Against the stunning backdrop of Shadow Mountain Lake, Grand Lake and the Rocky Mountains is the town of Grand Lake, a tiny community of about 500 people.
But what it lacks in permanent residents, it more than makes up for in picturesque appeal, particularly its historic, Wild West-like boardwalk along Grand Avenue that's home to more than 60 restaurants, bars, galleries and shops.
Outside of the town, Grand Lake's proximity to both Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake make it an outdoor lover's paradise. Point Park affords stunning views of Mount Craig and offers boating, fishing and picnicking. It's also a popular spot for weddings.
The town also provides easy access to Adams Falls and Cascade Falls and to miles of hiking trails nearby.
It's also been dubbed the "Snowmobiling Capital of Colorado," as the winter draws enthusiasts from around the world to ride its miles and miles of trails.
A short history of the town
The first to discover the serenity of Grand Lake were Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes who would make yearly trips to the mountain lake. Since the diverse climate in the area attracts a wide range of plant and animal life, it was a great spot to hunt, fish and gather each summer.
French fur trappers were the next to come to the area, followed by other traders and explorers.
By the mid- to late-1800’s word of the great hunting and fishing opportunities offered around Grand Lake had gotten out and large European hunting parties wanted to visit. Local hunters acted as guides, some of them even constructing hunting lodges in towns.
These hunting guides were the first permanents residents of Grand Lake. Their cabins, made from the abundant Lodgepole Pines in the area, were beginning to dot the woods around the lake.
But it was in the 1870s that Grand Lake transformed from a smattering of cabins into a town almost overnight.
Gold and silver had been found in Colorado’s mountains, so naturally prospectors thought the areas around Grand Lake may have some too. Mines were quickly dug into the surrounding hillsides and the mining town of Lulu City was formed just north of Grand Lake in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
During the boom, Grand Lake functioned as a supply center as new businesses were formed. By 1881, Grand Lake was named the County Seat, a title taken from Hot Sulphur Springs. This led to a bitter rivalry between the towns. On July 4, 1883 two county commissioners (on the Hot Sulphur Springs side of the argument) and the County Clerk were ambushed and shot at in Grand Lake. They fired back, hitting one of the assailants, another commissioner (who sided with Grand Lake). All four were killed. The Sheriff and Undersheriff of the county, who were also on the Grand Lake side, were later determined to be behind the attack and the Sheriff killed himself several days later. The undersheriff was also found dead days later.
As quickly as they came, the miners left. Nothing of value was ever really discovered in the area, so most of the mines were abandoned by 1886. Without the bustle of the mining economy, the county seat was moved back to Hot Sulfur Springs in 1888.
But, this would not be the end for the town. Some of the miners who had been living in surrounding towns came into Grand Lake to set up a permanent home in the beautiful area. Construction kept the economy going and tourists continued coming since there were still businesses. Hotels were built to accommodate the visitors and it slowly became known as the scenic mountain town it is today.
A literally ‘Grand’ lake
The headwaters of the Colorado River, Grand Lake is the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado.
It was formed by glaciers about 30,000 years ago, it measures 500 surface acres and is about 265 feet deep at its deepest point.
Sitting at an elevation of 8,367 feet it’s also home to the world’s highest registered yacht club. In fact, the private Grand Lake Yacht Club was founded in 1901 and has hosted races on the lake ever since. These days they sponsor a yearly Regatta Week each August, where sail boats from around the world come to the town to compete for the Lipton Cup.
Even if you’re not a member of the club, anyone can sail or use a motor boat on the lake. Fishing for trout, Mackinaw and Kokanee as well as waterskiing are popular summer-time activities. Those who don’t own a boat can rent one at the Grand Lake Marina.
There is also a sandy beach where visitors can swim, fish, kayak or just relax.
Two of the waterfalls that feed into the lake are well worth a visit: Cascade Falls and Adams Falls. For a longer hike, Cascade Falls is about 3.5 miles from the lake and features more than 80 species of wildflowers along the trail. Adams Falls is a quick 0.8 mile loop and is a spectacular place to take pictures.
One of the most popular lake events is the Fourth of July fireworks celebration. The spectacular display is set off over the water, making for a unique experience. It’s also the largest Independence Day display in the state. Grand Lake also shoots of fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Known as the Western Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, those who are not in Grand Lake to enjoy the lake are there for the insanely popular park.
Trail Ridge Road, which connects Grand Lake and Estes Park, is the highest, continuous paved road in the U.S., and offers one heck of a view and stunning scenery as it weaves through Rocky Mountain along the way. It’s also one of the most popular drives to see Colorado’s fall colors.
The western gate to the 415-square mile park is directly on the outskirts of town and is usually much less busy than the gates in Estes Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park itself has over 300 miles of hiking trails, hundreds of both drive-in and backcountry campsites and is known for its wildlife, particularly elk.
Over 4.5 million people visited the park last year, leading to a renewed push to figure out some way to deal with the overcrowding it has seen for the last several years.
Entrance into Rocky Mountain is $20 per vehicle each day or free with an annual National Park Pass.
Some tips for your visit
The town of Grand Lake has a lot to offer on its own.
Sagebrush BBQ & Grill, for example, is decked out with Western decor (including the quintessential peanut shells on the floor) and offers all the classic barbecue dishes. Just up the boardwalk, Fat Cat Cafe serves home-style American fare and has a weekend buffet.
The Historic Rapids Lodge and Restaurant (210 Rapids Ln.) is a short walk from Grand Avenue and offers "simple, rustic quarters" and "river views," according to its website. It is also one of the top-rated spots in town.
But for a truly historic experience, the Grand Lake Lodge is a must-visit while in town. Built in 1920 it is perched above the town offering guests and visitors exceptional views of the lake and streets below. They have 70 guest cabins for those who want to stay, but also offer public dining in their restaurant. We suggest the all-you-can-eat buffet brunch on Sundays. Or just wander the grounds, relax on the porch and take some unforgettable pictures of Grand Lake.
Back in town, Blue Water Bakery, Grand Lake Chocolates and Polly's Sweet Shop are great places to pick up homemade desserts and candy. Also near Grand Avenue is Miyauchi's Snack Bar (1029 Lake Ave.), a hole-in-the-wall shack that residents say has the best ice cream in town (and it doesn't hurt that it's right across the street from the lake, either).
A salute to the beautiful mountains surrounding it, Grand Lake has no shortage of sports and gift shops, including Never Summer Mountain Products, Gifts Unlimited, Quacker Gift Shop (a shop devoted to rubber ducks) and Outwest Giftfitters.
The Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre, also in town, presents productions of Broadway musicals during the summer.
To learn more about the area’s history you can visit the Kauffman House Museum, a former log hotel offering tours and hosting special occasions.
Want to live in Grand Lake? The median home price for all-size properties is $347,000, according to real estate website Trulia.com.