September 26, 2019
The town of Grand Lake, Colorado, named after the largest and deepest lake in the state of the same name, sits quietly on the southwestern corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s known as the western gateway to a vast wilderness playground that saw its highest annual visitation ever in 2018 at 4,590,492 documented guests. Estes Park on the diagonal to the northeast funnels the bulk of these visitors. But in Grand Lake the population has continued to tick upwards since Trail Ridge Road, the highest continually paved road in the United States and rising to 12,183 feet, finally reached the town in 1938 after nine years of construction.
Still, with only around 500 permanent residents and no ski resorts nearby, Grand Lake is virtually shuttered during winter months. It takes over a month to plow the 48-mile Trail Ridge stretch connecting Estes Park to here if that helps provide a perspective for the amount of snowfall these mountains receive. Mounds of it drift half a person tall in some areas, blanketing the front stoops of the more seasonal businesses in a sweeping, white clump that doesn’t get cleared; it’s left to melt when the time comes.
But as late Spring warms into Summer, this otherwise tiny town swells to capacity, and the whole area is revived from yet another brutal winter.
Rolling hilltops crest above sparkling, glacial waters which remain frigid at even the height of August. An unflinching experience maybe if you grew up here or in another northern locale like Maine where the water never warms. But if you’re used to the bathwater temps of the Gulf of Mexico like I am, it’s a literal shock to the senses. And like so many of Colorado’s smaller mountain towns, there’s a cozy, yesteryear charm that somehow allows you to stroll through a previous time.
Unlike Aspen, Vail, and even Estes Park situated at the foot of a massive attraction, Grand Lake doesn’t have a single chain restaurant, ice cream shop, or grocery store. There’s a City Market in Granby 17 miles to the south, and a super cute, well-stocked local market too. There’s also no movie theatre—not that you’ll miss it—and the town core is lined with the early 1900s timber-built cabins and lodges of its past. Founded in 1902, the original building for the Grand Lake Yacht Club still hovers over the water (or ice depending on when you visit) where at 8,366 feet it has been officially recognized as the world’s highest registered yacht club.
Tourists and Colorado staycationers launch kayaks and paddleboards (or blow them up first—the inflatable versions are a thing now) from a narrow curve of soft brown sand nearby. Others rent or charter sailboats, pontoons, runabouts, and pedal cruisers. Out on the lake, they splash each other, striking the water with their oars. On land, visitors fill the half dozen or so picnic tables spread across the limited beach where pines shoot tall from the dirt. And even though it’s crowded to a degree, there’s a leisurely quality to it. A few families share a small micro cove hidden from the rest, their kids digging together as the parents lounge on blankets and towels spread across the ground.
In town, there are a few great eating spots to note. For jaw-busting mega burgers and fun surprises like mac and cheese sandwiches, also their shakes topped with confectionary overloads like whole cupcakes, try Squeeky B’s and their live music beer garden. Or even better, try one of their boozy milkshakes. If you’ve always craved sitting on a saddle-turned-barstool while eating nontraditional pizza concoctions with ingredients such as enchilada sauce, mango habanero, or Thai peanuts and mozzarella (yes, together), then White Buffalo Pizza and Pub at Grumpy’s Saloon is where you want to be. If you’re craving tapas and wines or cocktails overlooking the lake, Cork on the Water is a chill reprieve from the more crowded dining spots and fried food baskets and has an excellent view along with outdoor seating.
Among the many shops and galleries worth of a visit, you simply must, must, MUST, I’m begging you, pay a visit to the Quacker Gift Shop, filled floor to ceiling with rubber ducks, and Aliplano Insulation, a company making sustainable garments and products using llama fiber. While the other stops along the main corridor are all worth a browse, these two are unlike any you’ll see again anytime soon.