Anticipating spring’s arrival demands extra patience in Grand County, Colorado, wedged high against the western flank of the Continental Divide. Here seasons are measured not so much by calendar dates as by vertical feet. Down in Denver the fairways and baseball diamonds may be turning green in April. But it’s often well into May before the warmth creeps up and over that high backbone of peaks, welcoming wobbly foals to the ranches, dissolving ice into brilliant blue alpine lakes and transforming mountain snows into tumbling streams.
Judging exactly when to go can be tricky, but hit it right and it’s a great time to visit—when you can explore the iconic western landscapes of the Fraser Valley and the alpine beauty reemerging in Rocky Mountain National Park before the busy summer season kicks in.
From Denver, I-70 makes a beeline for the mountains, quickly leaving the suburbs behind for the forested Front Range. In 40 miles Highway 40 splits off from the interstate at the old mining town of Empire and begins climbing in earnest. It snakes up and over the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass, at an elevation of 11,307 feet.
From the pass it’s a quick 10-mile descent to Winter Park Resort, one of Colorado’s oldest alpine-ski areas. Now in its 76th season, the resort has expanded to more than 3,000 acres of skiing and a base village of shops and restaurants.
After the snow melts, Winter Park becomes a summer-activity area complete with chairlift rides, hiking, an alpine slide and other family-friendly amenities. It also ranks as one of the premier mountain-biking destinations in the Rockies, offering 600 miles of trails. Winter Park Resort’s trails are clearly marked, designated for users of varying abilities and accessible by chairlift; its Trestle Bike Park draws advanced downhill riders.
A few miles north of Winter Park, the land widens into the Fraser River valley. Highway 40 follows the river north, linking the communities of Winter Park, Fraser, Tabernash and Granby.
Fly-fishers can hardly do better than the cool and clear Fraser, a trout stream that harbors populations of browns, rainbows and cutthroats. Access is plentiful thanks to national forest and other public lands along its banks. Pick up a license and tips from locals at the Fraser Fly Shop, or sign on for a day of guided fishing with the store’s outfitter business, Winter Park FlyFisher.
The melting snows of spring bring a flush of white water to area rivers. Local rafting companies, like Red Tail Rafting and Adventures in Whitewater, begin running trips on the nearby Colorado in late May. Half-day and full-day trips go through Little Gore Canyon, navigating Classes I, II and III rapids.
Near Granby, Sombrero Ranches leads horseback rides through meadows, forests and old homesteads on the 5,200-acre Snow Mountain Ranch. The YMCA property also has pony rides, wagon rides and farm animals. At Devil’s Thumb Ranch, you can set off on trail rides and even learn to cut, move and pen cattle with a wrangler on the Rancher’s Ride, then soothe any sore spots at the property’s Ranch Creek Spa.
Golfers, too, get their due in the Fraser Valley. High-rated courses, like Pole Creek Golf Club and Grand Elk Ranch & Golf Club, make the most of the valley’s expansive views.
Silver mining drew the first settlers to Grand Lake, which is 15 miles northeast of Granby on Highway 34. But what people come for now is the lake itself: Fed by mountain streams and filling a glaciated valley, Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest and deepest natural lake.
Water projects in the mid-20th century added two nearby flowages, Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake. Together with Grand Lake, these interconnected waterways form the largest lake system in Colorado and an immensely scenic hub for high-altitude boating.
During one-hour boat tours from Headwaters Marina, narrators relate the region’s history. Early residents erected lakeside lodges and lodgepole cabins, then established a town along Grand Lake’s northern shore. Elegant estates came next, and the nation’s highest yacht club, at 8,300 feet.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Straddling the Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain National Park protects some of America’s highest real estate, including more than 60 peaks that reach more than 12,000 feet. From Grand Lake, Trail Ridge Road winds up and across the park for 48 miles to the eastern boundary of Estes Park. Topping out at 12,183 feet above sea level, America’s highest continuously paved highway offers rare access to a high-alpine tundra environment usually experienced only by mountaineers.
The road typically opens for the season on Memorial Day (depending on snow). Allow at least three hours for the drive to Estes Park so you can enjoy the observation points and a trail or two.
