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From High Altitude Kayaking To Downhill Biking: Epic Adventures In Colorado’s Grand County

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A colorful sunset over Winter Park

Don’t get me wrong, I love Denver; however, a two-hour drive north to Grand County brings you to what I would describe as the Switzerland of Colorado. Dominated by high altitude cottonwoods surrounding mirror lakes and Rustic-style wooden homes with patterned slab siding stretching up from lush green rolling hills dotted with sagebrush and aspens (natural sunscreen, FYI), it’s like a fairytale come true…especially if you’re looking for adventure.

Grand County is named after Grand Lake and the Grand River, once the name for the Colorado River, and is comprised of Grand Lake, Winter Park, Hot Sulphur Springs, Fraser, Granby, Kremmling, Radium, Tabernash, Winter Park and Parshall. The areas I chose to focus on during my trip were Grand Lake, Granby and Winter Park, all highly recommended. Grand County is composed of about 75% natural landscape — including 11 National Protected Areas — so it’s no wonder you’ll find limitless hiking, cycling and water sport options.

Stay

My stay begins at the Gateway Inn, a rustic accommodation filled with teddy bears, wood carved wildlife and farming tool decor. Along with the balcony attached to my room, a highlight is the giant lounge with full bar, free popcorn, regular entertainment, and an elevated porch with swings and chairs overlooking Grand Lake. Free S’mores kits to make by their al fresco fire pits add a sweet touch.

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A rustic hotel lounge and bar with free popcorn and s’mores

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Al fresco patio at the hotel

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My hotel room at the Gateway Inn

From the lodge, it’s easy to walk around the town and explore the many homemade ice cream shops, waterfront spaces, breakfast nooks and outdoor adventure outfitters. I enjoy breakfast at Fat Cat Cafe, a family-run restaurant known for their 200+ tea selection — the lemon, honey, ginger tea is great for altitude sickness — made from scratch scones, hearty dishes and cute cat decor.

High Altitude Kayaking

After a 3-egg omelet with sausage and home fries I head over to Mountain Paddlers to work it off through high altitude kayaking on Grand Lake, elevation 8,367 feet. The water feels like silk on the paddle, and I glide effortlessly over the smooth wake-free waters. Taking a deep breath I let my lungs fill with alpine air, views of the Rockies, Never Summer Range and snow-capped Indian Peaks setting the scene. Endangered ospreys abound, and I even spy a sea otter (and am told you can sometimes see moose swimming to the small deserted islands off the mainland).

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Kayaking on Grand Lake

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Rustic homes on the edge of Grand Lake

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Sun shining over Grand Lake

Along with beauty, Grand Lake holds mystery. I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, and I’m told by multiple locals that Grand Lake was once known as Spirit Lake due to a local legend. Apparently, one summer a group of Ute Indians were camped on the lake shores when they were attacked by Arapaho Indians. While the men stayed to fight, the women and children jumped on a raft to paddle and escape. Sadly, a storm rolled in as they waited for the land to be clear and all aboard drowned in the lake. It’s said the spirits of the passengers haunt Grand Lake today, some even claiming they’ve seen undead women rising from the morning mist or drifting under the surface.

Despite the slight shiver I get imaging this story coming to life, Grand Lake feels truly peaceful. With only eight year-round residents on the lake, 200 in the town and 15,000 in the county, it’s a true Colorado getaway.

Trekking In Rocky Mountain National Park

Once my arms are successfully tired from paddling — and snapping 237 photos — I set off for my next adventure: hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. What’s great about visiting the park from Grand Lake instead of Estes Park is the absence of crowds. Most people think Estes Park is the only gateway to the National Park, when it actuality it isn’t.

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Hiking in Smoky Mountain National Park

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The trail I choose for my adventure is Green Mountain into the Onahu Creek Trail, an eight-mile (13-kilometer) journey that begins with wide open trails immersed in towering ponderosas and spruce reaching toward the clouds, the ground dotted with purple columbine and lady slipper flowers steadily moving uphill. After 40 minutes or so it levels out, and eventually I spill out in a beautiful open meadow — aptly named Big Meadow — a great view of the iconic and oddly slanted Mount Ida and… a moose!

