Story and photos by Alison Ramsey
Driving into the Rocky Mountains from the Denver airport was a brand-new and eye-opening experience for my tween daughter, who had only ever been on Florida beach vacations. We went from the flat plains of Illinois just that morning to leaving Denver and spotting shadowy peaks lining the horizon, to seemingly suddenly becoming enveloped by those mountains on either side as we drove deeper into Grand County, Colorado. The terrain was different and thrilling and built in us the feeling that this mother-daughter Rocky Mountain weekend would be full of new adventures and possibilities.
I had been out West many times as a child, my sister and I sprawled in the back seat of our minivan on family vacations and hopping out whenever my dad grabbed his Nikon and shouted, “Scenic outlook!”, but this was the first time I’d been in the driver’s seat. I will admit I was intimidated by the angled landscape and had to tamp down my jitters to focus on slow and careful mountain driving, repeating out loud for my daughter’s and my own benefit, “That SUV behind us can pass if he wants to, but I’m not going any faster than this.” While I watched the road, it became my petite passenger’s job to scope for wildlife. To our relief and joy, traffic slowed slightly because right alongside the road on a steeply slanted slope a cluster of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were grazing at growth between the rocks. Dirty white and wild, with curly, ridged horns framing their faces, these rams were a fitting animal to see first on our Ramsey family girls’ vacation.
First stop upon arrival in the town of Granby? Tina’s Fabric Nook, owned by award-winning quilter Tina Holley, to pick up her pre-cut quilting kit, “A Hopping Grand Summer.” Holley designed this quilt row as part of the “Summertime”-themed 2023 Row by Row Experience, an event in which participating quilt shops across the United States and Canada create an original 9”x36” quilt row available for purchase from June 1-August 31, 2023. Quilters can “Travel, Collect, and Quilt” their way to pick up eight different rows from eight different quilt shops, piecing them all together to create a quilt telling the story of their summertime travels. From July 1-September 30, 2023, the first person to quilt, bind, and label an 8-row quilt from eight different shops can bring in their creation to one of the shops to win a special prize. Holley’s quilt row features bright batik fabrics ready to piece together into a scene featuring the mountain skyline, baby bunnies, Colorado wildflowers, and a cute burrowing mole.
Of notice within Grand County is the number of “barn quilts” displayed on the exteriors of public and private buildings around town. These colorful quilt designs painted on square panels around the county are part of the “Grand Quilt Trail,” an initiative of the Grand Quilters and the Grand County Historical Association to raise funds for their historical museums while also celebrating and honoring the heritage and tradition of quilting first begun by pioneer women in rural America. Since Spring 2017, more than 350 quilt squares have been painted by volunteers and installed on buildings throughout Grand County. You can view all the barn quilts featured along the Grand Quilt Trail online. The first Quilt Trail was introduced in Ohio in 2001, and now more than 40 U.S. states and 3 Canadian provinces currently house Quilt Trails.
Maverick’s Grille was our dinner choice, for crispy chicken tenders and the opportunity for me to try the local Never Summer Brewing Company Brown Ale. Known for its award-winning green chili, Maverick’s Grille also serves up a meat-lover’s dream—a spiced meatloaf blend of buffalo, elk, boar, venison, antelope, and beef, all wrapped in bacon. The hunting lodge décor, varied menu, kids’ coloring pages, and careful attention to allergy specifications all made for a fun and satisfying first meal in Grand County.
After dinner, the friendly staff at YMCA of the Rockies – Snow Mountain Ranch checked us into our spacious, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom family cabin, complete with a full kitchen, long dining table, and open floor plan to the living room with fireplace. The bedrooms had combinations of bunkbeds, twin beds, a queen bed, and a lower level with a separate entrance was filled with more bunkbeds and an additional bathroom. From reading the guest book, we saw that many large groups had enjoyed the roomy cabin for family reunions, ski trips, and friend get-togethers. The elevated back deck of our cabin, Telemark #51, looked straight out into a horizon of snow-capped mountains and straight down into a wooded area with a clearing where deer liked to wander. It was a relaxing view, full of light and color, especially during brilliant sunrise and marble sunset.
