It’s a cold and gloomy October afternoon when we arrive in Denver from Chicago after a one-hour flight delay. Our patience is further tested by a long wait for our baggage to arrive at the carousel. After subsequently navigating the line for our rental car – I pick one with out-of-state plates so no one will confuse me for a local driver – we finally get on the road for our 67-mile drive west on Highway 40 to Winter Park Resort.
Most visitors to the Rockies head here in the winter for skiing and other cold-weather activities, or during the summer for hiking, biking and enjoying the area’s scenic beauty. The resorts and the national park are more crowded then, but families traditionally travel when school is not in session.
For my children’s first trip to the mountains I’m seeking a quieter escape. They aren’t yet skiers or avid hikers and I want a relaxed trip with just enough activity to warrant a long weekend away from home. As we pull over just outside the airport for a late lunch at Wendy’s, I second guess my decision. The kids are cranky, I’m facing a drive partially after dark on a mountain road, and snow is beginning to fall.
Not long into our ride, the mountains begin to materialize, looming large on either side of the road. It’s suddenly quiet in the backseat as the kids stop squabbling long enough for my 11-year-old son to exclaim, “Mom, I feel very small right now.”
The mountains have a way of doing that, making you feel inspired yet insignificant. They overwhelm and take your breath away, but they also make you feel present and in the moment. I’m too busy following the road to take much notice, but this is why we are here. As my white-knuckled hands grip the steering wheel and I peer through the snow for our next GPS-directed turn, I find myself eager to show my kids what they’re missing back home.
Grand County, Colorado is home to five towns but the two areas most tourists visit are Winter Park/Fraser Valley and Grand Lake. Both were first settled in the 1880s. The former is frequented by skiers and mountain bikers, as the resort area sits slope side and is less than ten minutes from town. The latter is situated on Grand Lake, the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and a mecca for summertime outdoor enthusiasts.
There is plenty to do, even when early snow impedes scenic drives or dampens the desire to explore some of the 600 miles of mapped hiking and biking trails. We bundle up our first day for a guided hike on the Grand Lake East Inlet Trail. It’s just three-tenths of a mile to Adams Falls and we forge a bit farther in the cold before turning around. Our guide, Dede Fay, booked through Winter Park Resort, peppers the drive to the trail-head and our hike with information on local flora and fauna and the history of the county. Armed with hiking sticks and hunting for animal tracks in the snow, the kids tramp happily on the slippery, snowy path.
We later venture on to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center at the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and the kids pick up packets for the Junior Ranger program where they are sworn in as junior park rangers after finishing activities that show what they’ve learned while exploring. Trail Ridge Road, connecting the western and eastern sides of the park and the highest continuous paved highway in North America, is closed beyond Milner Pass. We drive the twisty route up to that point for a picture besides the sign marking the Continental Divide (where water on one side flows to the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side to the Pacific Ocean) and a look at Poudre Lake. Then we head back to the Visitor Center for a short hike on a trail just off the parking lot. Though we don’t see wildlife, the kids spot bear tracks and the imprint of a bird’s wings in the snow.
On another day, we head outdoors, armed with bows and arrows to learn archery at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort and Spa. Though I much prefer to gaze at the horses grazing amid the snow-filled landscape framed by those majestic mountains, the kids’ laughter-filled lesson and increasingly skilled
attempts to hit their targets has me joining in their fun. Yes, even Mom can hit the bullseye eventually.
An afternoon horse-drawn wagon ride on the property proves bracing but beautiful, taking us past individual guest cabins on the property and on through the natural beauty of Devil’s Thumb. We huddle under blankets while the horses clop along, and then rush back into the stable for hot cocoa and cider before heading back indoors.
One magical morning we saddle up at C Lazy U Ranch (activities only available to guests staying on property) for a guided ride out to a scenic pond. My daughter is initially in tears, distraught at the prospect of her first time on horseback. After some patient coaxing and reassurance, she puts her faith in Starlight, a rotund, slow-moving, gentle giant of a horse and we head off, bundled up against the bracing chill air, eyes watering from the cold but wide open to the magical forested landscape. Starlight does not disappoint and has my nine-year-old asking, even before our ride ends, “When can we come back to visit my horse?”
