Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park makes for an incredible outing, but we have a secret for you. The area just outside the west side of the park is equally as stunning but without the crowds. From Grand Lake, Colo., a lakeside village that sits at the park’s West Entrance to Winter Park, a lively ski town that turns on the heat in summer, you’ll discover hidden waterfalls, fantastic mountain biking trails, a gorgeous paved bike trail for families, wake boarding, SUPing, weekly live music in the park and horseback riding.
What makes this area all the more alluring is the fact that it’s a bit harder to visit the park on a whim these days. To deal with overcrowding, especially in light of the pandemic, Rocky Mountain National Park staffers require all visitors to make advanced reservations online at recreation.gov to enter the park during its peak hours. In 2021, you’ll need a special timed-entry pass between May 28 and Oct. 11, 2021.
However, all is not lost if you don’t manage to snag a timed-entry pass. For areas outside the popular Bear Lake Road corridor, you can get into the park before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. without advanced reservations. If you want to visit the Bear Lake Road corridor and don’t have reservations, you’ll have to be in the park before 5 a.m. or after 6 p.m. All of which leaves you a ton of time outside the park to discover the best adventures in Grand County. Here are the top 9 dazzling things to do just outside the park.
1. Hike one of the valley’s 600 miles of trails. A great family friendly hike is the 2.5-mile Waterfall Trail at YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch (snowmountainranch.org). Stop in the Activity Center on the right when you get onto the property to get directions to the trailhead. If you’re looking for a great family friendly stroll or mellow relatively flat bike ride, head to the Fraser River Trail that stretches from Fraser to Winter Park Resort.
For a longer hike, the 8.8-mile round-trip hike up 12,804-foot Byers Peak near Fraser is outstanding for experienced hikers. The 8-mile, roundtrip Devils Thumb hike is fantastic, too, with a trailhead that sits at 9,609 feet. You’ll climb up to 12,216 feet through a beautiful forest and then above tree line where alpine flowers dot the hillsides. Keep in mind a 2021 severe windstorm ripped a number of trees down a mile before you get to the Devils Thumb. It’s impassable and dangerous to try to hike through the blown down trees, so turn back when you get to them.
Park Hiking Tip: If you want to hike into Rocky Mountain National Park without having to enter by car, head to the East Inlet Trail in Grand Lake. It was untouched by the 2021 East Troublesome Fire unlike its sister trail, the North Inlet Trail, which was badly burned. It’s about a three-minute drive from downtown Grand Lake, and you can hike for miles, passing Adams Falls, wetlands, forested stretches and eventually to Spirit Lake, which is eight miles from the trailhead. There’s no entrance station here, but if there’s a ranger at the trailhead, you’ll want to show him or her your park pass (and timed-entry pass if it’s after 9 a.m. or before 3 p.m.). If you don’t have a park pass, there’s a sign at the trailhead with a QR code, so you can buy it online in the parking area.
2. Drive the gorgeous Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway that starts in Grand Lake and ends in State Bridge, Colo. It’s one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets, and many longtime Colorado residents arguably don’t even know this road exists. This route brings you along the Colorado River past gorgeous ranches to the town of Kremmling where you will begin your drive along a dirt road through beautiful red-rock country dotted with pinon pine and juniper trees. Stop in Rancho del Rio, a tiny hamlet that caters to river rafters and fishing enthusiasts. You can rent a raft if you’re an experienced rafter or organize a guided rafting trip through the Colorado River Center, which has an office several hundred feet from the river. There’s a bar, KK’s BBQ: Center of the Universe, and a general store on site, too.
3. See granite peaks, aspen forests and wildflower-filled meadows by horseback at Sombrero Ranches in Rocky Mountain National Park (www.sombrero.com). It’s a wonderful way to explore the park, especially if you are with a group of varying fitness levels.
Outside the park, there are a number of horseback riding opportunities from a short trail ride to wagon rides. At the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch location in between Fraser and Granby, you can do trail rides and wagon rides with Snow Mountain Stables. Farther west, head to Rusty Spurr Ranch in Kremmling, Colo., for trail rides and cattle drives — both great activities to catch fall colors in September. (www.rustyspurr.com)I
If you’re looking for a dude-ranch stay to really dive deep into western culture, you can ride a horse six days a week (horses get Sundays off) at C Lazy U Ranch north of Granby (www.clazyu.com).
4. Rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or pedal boats and explore Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest natural lake. Grand Lake’s bustling little downtown with its charming historic boardwalk is right outside of Rocky Mountain National Park’s West Entrance. Founded in 1881, the village still embraces its original rustic architectural style, although it’s much more than a small mountain outpost. More than 60 shops, restaurants and galleries line the downtown area, captivating visitors with their charm. Stroll two minutes from downtown to explore Colorado’s largest natural lake. Then rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or pedal boats from one of several vendors on the lake and paddle along the shoreline or simply enjoy the views from the town beach. Paddling to the inlet is a fun activity since the inlet, which connects Grand Lake to Shadow Mountain Lake, is small, calm and has a little park, Point Park, on it.
In the evening, head to the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre where Hollywood actors David Hasselhoff and David Arquette worked as young thespians. Offering three shows every summer, professional actors take the stage and perform popular Broadway musicals like Les Miserables. Buy your tickets early to make sure you get a seat.
5. Soak in 21 mineral pools at Hot Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa in the heart of the oldest town in Grand County—Hot Sulphur Springs. (hotsulphursprings.com)
6. Raft the Colorado River near Kremmling as it flows by stunning rugged landscapes. You can go on a guided tour or rent your own boats at the great outpost, Rancho Del Rio, that has a small general store and a bar, too. It’s about a 30-minute drive from Kremmling. There are a couple of different stretches of the Colorado River you can raft and several public campgrounds along it, which are perfect if you want to spend more than one day on the river or if you want to get an early start on the river in the morning. (www.kremmlingchamber.com)
7. Get ready to hoot and holler as you ride Colorado’s longest alpine slide at the base area of Winter Park Resort. You’ll find incredible mountain biking and other base area activities like miniature golf, a rock climbing wall and other family friendly activities. You can buy an activity pass here that enables you to go on the alpine slide, play mini-golf and more.
There’s also hiking here, and those who sweat it out uphill are rewarded. If you hike on trail up the ski hill, you can take the gondola down for free. If you hike it in reverse and take the gondola up to hike down, there’s a charge for your gondola ride. The trail leads you through fields of wildflowers, gorgeous forests and stunning views of the Fraser Valley and Rocky Mountains, including peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s well-worth the effort. At the top, you can get food and a drink at the Sunspot Lodge. The lodge also has bathrooms. (www.winterparkresort.com)
8. Experience the state’s first summer tubing hill at the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch west of Tabernash, Colo. There’s also indoor roller skating, basketball, zip lining, rock climbing and an arts-and-crafts room on site. Stop at the Activity Center office located on your right when you enter the developed part of the property to purchase an activity wristband. (snowmountainranch.org)
9. Experienced bikers should head to the county’s two bike parks, including Trestle Bike Park, one of the top bike parks in the country, at Winter Park Resort. The other bike park is at Granby Ranch in Granby, a small ski area in the winter. You’ll need a ticket to ride the trails and can ride cross-country trails or use a lift to access downhill riding.
For more information:
Grand County Colorado Tourism Board