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Kayaking, Hiking, and Wildlife in Grand Lake, Colorado, the “Western Gateway” to Rocky Mountain National Park


Grand Lake is the “western gateway” to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Surrounded by mountains and sitting at 8,369 feet, the lakeside scenery is stunning. There are quaint cabins and sprawling homes dotting the shoreline.  It is home to Colorado’s largest natural lake and one of the oldest yacht clubs in the west.  I had visited Grand Lake a couple of times in winter, but never in summer.  My friend Lisa and I road tripped for a 2-night grand getaway in Grand Lake. The lake itself is a grand natural attraction.  It was formed by glaciation over 30,000 years ago.  It is the largest and deepest lake in Colorado.  It’s part of the headwaters of the Colorado River.  Arapaho Indians called it “Spirit Lake” before the first white settlers arrived in the area in 1867.  The Arapaho believed a supernatural buffalo lived in the lake. 

Checking In at the Historic Grand Lake Lodge

We arrived at Grand Lake Lodge late afternoon.  This historic resort is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  All 70 of its cabins are historic Sears Roebuck kit cabins.  Check-in is outside this summer and fall.  It was fast.  I said my name and they gave me a packet with directions of how to get to our cabin. 

My room was F3 and Lisa’s F4 in the Fox Den cluster of cabins.  Most of the cabins are like ours and have two adjoining rooms.  One room is great for a solo traveler or couple.  For families or groups of four, I’d consider booking both rooms in a cabin or book one of the larger accommodations.  I loved the blue accents and pictures on the wall.  I also really like having the sink vanity area outside of where the toilet and shower are, which is a bit on the small size, but remember these are historic cabins.  Where the bed and sink vanity are is very spacious.  There’s a small fridge and microwave in the rooms.  Normally there’s a coffee maker and other amenities, but those have been removed during this COVID-19 summer and fall.

After settling in, I joined a historic tour complete with Vince, the tour guide, dressed in clothes from the 1920s.  Grand Lake Lodge was the vision of one man, Roe Emery, during a time when the “spirit of adventure” was high in America as people from the Midwest and East Coast headed to the Rockies.  Roe Emery was quite possibly the first person to create a hotel package including transportation to and from the train station, room, food and sightseeing.  He created the 240-mile “Circle Tour” with pick up in Denver, a night’s stay at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park which was established in 1915 for a night’s stay at Grand Lake Lodge, then stopping for a hot springs soak in Idaho Springs before returning to Denver.  The cost for the 3-day bus tour was $27.  Grand Lake Lodge opened on July 3, 1920.  On July 19, 1973, a fire devastated the lodge forcing it to close for almost a decade.  It’s the reason there’s a vintage fire truck in the parking lot.  It reopened in 1981 and became a registered National Historic Landmark in 1993.  The rustic lodge is now the hub of the resort with food, shopping, lots of seating, “Colorado’s Favorite Front Porch,” and pool, Deer Deck and wedding venue just below it. The views from the lodge or any of the decks are superb.

We enjoyed dinner on the mountainside deck of Huntington House Tavern.  We were able to open the large glass windows to let the fresh mountain air flow in.  It’s dinner with a view if you sit on the deck.  We selected options from their prix fixe menu.   Lisa ordered her favorite cocktail, an old-fashioned, and I went for the Tequila Mockingbird cocktail, a twist on a margarita with Luna Azul tequila blanco, black raspberry liqueur and lime.  Freshly baked bread in a small cast iron skillet was brought to the table as a starter.  For the first course, both of us ordered the Lodge Salad with organic mixed greens, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, dried cherries, candied pecans and gorgonzola with a balsamic vinaigrette.  We also went the same on the main course and ordered the seared diver scallops and jumbo lump crab cakes topped with roasted corn and poblano salsa and drizzled with a rojo sauce.  For dessert, she ordered the key lime pie and I ordered the house made peach crumble with vanilla ice cream so we could try both.  The peach crumble won!

We walked off dinner with a leisurely stroll around the property and got treated to a beautiful sunset before settling into our rooms in our cabin.

Kayaking, Hiking, Downtown Dinner and a Waterfall

We started our full day in Grand Lake just as we had finished the previous day, with a walk.  It was a beautiful crisp morning.  We headed into the lodge for coffee then sat out on “Colorado’s Favorite Front Porch” and enjoyed coffee with a view.  The lake looked like glass. 

Enticed by the calmness, we drove down to the marina area and rented kayaks from Mountain Paddlers, owned by Andy and his son Drew.  While getting us geared up, Andy told us to keep an eye out for Grandy, which is Grand Lake’s version of Lock Ness.  He said look for unusual rippling in the water.  It was still cool and at 8:30 a.m. there typically aren’t a lot of folks out on the water.  It was shear bliss as the paddle broke the water’s stillness with each stroke.  There were moments I just stopped paddling to enjoy the view of mountain peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park.  My only bummer was not seeing any unusual rippling.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Grandy.

After about an hour of paddling, we headed back to Main Street for coffee and breakfast.  My favorite spot for coffee in Grand Lake is Jump Start.  I found it during a stay in January.  Right next to it is Bagel Den.  After grabbing lattes at Jump Start and while waiting for bagels, we watched hummingbirds enjoy their breakfast.  Once back at Grand Lake Lodge, I ate half of my egg and cheese bagel and saved half for our hike.

