It’s 8 a.m. on a June morning, the temperature is 40-something and we have Grand Lake to ourselves. The water is almost glassy and the snow-laden peaks of the Never Summer Mountains in the distance are living up to their name.
We paddle our kayaks toward the small canal that connects Grand Lake with larger Shadow Mountain Lake, the headwaters of the Colorado River. It’s been raining a lot so the water is high and we slide quickly through the narrow passage with no effort.
Well, that was fun … except that in a little while we’ll have to run the water the other way. This turns out to be a challenge. I paddle and paddle and get nowhere fast. I consider blowing the “help whistle” on my life vest, then decide to give it one last try. I finally clear the passage enough that I don’t have to fear the current carrying me backward.
I’m soaked, the air is still cold and so am I, but I’m still having fun.
Back on shore, we return the kayaks to Mountain Paddlers and head for breakfast just a couple of blocks away. Nothing is very far from anything here in the town of Grand Lake, Colorado, which sits on the shore of the lake of the same name. The year-round population is less than 500, but summer brings many visitors who want to enjoy all the lake has to offer and to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. The entrance is just a few blocks away.
Earlier in the week, we took a boat cruise with Kyle Simpson at the helm. Having grown up and worked in the Grand Lake area most of his life, there’s little he doesn’t know about the lake’s history, legends and lore — or the geology. Two huge glaciers traveling down the nearby valley scooped out the very deep hole (286 feet) that is now Grand Lake. Simpson also entertains us with tales of the rich-and-famous who inhabit the estate-size homes that front the lake, but only for a few days here each year. Except for the homes of 13 year-round residents who live on the lake, none of the houses are insulated or have winterized plumbing.
The town of Grand Lake, a two-and-a-half hour drive northeast from Denver, sits at 8,369 feet. It takes a day or two to get acclimated, and the air is dry, dry, dry, so staying hydrated and close to town for the first couple of days is a good idea.
This is not a problem. There is plenty to see and do in Grand Lake, and you can park the car and leave it. The town is pedestrian friendly and everything is close.
Until the mid-1800s, the area was inhabited by the Arapaho, Sioux, Cheyenne and Ute Indians. The discovery of gold in 1859 brought
people to Colorado and the Grand Lake area. In 1875, according to the town’s website, silver, lead, copper, and gold ore were discovered in the Never Summer Range, less than 20 miles from the lake. The town began to serve the miners with shops, hotels and saloons.
On July 4, 1883, Grand Lake’s version of a Tombstone shootout took place, with the death toll at six. History records the reason as “political differences” (and you thought current day factions didn’t get along). This incident discouraged investors and the town hit upon hard times. By 1890, the population of Grand Lake had dropped to 80.
By the early 1900s, residents and visitors had returned, drawn by the extraordinary beauty of the area. Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915.
Grand Lake’s western heritage is clearly visible in the town today, with its rustic wooden buildings and boardwalks, American flags and colorful floral hanging baskets — all against the backdrop of the magnificent Rockies.
IF YOU GO
Sagebrush Bar & Grill, once the town jail, serves hearty fare for meat-eaters as well as vegetarians; also offers a full and separate gluten-free menu.
O — a Bistro offers generous-size tapas as well as entrees. Ask owner, chef and sommelier Christina Pedersen for the best wines to accompany the stuffed dates, arancini (risotto-and-cheese-stuffed, deep-fried balls with marinara sauce) and seared ahi tuna tacos.
Blue Water Café features many omelets and a wide choice of scones-to-die-for. Has some gluten-free
Western Riviera — the only hotel with lakefront property. Also offers cabins just a block away.
Grand Lake events and activities — visit here
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.