The afternoon thunderstorm built slowly, starting as a gray cloud cover as my family and I stepped aboard the tour boat for our immersive lesson on Grand Lake. Soon, a soft drizzle settled in as Captain Rick motored us around the lake’s edge, telling tales about the many impressive vacation homes and antique boats, and about Grand Lake’s history. The Ute called it Spirit Lake. Later, white settlers built a stagecoach supply station here that became the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Today, it’s often referred to as one of the most beautiful towns in the country.
If you go
Grand Lake Lodge (rooms from $175) is an iconic Colorado mountain lodge atop a hill above town; it closes for winter in October, but you can book a cabins or Jupe Tent for next spring or summer. If you prefer to stay lakeside, the Western Riviera (rooms from $99 Oct.–May) has rooms and even homes and a tree house. For regional information check out the Grand County tourism page.
I had driven through Grand Lake once before, stopping for a breakfast picnic with my kids after camping on nearby Lake Granby, but that was years ago. I’d always wanted to come back and stay a few nights and, after the town’s near destruction in the East Troublesome fire last October, I decided it was finally time to make this trip happen.
That’s how we came to be cruising through the late summer rain, which was growing in intensity. Suddenly, it was a “take cover!” situation as we ducked under blankets and the boat’s shade canopy. Captain Rick steered us back to the little marina, where the passengers scattered to their hotels or coffee shops.
I was in awe that the village of Grand Lake was still here at all, after seeing how close the flames came to the edge of town. It had been nine months since the East Troublesome fire raged through these mountains and into Colorado’s record books as one of the largest, fastest-growing fires in state history. Standing on Main Street you can see some of its charred path in the hills surrounding town, but the sidewalks were full of visitors who were now shaking off their umbrellas after the storm, happily shopping for ice cream and walking in and out of art galleries.
Captain Rick had told us there are about 500 year-round residents and close to 2,500 during the summer season. At nearly 9,000 feet of elevation, it was cool out, even cold in the morning, but days were warmed by the strong mountain sun. The kids spent some time on the playground, then checked out the Juniper Library, a community gem with free popcorn and kids crafts. The building is made of stone and soaring timber and the staff was super friendly with our daughters.
“The firefighters saved us,” said Meg Milligan, the manager at Grand Lake Lodge, a 101-year-old property on an exposed ridge above town, when I asked how the cabins and lodge had been spared. Indeed, on the driveway to the lodge you pass a line of charred trees. Meg also told me about the “thank-you” banquet and fundraiser they threw for the firefighters in the lodge’s famous dining room, with its views of the village and lake below.
We stayed in one of the family cabins, enjoying the pool and dining in the restaurant, where my prix fixe meal featured a grilled Grand County ribeye, local wild mushrooms, and tomato galette with goat cheese. At the cabin, the kids had their own bunk room and the porch was the perfect spot for a family Scrabble game that evening. In the morning, a mama moose and her baby walked outside my bedroom. These cabins had been ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog a century ago and brought in by train. The main lodge, meanwhile, was constructed from timbers cut during the construction of Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park.
That next morning, we popped into town for standup paddleboarding off the main lakefront. “Keep your body loose,” was the advice we got as we pushed off and shakily stood up, gliding across the glassy water and surrounded on all sides by mountains. My two older children bravely paddled to the middle of the lake while my youngest crouched in front of me as I paddled. Luckily, there were barely any other craft to make waves, which surely would’ve sent me splashing down.
“Staying loose” was the overall theme of our three-day visit to Grand Lake: keeping calm and cool as we wandered up and down main street, sampling barbecue and ice cream, playing a couple of competitive rounds at Meandering Moose Mini Golf. And aboard our tour boat that final afternoon, rain pouring around us as we breathed in the damp mountain air.
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