A Grand Experience

Grand Lake lives up to its billing

March 2008 Feature LANE LINDSTROM Viewed 725 time(s)

The thing that drove Grand Lake's earliest settlers away-a long, cold, snowy winter-is the very thing that attracts snowmobilers to this hideaway tucked way back in the rugged mountains in northcentral Colorado.

Back in the late 1800s Grand Lake wasn't so grand to those early homesteaders but now is one of Colorado's grandest snowmobile experiences.

Having ridden in Grand Lake on several occasions we're tempted to say we can't really narrow down to a handful of reasons why we like riding there so much. There's plenty to choose from-stunning mountains, challenging terrain, great places to eat and sleep, well groomed trails, miles and miles of ungroomed forest roads. The list is practically endless. But for us the reason is crystal clear.

The snow.

It was flakes of gold that first attracted folks to these parts in the 1880s. Today it's flakes of snow-and lots of them-that is the main attraction during the winter months. There's plenty of snow and it's draped like a thick blanket over everything in these parts. Much of the time its champagne powder at its best. Light and dry, the kind powder hounds crave.

Twelve Feet

The town of Grand Lake, which sits at 8,390 feet, averages 144 inches of snow-that's 12 feet-every winter. Gain some elevation and that number just goes up and up. It's not unheard of for the mountains surrounding Grand Lake to get up to 250 inches of snow during the long winter season.

Okay, we should probably come clean. In mid March last year, the snow wasn't up to it usual self. It had been warm in Grand Lake (which in and of itself is very strange considering the town's elevation), just like most everywhere else in the West last season. So while there was snow, it was like spring riding, say like in late April or May, not March. But our experience last March was just a blip on the screen. We've sledded in Grand Lake enough to know there are powder days where the white gold flows over your hood.

The sweet thing about that powder is that you don't have to ride miles from town to get to the good stuff . it's minutes from town.

We've explored lots of territory around Grand Lake but have by no means seen it all. We've climbed the popular Chicken Hill (near Porphyry Peak) and Super Chicken Hill (near Gravel and Little Gravel mountains). We've played in and tracked up feet-deep powder in a number of parks (big, wide open meadows), picked our way through the trees, ridden miles of groomed and ungroomed trails, done some hardcore boondocking, stood on ridges where you can see miles in every direction and gazed at some of the most amazing mountain vistas you can imagine.

We've got a carefully guarded list of favorite spots we like to ride in Grand Lake-places that rarely see a snowmobile track. No, we're not divulging those spots. But they are out of your mind good.

Altitude Compensators

Grand Lake is the kind of place where you're glad snowmobile manufacturers have developed good altitude compensation systems because this is serious elevation riding. You start out at about 8,000 feet, depending on where you begin your ride. You can start right in town, where snowmobiles are allowed on city streets. And riding just goes up from there. We've listed 10,500 as the top end of the trails but the adventurous can climb well past that. On one ride last winter we climbed to one saddle where we were sitting at nearly 12,000 feet. And there were still taller mountains around us. It really is an amazing feeling to be that high. Of course, those not used to that kind of elevation need to be cautious about altitude sickness.

It was when we dropped off that saddle that we saw big horn sheep. Seeing wildlife isn't rare while riding near Grand Lake, but that was a definite bonus seeing the sheep.

Even though we've sledded in and around Grand Lake several times, we have yet to tire of the stunning mountains that surround the town. They're steep, tall and imposing. Several 14ers (peaks that reach past 14,000 feet) are visible from various spots around the trail system.

The town itself is tucked away in a mountain valley at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, home to some pretty impressive peaks. It wasn't too long ago that you could ride the main road in Rocky Mountain National Park to one of the passes for some really gorgeous views but snowmobiling is off limits in the park these days. Okay, technically you can ride through Rocky Mountain National Park, but only the groomed trail that cuts across a very small portion of the park north of Grand Lake.

Border Town

Rocky Mountain National Park serves as the border to the east of the riding area. The Never Summer Wilderness is the border to the north. No riding in either place. But you can ride right to the edge of either and see some spectacular views and towering mountains.

During your travels you might also see some snowmobile tracks on Shadow Mountain Lake, which is the man-made lake south of Grand Lake. That's a risky ride. You should definitely inquire locally about ice conditions before riding the lakes. Grand Lake itself is the largest natural body of water in Colorado. Both lakes sit at the base of mountains that seem to shoot straight up into the sky.

All this beauty, awesome powder and great riding hasn't gone unnoticed over the years. Sledders from all over head to Grand Lake for those very reasons, along with the chance to enjoy the 150 miles of groomed trails (nearly 100 of which are groomed).

Grand Lake, by virtue of its self proclaimed status as "Snowmobile Capital of Colorado," sees its fair share of snowmobile traffic. Don't like crowds? Then avoid the weekends. And ride a little farther away from town. It appears to us the bulk of the crowds stay close to town on the trails.

If you want up to date information on trail grooming in Grand Lake, a great source of information is the Colorado Snowmobile Association's website, www.coloradosledcity.com. On the main page, click on "public trails report" and then go to Grand Lake and you see which trails were recently groomed.

Another reason Grand Lake is so popular is, despite being tucked away like it is, it's a fairly easy place to get to, especially from the Denver metro area. It's even easier to get to know now that they've widened U.S. Highway 40 to four lanes over Berthoud Pass (elevation 11,323 feet). That is, unless you get caught up in the ski traffic going to a number of the local ski areas, most notably Winter Park. Avoid the weekends and the traffic is such a bear.

Regardless, Grand Lake is worth the effort.

These days, there may not be gold flakes in them there hills but there are definitely plenty of white flakes.


Grand Lake

Elevation 8,000-10,500 feet

Snowfall 150-250 inches

Miles of Groomed Trails 85 miles

Full-Service Town Grand Lake (pop. 437)

Nearest Airport Denver (126 miles)

Getting Started Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce (800) 531-1019 or www.grandlakechamber.com

Getting There Grand Lake is a little more than 100 miles northwest of Denver. From Interstate 70 take U.S. Highway 40 north to Granby. On the west end of Granby turn north on U.S. Highway 34 and travel about 15 miles to Grand Lake.

Getting Around There are several snowmobile rental companies in Grand Lake. Contact the chamber of commerce for a list.

Bedding Down There are several motels, lodges and resorts right in town or not far from town. A couple of our favorites are the Gateway Inn (877-627-1352) or the condos at Soda Springs Ranch (800-627-9636).   

Eating Out We have yet to experience a bad meal anywhere in town. And we've eaten at plenty of different places. Three of our favorites are Caroline's Cuisine (970-627-9404), xxx xxx

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