Earlier in spring there’s still plenty of park to explore at the lower elevations, from the Grand Lake entrance to the winter gate about 10 miles north, at Many Parks Curve. Start at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, near the entrance, to get maps and information on current trail conditions.
The park road wends its way north through the Kawuneeche Valley, where hiking trails spin off through marshy meadows bright with the chartreuse shoots of new grasses. At dawn or dusk, moose sometimes emerge from the woods to graze (if you’re really lucky, with gangly spring calves in tow). Herds of elk are plentiful in the valley, where you’ll see them foraging along the roadside.
Trails on the west side of the road lead down to the Colorado River—here just a stream of fresh snowmelt corkscrewing down from the Never Summer Range. Someday these droplets may course through the Grand Canyon and on toward Mexico. But right now, splashing past leafing-out trees and enticing the season’s first wildflowers, the waters feel as fresh and new as a Colorado spring.
Grand Elk Ranch & Golf Club1300 Ten Mile Dr., Granby; 970-887-9122; grandelk.com
Pole Creek Golf Club51 County Rd., Granby; 970-887-9195; polecreekgolf.com
Trestle Bike Park970-726-1564; trestlebikepark.com; half-day admission, $36
Winter Park FlyFisherFraser Fly Shop, 601 Zerex St., Fraser; 970-726-5231
Winter Park Resort85 Parsenn Rd., Winter Park; 970-726-1564; winterparkresort.com
Adventures in Whitewater970-724-1122; adventuresinwhitewater.com
Devil’s Thumb Ranch3530 County Rd. 83, Tabernash; 800-933-4339; devilsthumbranch.com
Headwaters MarinaGrand Lake; 970-627-5031
Red Tail Rafting970-726-1197; redtailrafting.com
Rocky Mountain National Park970-586-1206; nps.gov/romo
Sombrero Ranches970-887-1999; sombrero.com
Top-notch sandwiches and good breakfast burritos. 717 Grand Ave., Grand Lake; 970-627-3354; lunch for two, $20*
Grand Lake Lodge
Dine on rack of venison or buffalo meat loaf in a classic 1920s log lodge high on the hillside above Grand Lake. 15500 Hwy. 34, Grand Lake; 970-627-3967; dinner for two, $55
Mountain Rose Café
A favorite thanks to the Happy Hippie granola and Mountain Man breakfast tacos. 78542 Hwy. 40, Winter Park; 970-726-1374; breakfast for two, $22
Ranch House Restaurant
The original 1930s homestead at the Devil’s Thumb Ranch now houses this spot. 3530 County Rd. 83, Tabernash; 970-726-5632; dinner for two, $130
A Grand Lake favorite, overlooking the Tonahutu River, for elk loin, maple-brined pork loin and other specialties. 210 Rapids Lane, Grand Lake; 970-627-3707; dinner for two, $100
RCI® affiliated resorts in Colorado include:
Two restaurants, wine-and-cheese parties for adults and activities for kids. 47 E. Beaver Creek Blvd., Avon
Member Review: “Easy check-in, friendly staff, great location!”
Stunning views as well as a swimming pool and tennis court. 96 Mountainside Dr., Granby
Member Review: “Excellent resort at the base of a mountain.”
Ranch-style accommodations with scenic views of the Rockies. 1280 Ten Mile Dr., Granby
Member Review: “The staff was wonderful.”
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts:
Devil’s Thumb Ranch
Set on 6,000 acres eight miles north of Winter Park. 3530 County Rd. 83, Tabernash; 800-933-4339; devilsthumbranch.com; doubles from $225 a night
Historic Rapids Lodge
This hotel along the banks of the Tonahutu River feels tucked away but is within walking distance of downtown Grand Lake. 210 Rapids Lane, Grand Lake; 970-627-3707; rapidslodge.com; doubles from $96 a night
Wild Horse Inn
A casual base for outdoor adventures. Rate includes breakfast. 1536 County Rd. 83, Fraser; 970-726-0456; wildhorseinncolorado.com; doubles from $165 a night
- *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Spring 2016