We met up with my friend Gaylene, who lives in Grand County. She had gotten a permit for us to enter Rocky Mountain National Park in a timed entry of 10 a.m.-noon. She drove and we parked at Green Mountain Trailhead. As we started hiking the 1.8 miles to Big Meadows, I realized it was my first time to hike on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The straight steadily climbed through a lush forest for the first half miles. As we got into tall pines, it leveled out some. We passed a series of small meadows before getting to Big Meadows with a fantastic view of Mount Ida, a distinct mountain because of it slant. Gaylene has an advice book from the wilderness. She likes to read a page when she gets to her destination point on a hike. The page she turned to was advice from a butterfly. It read, “Let your true colors show. Get out of your cocoon. Take yourself lightly. Look for the sweetness in life. Take time to smell the flowers. Catch a breeze. We can’t all be monarchs!” It’s great advice. From Big Meadows we took the Lower Tonahutu Trail. Gaylene stayed with us for a little bit then headed back to the trailhead to get her car while Lisa and I hiked back along a stream and through the pines to Grand Lake Lodge for about a 6-mile hike. *UPDATE: Green Mountain Trail is closed due to significant fire damage from East Troublesome Fire in October 2020. No re-open date.

Late afternoon, Lisa and I headed to Grand Avenue, Grand Lake’s main street, to walk around and grab an early dinner.  Sagebrush BBQ and Grill is a must in Grand Lake.  It’s a rustic, saloon-type establishment where it’s acceptable to throw peanut shells on the floor.  I’ve eaten at Sagebrush on all of my trips to Grand Lake.  It’s an institution with consistently good comfort food and service. We started with a basket of sweet potato fries.  Lisa ordered a beer and I went for a cider.  Trying to be semi-healthy I ordered the house-made tuna salad with cornbread.  It’s one of the more popular items on the menu.  The salad is huge and delicious.

We headed back to Grand Avenue.  Most of the shops and galleries were closed for the evening, but Humphreys Cabin Fever was still open.  It’s filled with everything from gifts to clothes to home décor.  It’s a modern general store and housed in the Humphrey’s Store building dating back to 1881.

After our early dinner, we decided to walk it off doing the short hike to Adams Falls.  The trailhead is about a mile from downtown and there’s a large parking lot as this hike is very popular.  Doing it in the evening, we avoided the late morning and mid-day crowds.  It’s only 0.3 miles to the overlook of Adams Falls.  The cascading falls drops about 55 feet through a narrow gorge.  There are also some great views of Grand Lake from this hike.

We had logged a lot of miles hiking, walking and kayaking so we treated ourselves to something sweet.  We ordered ice cream cones from Polly’s Sweet Shop on Grand Avenue and walked down to the historic boardwalk to enjoy the golden hour as the sun started setting over Grand Lake.  We made it back to our cabin just in time to see the alpenglow light up the peaks in pink and purple hues.

The next morning, I got up early for a solo walk.  As I got close to where there’s a swing set and where you take a short trail on property to connect to a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park, something black in the trees caught my eye.  I cautiously walked a few more steps and realized it was a moose.  It wasn’t just one moose; it was two munching away on the bushes near some cabins.  I kept a good distance from them but enjoyed watching the two moose eat then stroll along Old Tonahutu Ridge Road behind Grand Lake Lodge and into Rocky Mountain National Park.  I started to the trail into the park that Lisa and I had hiked out of the day before but thought of the moose not far away and what other large wildlife might be out eating breakfast and retreated back to walking at the Lodge.

I did some television live shots from Grand Lake so that took up a couple of hours.  We had so much fun kayaking the day before that Lisa and I decided to go out for three hours.  If you rent for two hours from Mountain Paddlers, you get a third hour free.  The water was as calm as the day before, but we had a great time.  We circled Grand Lake looking at the sprawling homes and cute cabins along the shoreline.  We thought about paddling through the channel into Shadow Mountain Lake, but the winds started picking up.  Instead we paddled through some small sailboats that were part of a sailing class and headed back to the marina area.

We were starving when we were done paddling.  Lisa suggested trying The Hub, one of the newest cafes in Grand Lake.  They don’t have a vegetarian panini on the board, but they modified the turkey/bacon club for me, and it was wonderful.  Lisa and I sat outside where we were entertained by a hummingbird during our late lunch.   

I got lucky and was able to snag one of the 3-5 p.m. reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park when they were released at 8 a.m. two days before.  Our plan was to do a leisurely drive of Trail Ridge Road from Grand Lake to Estes Park with stops along the way.  Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles long with 11 miles of it above tree line.  It’s the highest continuous paved road in the United States.  The parking lot at Coyote Valley was busy so we opted to stop at Baker Bowen parking area.  There were a few people there but as soon as we cross the river and walked into the meadow, we were the only ones on our short hike.  We crossed the meadow and headed into the forest until we found a stream where we just sat for a few minutes enjoying the wildness and serenity of wilderness on the lesser traveled side of Rocky Mountain National Park.  I even stood in the middle of the stream.  We probably hiked about 1.5 miles round trip before resuming our drive.  Trail Ridge twists and turns as it winds up to an elevation over 12,000 feet.  We enjoyed the scenery on the drive, including from a couple of overlooks.  When we got to the Alpine Visitor Center, Lisa decided to chill while I quickly hiked up stairs to over 12,005 feet.  It was chilly and windy.  That elevation is a breath stealer.  Our next stop was to look at the Gore Range.  Shortly after that, we saw some cars pulled off.  There was a big horn sheep perched on a rock outcropping in the distance.  That’s where we said good-bye and until next time to the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park as we drove the rest of Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park then headed back to Denver.

Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively in Colorado. For more itineraries and things to do and see, check out the Explore Colorado section. Read blog Want to see a Moose to see some wildlife on the west side of Rocky Mountain National.

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