This Scenic Lake Town May Be Colorado's Best-kept Secret

Serene views, incredible wildlife, and easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park await.

A shoreline view of Shadow Mountain Lake on the western end of Rocky Mountain National Park at Grand Lake Colorado.
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Tucked away in national forest land, Grand Lake is the kind of place you go to reconnect with simple pleasures. You won't see any stoplights or chain stores in this unassuming lake town. What you will find, however, is a rubber ducky specialty shop that is owned by the town mayor and also serves homemade fudge.

There are no five-star resorts in Grand Lake, and that's kind of the point — you come for its rustic charm and natural waterfront beauty. Situated at the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, it's an ideal home base for hiking, boating, biking, fishing, and more.

Up until now, Grand Lake has been kept a bit of a secret. "Maybe a little too intentionally so," one local told me. Most Denver residents will tell you they've never been, despite it being only a two-hour drive from the city. But as the community of approximately 500 year-round residents rebuilds after the wildfires of years past, they're eager to share the magic of their town with others. Here's how to plan the perfect trip to Grand Lake, Colorado.

Best Things to Do in Grand Lake

Hike, bike, or drive through the quieter side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Views while ascending and descending the Rocky Mountain National Park's Alpine Visitor Center, in Grand Lake, Colorado
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Some of the most beautiful terrain in Colorado lies within Rocky Mountain National Park. But what most visitors don't realize is that the neighboring town of Grand Lake is only minutes from the park's western entrance, which sees less than one-tenth the traffic of the busier Estes Park side. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., timed entry reservations are required, but outside that window, you can easily drive to the park's quieter, wilder side with little to no wait. It's almost hard to visit without seeing a bear, elk, or moose — on my last trip, I saw all three.

Get on the water.

It's surprising how many people come to the area and beeline to the national park without ever making it onto Grand Lake, the largest and deepest natural body of water in the state. Take a guided boat tour from Headwaters Marina in town to hear about the lake's geography and history, or rent your own pontoon from the friendly folks at Trail Ridge Marina on Shadow Mountain Lake — connected by a channel to Grand Lake. For something a little more active, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are available to rent by the hour from Mountain Paddlers Kayak Shak and Rocky Mountain SUP, respectively.

Kayaking and boating on the water in Grand Lake
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Catch a Broadway show.

You don't expect to see professional live theater in a tiny mountain town, which is exactly what makes Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre such a delight. Each summer, the theater puts on three Broadway musicals that rotate nightly. With more than 1,200 actors auditioning for a single season, the venue attracts up-and-coming performing arts talent from across the nation.

Go on a horseback ride.

Horseback riding with Thunder Horse Outfitters
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Thunder Horse Outfitters rescues horses from adoption agencies and trains them for riding. Take in scenic views in the company of these majestic creatures — all experience levels are accommodated.

Partake in Grand Lake's local festivals and traditions.

The close-knit community takes its traditions seriously. From the Western-themed Buffalo Days celebration to Troublesome Fest music festival to the annual ice fishing contests, there's always something happening in Grand Lake. In the summer, pop by the park for the live concerts on Wednesdays or bingo on weekend evenings. Check out upcoming events during your visit here.

Best Time to Visit Grand Lake

Town and view of Grand Lake.
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Grand Lake comes alive starting Memorial Day weekend and is a perfect getaway all summer long. Come in August to avoid peak summer crowds — the weather is just as beautiful during this time, but lodging prices are a bit lower. September is an ideal time for wildlife spotting and seeing fall foliage. While the warmer season tends to attract the most tourists, February through April invites visitors to take advantage of the 300 miles of snowmobile trails, ice fishing on lakes, and skiing or snowshoeing at the Nordic Center.

Where to Stay in Grand Lake

Interior of a dining area at Grand Lake Lodge
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Accommodations in Grand Lake are more summer camp than luxury resort. Park yourself at Western Riviera's lakeside motel if you're looking for cozy and convenient: Rooms are located just blocks away from the restaurants, shops, and activities in town.

Or, embrace all things Western at Winding River Resort, which offers RV and camping sites, rustic log cabins, and even overnight stays in covered wagons. You'll find plenty of on-site activities like horseback riding, ATV rentals, and flapjack breakfasts.

Exterior of the Winding River Resort
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For a relaxing, rustic retreat, book a stay at the historic Grand Lake Lodge. Perched in an enviable location overlooking the lake, the property has creative on-site dining, an unbeatable pool, and hiking trails nearby.

Larger groups traveling together may prefer to reserve their own slice of lakefront serenity on Airbnb or Vrbo. That said, vacation rentals are limited in the area and many require weeklong stays in peak months, so book early.

Where to Eat in Grand Lake

The deck at The Waterfront
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The Waterfront makes for the perfect lakeside lunch spot. The recently reopened restaurant serves casual new American cuisine on a gorgeous patio — including the best burger in town.

Miyauchi's Snack Bar on the boardwalk is your stop for a sweet treat. Take your pick from a rotating menu of small-batch ice cream flavors, like lemongrass basil and lavender white chocolate.

For a more upscale meal, don't miss the seasonal, local fare at Grand Lake Lodge's Huntington House Tavern. Ask for a window seat to soak in those views. Or, grab a cocktail at the bar before dinner and enjoy it fireside on the Deer Deck.

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