Grand County, Colorado, is my kind of place, home to wide-open spaces, wild wilderness, stunning mountain scenery, and authentic old-west towns. More than seventy percent of the county’s area is held in the public trust as free open lands. With so much unrestricted space, most of the local lakes, rivers, forests, and mountains remain accessible and relatively uncrowded for hiking, biking, fishing, riding or simply to soak up the views. The biggest gathering you see might be a herd of elk on the steep alpine slopes of Rocky Mountain Park.
Wild about wildlife
Our trip is filled with some truly wonderful wildlife experiences. A mountain lion at Devil’s Thumb Ranch darted across the road in front of my wife and I as we were returning from dinner, and then just to make sure that we didn’t mistake the magnificent and elusive cat for some ordinary coyote or large dog, the cougar sat on its haunches by the side of the road and watched us, before vaulting off into the trees.
Editors’ note: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we travel. With so many restrictions in place, many travelers are venturing closer to home, taking day trips, and seeking to spend their time outdoors.
Then, as we hiked the East Inlet trail at Grand Lake, a big bull moose that wandered by so close that my wife bounded up the trail faster than any fleet cat, leaving me to my fate.
Finally, there was the lovesick bugling bull elk that decided to serenade us through the night during our stay at Grand Lake Lodge. The noise would be grating if it were me calling my spouse, but somehow in nature it was a beautiful sound.
Playing cowpoke and casting in Grand County
We start our Colorado road trip in Denver on an early September afternoon, driving westward over the scenic mountain passes to Winter Park some 65 miles away. By late afternoon, we were tromping around the alpine getting used to the elevation.
Winter Park is a pretty little resort town, much like a young Aspen or Vail. We hopped on the gondola to explore the high country and then hiked back down the mountain to the village as the sun was setting.
Grand County lays claim to the title of “Colorado’s Dude Ranch Capital.” A short drive west of Winter Park is Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa, a year-round, eco-luxury, award-winning 6,500-acre guest ranch. The ranch buildings are first-class, built to fit into an amazing setting, with great attention given to every detail.
The ranch’s culinary programs include ranch-raised Wagyu beef and organic honey. Outdoors, 55 kilometres of trails are available for hiking and mountain biking in summer with over 120 kilometres for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter.
We play cowpokes for the day with the resort’s working cattle ranch program. Our relaxed ride has me and my stout horse, Colonel, moving cattle from one pasture to another. I think I’m ready for an old-fashioned cattle drive, but unlike the cowboys of yesteryear, I head back to our comfortable room afterwards and book a massage to tend to my saddle-sore muscles.
The next morning, we rise early to wade into the magical world of fly fishing, including casting lessons at the ranch’s private trout-stocked pond. The Devil’s Thumb Ranch is also an Orvis-Endorsed Lodge, which is the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for sport-focused entities, especially higher-end ones. In short: If your goal is to experience some great fly fishing, you’ve come to the right place. The resort offers a broad range of fly-fishing gear and equipment, talented guides, and a sustainable approach to fishing the ranch’s private waters.
A beautiful Rocky Mountain Park
The charming village of Grand Lake at the entrance to Rocky Mountain Park is our next stop. It’s the perfect launching point for exploring the rugged, less-crowded western destinations within the park. After checking into the historic Grand Lake Lodge, our plan is to do the short and popular 1.5-mile hike to see Adams Falls, one of the park’s prettiest waterfalls. But, the trails beyond the falls lure us up the valley and then up the mountain for beautiful vistas on the East Inlet Trail. Our short hike ends up being 16 miles, and we have to quicken our pace homeward as the sun drops behind the craggy ridges to the west.
The drive eastward towards Denver, along the Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain Park, is both spectacular and a little terrifying. This route, the highest continuous paved highway in the United States, had been closed the night before because of icy conditions. This morning, as I drive on the outside of steep switchbacks, I am thankful that the early sun has warmed the asphalt. The highway meanders north and east through pine forests and alpine tundra, past craggy peaks and crystal lakes. Herds of elk graze on the mountain slopes, but at my wife’s insistence, I keep my eyes on the road.
Of beer and love
We circle back to Denver with stops at Fort Collins and Loveland. Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University, is a vibrant town full of great eateries, pubs, eclectic shops and boutique hotels. Its picturesque Old Town inspired many of the buildings on Main Street USA in Disneyland. This town also lays claim to being the Craft Beer Capital of Colorado, producing a whopping seventy percent of Colorado’s craft beer. We jump on a private bike tour and sample as many of the local brews as possible.
Loveland is the city of love, Sweetheart City USA and Valentine Capital of the world—which were obvious reasons for me to try to avoid the place—but my darling wife insists on visiting. Besides being full of hearts and cupids, the otherwise charming town also is home to the wonderful Benson Sculpture Garden, with more than 170 bronze sculptures pleasantly arranged throughout its ten-acre green space.
We wander around the park taking in the beautiful and innovative bronzes, and then we head over to the nearby Art Castings of Colorado foundry for a delightful tour of the facilities and a fascinating look behind the scenes into how these sculptures are created.
Afterwards, in the spirit of “When in Loveland,” my wife and I complete our romantic visit by hiking along the Devil’s Backbone to its famous keyhole (perfect for that Instagram selfie with your honey), then we head off to the Sweetheart Winery for a tasting, before riding off into the sunset at the sprawling Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch.
From Loveland it is a short drive back to Denver, a charming city certainly worth a few days on its own. The Colorado circle trip is over too quickly, a week’s journey full of great experiences – adventure, culture, great cuisine, art, beer, and a tiny bit of love.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The mix of outdoors and nature (wildlife, great hiking, horseback riding and picturesque views) with small town culture (great restaurants, boutique hotels, and eclectic shops)
- Good craft beer
- The distances and daily drive time on this Grand County road trip were not long (our longest travel day was 90 miles from Denver to Winter Park), leaving more time for exploring.
- Inviting photography opportunities
- Lots of wide-open spaces make it easy to avoid crowds.
- The mountain pass through Rocky Mountain Park can be tricky in inclement weather, so it’s prudent to keep an eye on the forecast.
- If you’re in a relationship, take care in Loveland; your partner might get amorous ideas!
IF YOU GO
All photo credits: Jamie Ross
Editors’ note: This is one in an ongoing series of close-to-home road trip suggested by our GOT Contributors. Also see:
- Ottawa Road Trip: Lanark County Makes A Great Day Trip or Overnight
- South Louisiana Road Trip: Discovering Nature’s Glory
- Townsville, Australia Road Trip: A Patch of Paradise Close to Home
- Carlsbad, California Road Trip: A Chance to Refuel and Recharge
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