The resort alone had much to offer in terms of activities and special programs: roller skating, mini golf, basketball and volleyball, biking and hiking trails, disc golf, playgrounds, as well as an indoor pool with water slides, a water climbing wall, and a lap lane. Those aged 13 and younger can take a short swimming test supervised by a lifeguard to earn access to the deeper portions of the pool. Additional activities that require a fee or registration include ziplining, archery, and an especially thrilling “summer tubing” slide that sends you spiraling down a slick mountain slope in an innertube while you grip the handles and shriek. Creative types can explore the arts and crafts building, where guests can pay per project—pottery painting, tie-dyeing, mosaic art, plush toy decorating. We spent a few hours trying our hand at leatherworking—pressing metal stamps into lightly moistened leather luggage tags and leather bracelets to embellish them with images of Colorado wildlife we saw during the trip and to mark them with our monograms. Just driving around to buildings within the YMCA property, we saw multiple foxes, deer, black-billed magpies, and a giant jackrabbit.
Snow Mountain Ranch’s all-you-can-eat buffet-style dining in Schlessman Commons offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner options that include salad, fruit, baked goods, and hot comfort foods. With a full kitchen in our cabin and cute eateries to try in town, we didn’t spend much time in the commons outside of grabbing a quick bite in the morning.
The town of Grand Lake, nestled in the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, has much to offer in terms of charming coffee shops and enticing souvenir stores. It’s a beautiful drive there from Granby, as you pass by Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest and deepest natural lake. Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake is a summertime outlet for boaters, fishers, kayakers, swimmers, canoers, and hikers. Shopping on the wooden boardwalk in Grand Lake is a true small-mountain-town experience, with no chain stores but all locally owned businesses—ice cream parlors, boutiques, jewelry stores, candy shops, art galleries, and outdoor gear retailers. A hummingbird feeder on the boardwalk attracts the glittering species—you can hear wingbeats but then barely detect the birds’ deft movements as they collect nectar with slender beaks. With vibrant mountain views all around, our sun-streaked early morning in this town as it awoke gave me one of those “drone-view” experiences, where I suddenly realize how incredible it is to be just one small person standing in an amazing part of the big world.
A definite highlight of Grand Lake was our time spent at Bob Scott’s Authentic Indian Jewelry. Bob Scott and Lou Lybrand are a wealth of information about Native American jewelry and art, having had a professional and respectful working relationship with various tribes over the store’s 55 summers in business. The store operates for 6 months each year, in an 1890s building that was just awarded a Historic Site marker in July 2023 from the Grand Lake Area Historical Society. Starting in 1969, Scott’s time working at the Grand Lake Lodge gift shop under the tutelage of then-owners Ted L. James and his wife, Perry James—in addition to Scott’s collected knowledge of Southwestern jewelry from his upbringing—led to close relationships with many Native American artists from which they now source art. The store’s Pueblo pottery, baskets, jewelry, woven textiles, and other wares are personally purchased by Scott and Lybrand from artists in the pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, such as Santo Domingo Pueblo, and reservations including Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni. The two shop owners frequent reservation trading posts and seek out new silversmiths and beadmakers during their travels. Scott said, “Lou and I especially enjoy the interaction with our Native American artists. During the winter months, we travel all over the Southwest to purchase the merchandise that is required to supply the demand of the summer season. During the summer, we focus on the customers who return year after year. We look forward to seeing familiar faces as well as meeting new summer tourists. As we interact with our customers, we make an effort to educate them about the artists who create the items that we carry.”
