston’s Jackstraw Mountain Gallery and Studio 8369, which is owned and operated by Keith and Laura Kratz.
To really get to know Grand Lake, you’ll have to step back in time. Download a self-guided tour map and visit some of the area’s historical landmarks, including the Kauffman House Museum—a log home built in 1892 that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974—which opens for tours on select dates throughout the winter.
The best part? Most of these attractions are connected by a covered wooden boardwalk along the town’s main drag, Grand Avenue, making for a pleasant stroll no matter the weather.
Eat & Drink
Although some Grand Lake restaurant owners close up and head south for the winter, there are plenty of great places open year-round to keep you fueled and warm. Start your day with a gooey design-your-own donut at LuLu City Coffee + Donuts, named for an iconic mining town on Rocky’s west side, or a breakfast sandwich on a signature jalapeño-flavored bagel at Bighorn Bagels.
For lunch, head to Sloopy’s Grill, located just outside of town en route to RMNP, for cheap and greasy grub on the fly—think burgers, breakfast burritos, and fried chicken baskets—a favorite amongst the snowmobile crowd. Later, snack on a bottomless bucket of peanuts (and toss those shells on the floor) while looking over the extensive menu at the Sagebrush Bar & Grill, specializing in hearty Western fare like wild-game sausage and barbecue platters.
Date night calls for a trip down the highway to the Stillwater Grill, where you can snag a cozy spot by the fireplace (faux, but fabulous) to enjoy fancy French classics like escargot and duck confit, and watch pizzas fly out of the wood-fire grill behind the bar. If you’re feeling peckish late-night, the bar at the Grandview Mountain Lodge serves wings and things until midnight.
Thirsty? No visit to Grand Lake is complete without a visit to the Lariat Saloon Bar & Grill, where you’ll feel like the star of your own country song while sipping a longneck under the steady gaze of an enormous mounted buffalo head and listening to tunes play off an electronic jukebox. The town’s token Mexican restaurant, El Pacifico, offers two-for-one margaritas during happy hour—the perfect primer for getting up on stage for karaoke later in the night. Tip: Small mountain towns tend to operate on their own timelines, so always call ahead to check current hours of operation.
There are a variety of rustic–chic hotels within walking distance to downtown Grand Lake. The Western Riviera offers several different types of lodging, from lakefront motel rooms to hillside cabins. The Gateway Inn has a full range of amenities, like an on-site hot tub, restaurant, and bar, often with live music and special events like game nights. At the far end of the town, the historic Rapids Lodge has a resident moose that usually makes an appearance at the creek running through the property in the late afternoons. The Airbnb scene is also thriving in Grand Lake, and is your best bet for booking a cozy cabin in the woods.
If You Do One Thing…
Set foot on the Continental Divide Trail, which passes directly through town, making Grand Lake one of 16 official “Gateway Communities” of this famous 3,100-mile long trail. The trail can be accessed easily by taking a short walk across Rainbow Bridge over the canal between Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir, located just minutes from town.