A giant male moose stands in the meadow crunching away on grass, unaware of my creepy self lurking in the bushes snapping photos. It’s amazing getting to witness nature from a safe distance in its natural habitat, nobody else around but me.

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Spying a giant moose in a giant meadow

After the meadow, I switch to the Onahu Creek Trail to form a loop, curving up and down to the gushing Onahu Creek to cross a whimsical wooden bridge. Here I stop to savor a grilled cheese and turkey sandwich with a side of chocolate chip cookie from Sloopy’s Grill. The nourishment is needed, as I’ve still got three miles to go, woodland enveloping me and providing fresh oxygen to propel me forward. Toward the end the flowers get more lush, fields of daisies and dandelions adding a beautiful twist.

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Relaxing along the trail

Speaking of beautiful, let’s talk about Rocky Mountain park rangers. Swoon. I may need to move to Colorado. As you’re watching out for moose and elk, keep your eyes peeled for these guys, as well.

An Authentic Dude Ranch Experience

The day ends with a drive to the Drowsy Water Dude Ranch, an all inclusive ranch with loads of activities: fishing, hiking, downhill cycling, yoga, campfire songs, line dancing lessons, zip-lining and more. A major highlight is the horseback riding, a range of trail levels offered, even morning breakfast rides on the mountain top. What I’m told by the other guests who’ve been there for the week is the hands-on instruction is unsurpassed, and the staff work with you until you’re comfortable on the horse. The night I’m there, I dig into a delicious barbecue meal with gooey chocolate chip oatmeal brownies before playing blackjack and hula hooping around their evening carnival, a family-friendly event that takes me back to my childhood (although note they also do adult-only weeks).

While you’ll typically need to reserve for seven days, they allow me to come for an evening experience to check out the offerings.

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Adorable horse on the dude ranch

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Fun moments at the Drowsy Water Guest Ranch

Tip: If you don’t do the ranch, head to Grand Lake Lodge for dinner. Along with their warm indoor space with animal heads, comfy couches and lots of wooden accents, the elevated outdoor porch overlooking Grand Lake is stellar, as is the buffalo meatloaf and mason jar S’mores dripping Fluffernutter, all paired with a local Colorado beer (yes, beer can go with dessert).

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The view from Grand Lake Lodge

On the drive back to Grand Lake, Lake Granby catches my interest. It’s massive, 11.34 mi² (29.36 km²), dotted with colorful boats and looked over by Abraham Lincoln Mountain, which looks like Abe himself. The coast curves toward the Rockies into the sunset, an alpine glow illuminating the trees to my right. So many colors, textures and moods ignite my senses in one place.

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Sunset over Lake Granby

Downhill Mountain Biking

My sense of adventure is particularly ignited the next day as I head from Grand Lake to Winter Park for my first go — ever — at downhill biking at Trestle Bike Park.

Because the continental divide seems closer to Winter Park, the scenery is even more dramatic than in Grand Lake, which becomes clear as I drive through the Fraser Valley, mountains seeming so close I can almost touch them. Homes are nestled on hillsides and the odd bunch of pine trees cover small slopes. The surrounding snowy peaks turn the landscape into a gorgeous natural stadium.

I settle into the Zephyr Lodge at Winter Park Resort and walk next door to the check in for my downhill mountain biking experience. There aren’t many things that scare me; however, the thought of barreling down a mountain at full speed dodging trees and flying over rocks — potentially flipping myself over the handlebars and breaking my face — does. But isn’t facing your fears and trying new things what travel is all about?

I was game.

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My downhill mountain biking adventure

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Taking the lift up for somehow downhill mountain biking

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Views along the mountain biking trail

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Jonathan of Travel Food Love and I getting ready for a downhill mountain biking adventure at Winter Park Resort

After suiting up in a full-face helmet, body padding, gloves, and knee and shin guards I’m ready to tackle the trails. Or at least I feel badass enough to in all the gear.

Once I see the terrifying terrain I’ll be embarking on I’ll admit my confidence level deflates, and I ride shakily over branches and bumps while letting out awkward distressed whimpers. Luckily, being the worst rider in the group means you get your own personal guide. Score.

