The small town of Grand Lake, Colorado – population 471 or thereabouts – sits on the shores of Grand Lake at an elevation of 8,369 feet. It’s the gateway community to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park and as such has all the services you need. It’s also a destination in itself. In summer the lake – the largest natural body of water in Colorado, becomes a recreational playground. In winter snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are popular.
I visited Grand Lake at the invitation of the Grand County tourism board. I came specifically to cross-country ski and snowshoe. With its proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park and US Forest Service lands, I discovered that there’s a tremendous amount of country to explore – and two days on snowshoes and skis barely scratches the surface of what’s out there.
Grand Lake Nordic Centre
Both skate and classic cross-country skiers will love the 35 kilometres of groomed trails at the Grand Lake Nordic Centre. The trails cater to all abilities with some easy sections set aside for those with dogs. Spend a day skiing loops off Randall’s Romp with some trails offering views of the Never Summer Mountain Range. Ski across the Colorado River before its gained any size and enjoy the beauty and peace as you ski through groves of aspen and pine. A lucky few might see a moose on the trail.
Rent skis for $16/day, $13 per half day. Trail passes are also $16 and $13 for full and half days. Snowshoers are welcome and there’s a great tubing hill that doesn’t cost a penny. Onsite there’s a store and a dining room. It’s about a 10 minute drive outside of Grand Lake.
Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are so many options when it comes to snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you stick to the East Inlet Trail near Grand Lake there are no fees. Otherwise you’ll have to pay $10 per vehicle for the day, $15 for a week.
I spent a day snowshoeing and explored three different trails. I came away wishing I had several more days so I could do the trails in their entirety.
I started with the easy East Inlet Trail to Adams Falls, with the trailhead just a few miles outside of Grand Lake. The falls themselves are frozen and underwhelming right now but the trail through a landscape of open lodgepole pine forest is stunning. Continue past the falls on a trail that follows the river to a large meadow with awesome views. From there the trail steepens as it continues to an overlook three miles from the parking lot. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to make it that far.
At 1 PM on Sundays, intermediate level snowshoers can meet at the Kewuneeche Visitor Centre in Rocky Mountain National Park from January 1 – March 5 for a free park ranger lead backcountry snowshoeing tour. If you’re a beginner level snowshoer sign up in advance and meet on Saturdays at 1 PM for a mostly flat hike. Reservations are required by calling 970-627-3471.
Our group drove north on Trail Ridge Road and stopped in the vicinity of Timber Lake on a big pullout. A couple of volunteers had scouted out the route we took a few days beforehand. Over the two hour trip (which includes driving time to the trailhead) we climbed about 700 feet through another beautiful forest of aspen and lodgepole pine with some views of the Never Summer Mountain range. Along the way as we paused to catch our breath – as we were at above 9,000 feet – the ranger, Barb King, pulled out flash cards with nature oriented questions. For example – what colour should you wear to repel mosquitoes? Orange is the correct answer – and news to me. It was a great way to get participation and there was a prize – the know-it-all award. The best part about this snowshoe tour, apart from learning some unusual facts, was the fun of running down the mountain on snowshoes through deep powder. The tour is definitely worth signing up for.
My third snowshoe trip of the day started at the Visitor Centre and headed off on the short but beautiful Tonahutu Spur Trail. In the late afternoon sunshine, the trees almost glowed orange. This spur trail hooks up with the North Inlet Trail (3.4 miles long) and the Tonahutu Creek Trail (3.3 miles long). From the Tonahutu Creek Trail there are even more options including a 7.6 mile loop so you can really have a full day of snowshoeing right from the Visitor Centre.
Before you head out snowshoeing it would be prudent to talk to people at the park to find out about trail conditions, avalanche danger and any wildlife sightings. This is moose country. It will also give you an opportunity to pick up a map and learn the location of other snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails.
Where to rent snowshoes in Grand Lake
You can rent snowshoes (and any other kind of outdoor equipment) at Never Summer Mountain Products in Grand Lake. The Grand Lake Nordic Centre also rents snowshoes but for use on their trails.
Snowmobiling in Grand Lake
Although I am not a snowmobiler (and I didn’t go snowmobiling) I can see the appeal of the region from a snowmobiler’s perspective. Right from the town of Grand Lake you can head out on 150 miles of groomed trails. Add another 700 miles of trails in Grand County and you could be exploring a new trail every weekend of the winter. The town itself is very supportive of snowmobiling – to the extent roads are left snow-packed so people can drive to shops, bars and restaurants on their snowmobiles.
What else can you do in Grand Lake?
The one main street in Grand Lake is loaded with cute shops and restaurants. Hours may be limited in winter but most were open over the weekend.
Where the ice is thick enough, you can certainly enjoy a walk on Grand Lake itself. And don’t miss a visit to Point Park for the views down the lake. In the summer it would be a lovely place to come and picnic. But even in winter the birds are out on the open water and when it’s warm enough to comfortably sit in the sun, it would be a great place to just hang out and take in the beauty of the area.
Grand Lake is a 2.5 hour drive from the Denver airport via Berthoud Pass. If you live in the Boulder – Denver corridor you could certainly visit over a long day trip but there’s enough to do outdoors in the winter that it’s well worth making it into a weekend getaway.