During our visit at the museum-like shop, we got a tutorial on how heishe (pronounced “hee-shee”) beads are uniformly carved and we were taught which features aid in evaluating Zuni fetish necklaces for authenticity. From the large selection of quality jewelry, my daughter and I chose our favorite pieces that “spoke” to us, purchasing turquoise earrings and rings in striking shades of blue and in designs ranging from fish scale silver inlay to an “Uncle Albert” rectangular statement ring fashioned after a family ring Scott was given by his favorite uncle. Our experience at the store was welcoming, informative, and fun, and it lived up to Scott’s ideal to offer a learning environment for all customers. He said, “We feel very strongly that we are helping to perpetuate artistic creations by providing an outlet for the Native American crafts. … We are careful to represent that which is authentic and artfully made in traditional methods as well as new innovations. Especially, I want our store to be known as an educational opportunity for our younger visitors. We take time to explain the American Indian culture of art and traditions to the children with whom we come in contact.” This was a perfect stop for me and my daughter during our trip!
Our foray into the Rocky Mountain National Park landscape took place at Winding River Resort, a 10-minute drive from Grand Lake, near the western entrance of the park. Along with cabin rentals and RV/tent sites, this resort offers 1- to 2-hour horseback trail rides as well as horse-drawn hayrides. Although my daughter was nervous about her first horseback ride and being near such large animals, the friendly and patient workers encouraged her and helped her feel at ease about the kind nature of the horse they specifically selected for her based on its temperament and tendencies. They assigned horses to riders with deliberate care and ensured the line-up order of horses worked best for the animals’ personalities, as some horses tolerate each other better than others.
We headed at a slow pace into a field dense with wildflowers and wound through trees, moving alongside and then directly through a shallow portion of the Colorado River. Some horses liked splashing straight into the river, while others avoided getting their feet wet until the very last possible moment. My horse, Chimes (a mother, just like me), did NOT like mud and water, so she went out of her way to avoid the messy portions. We were taught how to encourage our horses in a certain direction, so I was able to steer her back in line with her horse pals. My daughter’s horse, Calypso, was fond of snacking on grass and flowers, so her rein-control was focused on keeping the horse’s head from dipping down to nibble greens. Long pants are recommended for riding, as the horses don’t care how close they walk to bushes and trees, leaving lots of opportunity to end up with scratched legs if you’re not adequately covered. Our trek brought us to a vista that included two enormous moose peacefully grazing together near a cluster of trees. Post-ride, my daughter had a new affection for horses and couldn’t stop talking about Calypso’s lovable traits and quirks. A trip to the gift shop scored us some cozy new Winding River Resort sweatshirts to ward off the predictable Colorado evening chill.
Lunch was a fresh meal of soup and salmon salad, washed down with refreshing organic alpine berry tea, at Midtown Café in Granby. Drawn in by the bright blue bird mural on the outer wall, we spent some time in The Bowerbird’s Den gift shop, browsing the eclectic mix of home décor, natural gemstones, garden embellishments, and delicate trinkets. Not having yet seen a bear on our trip (although we were warned one was spotted near our cabin recently), we purchased a carved soapstone bear figurine and a funky soapstone mushroom. For dinner, Brickhouse 40 in Granby served up a giant salted pretzel, tasty brussels sprouts, and more local brews. The waitstaff was very friendly and accommodating with dietary needs and allergen-avoidance, taking extra precaution to check ingredients and ensure our food was carefully prepared. String lights from the raftered ceilings, draped plain white curtains, and candle sconces on the interior brick walls made for a rustic and comfortable atmosphere.
Back at Snow Mountain Ranch, we watched out the cabin’s back windows as the sun sank below the mountains, coloring the clouds pink-orange above the snow caps. Together, we completed one of the puzzles from the cabin’s fully stocked game shelf and then tucked ourselves into bed to sleep off the day’s exertions. This weekend of memory-making in the mountains was a refreshing reminder to explore different landscapes and teach my children to venture out for new adventures and learning experiences. Grand County, thank you for the family fun—we will be back!
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