Grand County may upon first impression feel like any other place in Colorado’s High Country. Yet, there is something that sets it apart from some of the better-known destinations.
That something is the ability to have multiple experiences over the course of just a few days without ever leaving the county’s 1,870 square miles.
The peaks, cliffs and endless natural beauty of the Master Artist’s handiwork are mostly unspoiled. Sure, outposts of Starbucks and McDonald’s can be found along U.S. Highway 40 but there are no ritzy resort factories. One of the few chain hotels is a utilitarian Holiday Inn Express.
My visit to Grand County started in Winter Park, a fairly typical purpose-built town with a ski resort.
Located two hours by car from Denver, this is a convenient first stop.
The big draw here is everything outdoors. One such activity is an off-road excursion through the Arapahoe National Forest to Corona Pass, also called Rollins Pass, which at 11,660 feet in elevation is the top of the Continental Divide — a contiguous ridge on the continent that marks the spot where water either flows east to the Atlantic or west to the Pacific. I reached the summit on an early morning guided all-terrain vehicle trip with a half-dozen other people. In hindsight, I would have rented my own ATV as group tours always feel rushed.
Forty-five minutes to the Northwest is Kremmling, an old ranching town situated in a valley called Middle Park at the confluence of Muddy Creek and the Blue and Colorado rivers.
This location, not far from the headwaters of the Colorado River, makes it a popular spot for adventure with some of the best rafting, kayaking and fishing anywhere in Colorado. In latter case, it’s fly-fishing in gold medal-designated waters.
Between Winter Park and Kremmling are the towns of Granby, the county’s most populous community with around 2,000 souls, and Hot Sulphur Springs, the county seat.
Granby is also where you turn on U.S. Highway 34 for Grand Lake. The unpretentious community is built around the state’s largest natural lake, which, as you might expect, is also called Grand Lake.
As you get closer to Grand Lake, the western gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, a fire-charred landscape comes into focus.
It was here last year where the East Troublesome Fire burned 193,812 acres.
Hundreds of homes — totaling over $146 million in value — were destroyed as the second-largest wildfire in state history exploded across this swath of remote Colorado and threatened the town proper with its predominantly wood buildings. Think log cabins and Adirondack-style homes. Full recovery is years away, but many businesses, as well as world-class hiking trails within the national park, are once again open.
If you go
Stay a couple of miles north of Winter Park in Fraser at the Holiday Inn Express. Alternatively, book a short-term vacation rental through Stay Winter Park. Another option is the Western Riviera in Grand Lake. The old-school motel was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible.”
Mad Adventures is one of the better operators of excursions and guided tours. Their offerings include Corona Pass (both private and groups) and Colorado River rafting trips.
Be sure to stop at the Pioneer Village Museum in Hot Sulphur Springs to learn about how Grand County was first settled. You can even see the original jail and courthouse, both of which look straight out of an Old West movie.
In Grand Lake, the annual U.S. Constitution Week festival runs Sept. 13-19.
I flew into Denver International Airport, where I had to wait over two hours for a rental car due to Hertz’s ongoing inventory issues as it emerges from bankruptcy. Depending on airfares, rental car rates and flight schedules, you may want to look at Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Besides United, Southwest has daily service during the summer and fall to and from the airport by Steamboat Springs.
Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.