When we aren’t outdoors, we’re shopping and fueling up at local hot spots. Downtown Winter Park is more of a conventional town, with shops and restaurants that appeal to both locals and tourists, while Grand Lake is clearly geared toward the latter, with kitschy tourist shops lining the main street. We browse for locally themed jewelry, fleece, T-shirts and novelty items, along with art from galleries featuring local work.
In Winter Park, Hernando’s Pizza Pub serves up hearty pizzas that more than fill our appetite while we dine amidst the more than 35,000, dollar bills plastered in every space possible, adorned with personal messages and doodles (including two we contribute on our way out the door). For a nicer dinner, Volario’s Ristorante has lasagna, Wagyu meatballs, bruschetta and crispy gnocchi we remember long after the meal, and our trip, have ended.
In Grand Lake, barbecue takes center stage at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill, with a menu so extensive we return several times just to make a dent in it. It’s open year-round and is as casual as you’d expect in this tourist town. You can throw the shells of the complimentary peanuts on the floor and napkins are torn from a paper towel roll. Always busy and lively it’s a safe bet, even for breakfast. For breakfast and to satisfy our sweet tooth any time of day, we stopped at Lulu City for gelato and fresh cake donuts covered with our choice of glazes and toppings.
After our fill of local eateries, shops and outdoor activities, but never of those majestic mountains, we make the return trip on Highway 40. I’m still white-knuckled at the wheel, even though this time there is no snow in the forecast. Although it is off season and we are at the whim of Mother Nature, we love having this slice of the Colorado Rockies to ourselves and hope to become reacquainted sometime soon with all that we’ve uncovered.
For more information on Grand County call 800-903-7275 or visit www.visitgrandcounty.com.
Where to Hang Your Hat and Kick Off Your Boots
There is every manner of accommodation in all four seasons and throughout the county. Budget-conscious travelers can stay at Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby – a YMCA like no other – where many activities are included and onsite. There are lodge rooms, yurts, campsites and cabins, a communal dining hall and, even during the shoulder season, plenty to do. Roller skating, swimming, a climbing wall and archery are all available indoors. There is a miniature golf course, hiking trails, volleyball and basketball, as well as a craft shop (a few activities charge a nominal, additional fee).
Both the Zephyr Mountain Lodge in Winter Park and the Western Riviera in Grand Lake offer mid-range options. Our two-bedroom condo at Zephyr Mountain Lodge affords us a cozy place for quick breakfasts in pajamas before bundling up for hikes and a chance for hot cocoa fireside before bed. The Lake House we book through the Western Riviera has a beautiful second-floor balcony overlooking Grand Lake and bedrooms on two different floors. Though we don’t use it, the full kitchen off of the family room is convenient for extended stays. It’s located just off the main drag in town, so shops and restaurants are well within walking distance.
Those with deep pockets can book a stay at C Lazy U Ranch in Granby (minimum stay required, depending on the season) and experience a real, working ranch with all things equestrian, including riding on some of the ranch’s 200 horses (seeing them head out to pasture late each afternoon – “The Jingle” – is a real thrill). The 100-year-old property on 8500 acres includes lodge rooms and cabins, and a high-end rental home. Guests occupy their days at the spa or fitness center; zipline and rope course; perfecting their aim at hatchet throwing, trap shooting or archery; in the pool or game room; fishing; and hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding on and off trails. There is an extensive kids’ program incorporating many of these activities.
Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa, located on 6000 acres in Tabernash, is more of a conventional five-star resort, albeit one with a ranch and being extensively involved with conservation. The main lodge was fashioned after historic national park lodges. Between it and a second lodge, there are 87 rooms, as well as 15 private cabins, situated on a ridge not far from the main lodge. Though it’s most highly acclaimed for its Nordic skiing, the stables offer trail and wagon rides. There is fishing, archery, a zipline course, a full-service spa and a yoga studio, a movie theater and game room, a salt-water pool and hot tub, a fitness room, sauna and steam room, a coffee shop, and two restaurants.
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