Christy is amazing with me, drilling into me some essential downhill mountain biking rules:

  • No hard braking, especially with the front brake (unless you want to flip over the handle bars, that is)
  • Don’t look down or at what you don’t want to hit, but instead look forward on the trail at where you want to go
  • Stand tall without your knees locked, elbows out, foot pedals level and lean back a bit

It takes about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) of the 5.5-mile (9-kilometer) Green World Trail for me to get comfortable, but once I do, I’m able to slow my heart rate back to human level and enjoy the ride. And when I complete a sharp and steep turn that I absolutely expect to face plant on, I feel like superwoman.

Okay, so maybe I’m not ready for the Olympics. I still feel proud when I make it down to the bottom of the mountain with all my bones in tact. And facing a major fear made the trip worth it on its own (as does Winter Park Resort’s alpine slide, one of their numerous rides I jump on after).

A Delicious Ending

The adventure ends as all adventures should, with a beer and good food at Hernando’s Pizza Pub, an iconic eatery in Winter Park. Open since 1967 the original owners, Jerry and Anne Von Dracek, named “Hernando’s” after the theme song of their favorite musical, the Pajama Game.

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Delicious fun at Hernando’s

Along with a tradition of serving delicious pizza, the restaurant also posts dollar bills decorated by diners on the walls, with over $20,000 adorning the eatery. It’s a fun way to leave a piece of yourself in Colorado.

If you like meat, try the “Column I” topped with pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, salami, ham and bacon. Otherwise, the vegetarian-friendly “Vegetarian” pie comes with black olives, mushrooms, onions and green peppers. Make sure to save the crusts for the end, as tables feature bottles of honey to drizzle on top. If you haven’t tried it, you must.

My trip through Grand County was an epic adventure I’d highly recommend to anyone wanting to experience the Colorado countryside in an active and thrill-filled way.

Have you visited Grand County? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.

My trip was sponsored by Visit Colorado. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated for it. As always, all opinions are my own, and all writings are based on my personal experiences in the destination.

Logistics:

Getting There: Travelers can fly into Denver International Airport and hire a shuttle service — I used Home James Transportation — or rent a car (I like Avis). From the airport it’s about 2.5 hours to Grand Lake and 2 hours to Winter Park. The price for Home James Transportation was $94 for Denver International Airport to Grand Lake, and $69 from Winter Park Resort to Denver International Airport.

Getting Around: While it’s possible to explore both Grand Lake and Winter Park without a car — although you’ll need to hire transport to take you from one to the other — it’s recommended to have a car to truly make the most of your time.

Seasons: My above trip report is based on a summer trip; however, Grand County has adventure offerings year-round, including some of Colorado’s best skiing in winter.

Health: Because Colorado is a high altitude state, make sure to hydrate before and during your trip. Eight glasses is not enough, and altitude sickness can creep up on you without warning.

Travel Insurance: I recommend taking out a plan with Allianz Global Assistance.

Language: English

Currency: US Dollars

Fun Fact: Grand Lake Yacht Club, located on tow-mile high Grand Lake, is listed in Lloyd’s Registry of Yachts and Yacht Clubs as the club with the highest altitude.

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5 Comments

  1. Pippa on July 23, 2015 at 12:23 am

    What an adventure! I’m not much of an outdoors type but even I got excited reading through this post – the scenery is so gorgeous!! And finishing it off at a pizza pub! Heaven. So cool, thanks for this! 🙂

    • Jessie Festa on July 27, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      @Pippa: I’m from NYC and the food at pizza pub was super on par. Delicious!

  2. Lauren on July 23, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    I’ve been to Denver, but I have never gotten the chance to go up into the mountains! It is definitely on my list of things to do, especially after reading your post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jessie Festa on July 23, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      @Lauren: Let me know if you have any questions beyond this post. I LOVE LOVE LOVED it up there 🙂

  3. Notes From A Solo Road Trip Across The Midwest on August 16, 2018 at 6:16 am

    […] constantly craving a change of scenery or a new adventure to stimulate my senses. After a short but memorable trip to Colorado’s Grand County a few months back I decided I wanted to spend more time in the state. The plan: use Airbnb to both […]

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