Grand Lake, Colorado: The Small Town With A Rocky Mountain Backdrop

For a glimpse of the quainter side of Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Grand Lake, Colorado. Here, on the southwestern edge of the park, you'll find a more local alternative to Estes Park, the better-known gateway to the area. Grand Lake's charms are no less evident than other towns in the park, though. At an elevation of 8,369 feet, the village sits on a lake with the towering Rocky Mountains as the backdrop.

Though the town is tiny — there are around 410 permanent residents — it is chock-full of mountain charm and packed with entertainment, lodging, and dining options. There's the Western-style boardwalk lined with locally owned boutiques and lakeside restaurants like The Waterfront, which has spectacular views. Despite its small size, Grand Lake is a year-round destination and offers things to do in both warmer and cooler (or downright cold) weather.

In all seasons, you'll have a chance to spot some of the Rocky Mountains' captivating wildlife. Mule deer and elk are fairly easy to see throughout the year and all over the park, while bighorn sheep are often spotted from May to August, appropriately at Sheep Lakes. You can often see moose in the Kawuneeche Valley area.

Summer in Grand Lake

Grand Lake is stunning in the summer. Firstly, there's the lake itself, which is Colorado's largest and deepest. Here, you can swim in the refreshing waters or rent a kayak or boat to head out for a float. Secondly, you're right on the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park, which begs to be explored. The park entrance near Grand Lake is usually quieter than at Estes Park, so you'll have a better chance of getting some of the trails to yourself. 

You can travel the 48 miles between Grand Lake and Estes Park on Trail Ridge Road, a stunningly beautiful stretch of highway that winds through meadows, forests, and tundra, topping out at almost 11,500 feet. The road is open to through traffic only in the summer and early fall. Though there's plenty to see from the road, if you're able to do some activities, hiking, biking, climbing, and fishing in the park are sublime. There are 355 miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty levels in the park, from easier trails like the loop at Bear Lake to the challenging hike to Flattop Mountain. Summer also brings the majority of the town's festivals, including the Memorial Day parade, a free series of concerts, the Arts and Crafts Fair, and Buffalo Days, which spotlights buffalo barbecue.

Grand Lake in the winter

Winter in Colorado is just as thrilling as summer, and Grand Lake certainly doesn't shut down completely when the snow starts to fall. A visit at that time can be rewarding, as Rocky Mountain National Park is far less busy than in the summer. Thanks to the area's heavy snowfall (the town gets an average of 130 inches per year), Grand Lake is a popular place for winter sports. Snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and skiing are all available here, and the National Park Service runs ranger-led snowshoe walks. 

There are five campgrounds in the park run by the National Park Service, one of which, Moraine Park Campground, is open in the winter. The festivals don't stop in cooler weather, either. The town hosts a popular winter carnival in January and the Pond Hockey Classic in February. Later, as fall draws in, Halloween is an entertaining event in Grand Lake; the year ends with a bang with a professional New Year's Eve fireworks display over the frozen lake.