Grand County’s Rocky Mountain Highs
By Sonja Stark
“Sturgis is good with beginners. Just pull on his withers to help you up and dig your heels into his behind to show him who is boss,” assures my Equine Instructor, Joe. I’m spending the afternoon atop a creature of mischief and hunger at Sombrero Stables, part of the property at the YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch.
Being new to this activity mounting my feisty thoroughbred takes longer than most.
Sturgis traverses steep passes and rough terrain with such ease and dexterity, I reward his sure footing with frequent breaks – as if I have any power to stop him from grazing. Joe finally halts the ride, jumps off his horse and tightens the reigns around my beautiful white beast impeding his voracious appetite. We pass not one but two fox sightings as we amble past narrow creeks and tall alpine forests.
Rocky Mountain Highs
Horseback riding is just one of the many Rocky Mountain “highs” I’m experiencing in Grand County, Colorado this late Summer week. Between high desert grasslands, lush meadows and bold climbs, Grand County has some of Colorado’s most scenic and ecologically diverse landscapes. It’s also a natural playground for adrenaline-inducing junkies and quiet sojourns alike.
When I finally disembark from Sturgis three hours later my legs are sculpted into a bowlegged cantor. I need a night of solid ‘yurt therapy’ to recover.
Overnight in a Yurt
Accommodations are many at Snow Mountain Ranch; cabins, tents, campgrounds and lodge rooms, but the most memorable stays are inside a yurt. The ancient post and beam shelter was first used by Asian nomads and is now a trendy way of experiencing the great outdoors without missing out on wi-fi.
The yurts have many of the comforts of home including a microwave, mini-fridge, full size beds and plenty of power outlets. The bathhouse has flush toilets, handicapped-accessible hot showers, hair dryers, coin- operated washer and dryers and deep-well sinks.
I fall vast asleep to a canopy of stars but by morning I need to double up on sweaters and socks. It’s only August but I literally have icicles dripping off my exposed nose.
The YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch is one of three outposts in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The Ranch, 12 miles north of Winter Park, has evolved from a 1908 encampment to a year-round recreation center with 5000 acres to explore including a historical treasure called the Rowley Nature Center. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, half-buried farm machinery and rusty washboards scatter the land. Saved from demolition include Civil-War era animal barns, a smoke house and an original log cabin.
Hiking Past the Timberline
Bundle up tight if you’re going to venture up any of the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. The conditions are unpredictable and the winds can be dangerously gusty. That doesn’t seem to bother the yellow-bellied Marmot though.
These fuzzy friends of Grand County are busy fattening up on berries, flowers and lichen before the winter sets in. At over 12,000 feet above sea level the grassy tundra at the top of Rocky Mountain is also the best place for human handouts.
Thanks to Trail Ridge road, the highest, continuous road in the USA, I’m able to avoid exposure to the elements while admiring the legendary vistas through my passenger car window.
My tour guide points to Mama Marmot gathering her baby critters squealing a high-pitched whistle that sends them rushing to her side. Conditions at the Continental Divide are too harsh for trees but other traces of life thrive in this ecosystem of extinct volcanoes and metamorphic rock. Mule deer, moose, coyotes, elk, bighorn sheep, black bears and even cougars call this formidable land home.
Biking and Sliding at Winter Park
The pendulum of fun swings from a tranquil pace of horse riding on Day 1 to gravity-driven acceleration on Day 2. High-speed chairlifts ferry us past large swaths of downed Ponderosa pines that fell to an insect disease spread by the Mountain pine beetle. The epidemic has resulted in the loss of millions of trees. As disconcerting as that is I’m focused on the adventure at hand – downhill biking at Trestle Bike Park, Winter Park Resort.
Beefed up in heavy body armor – knee, shoulder and elbow pads, a thick helmet and a tight black vest, I’m about to blast down a portion of 40 miles of trails on a Specialized demo rental. After a few practice runs and tips from the guide our group is ready to tackle a run.
I nervously clench the handlebars so tight that I’m afraid blood circulation might cut out. As requested, I stay standing on the pedals and focus on the trail ahead rather than the obstacles under my tires.
I go plunging past big boulders and around narrow berms, but, similar to skiing a set of moguls, traversing roots, ruts and rocks requires quick thinking. Our group shows an immediate aptitude for this and maybe with more practice my cornering skills would be better, but, instead, I nearly flip my mountain bike on the lip of two twisty turns.
With courage waning I want nothing more than to survive this harrowing ordeal. When we reach the bottom I happily retire the bike and reach for my video camera to document the professionals doing precarious jumps and spins on the double diamond trails.
When the rain subsides we find ourselves bulleting down a plastic bobsled for beginners. With a 610-foot vertical drop, the Alpine Slide at Winter Park Resort is Colorado’s longest alpine slide. I breathe easier controlling the rollers and brakes across a smooth surface of concrete. This is definitely more my speed. The next adventure continues to prove just as tame.
Zip-lining at Devil’s Thumb Resort
“You’ll be clocking in at 40 mph on this last zip-line,” emphasizes our guide. “You’ll feel like a bird soaring above the treetops.”
Indeed, I’m swinging from a thin cable no thicker than Tarzan’s vine but it beats trembling atop a mountain bike. All ability levels can enjoy the 5-line tour at Devil’s Thumb Resort when there’s literally nothing to do but plead that gravity is merciful. Each zip-line gets faster and higher culminating in what is called the “High Lonesome Line” with 1600 feet of excitement.
There is an eager 75-year old native in our group celebrating his birthday with his three adult sons. He fearlessly dashes to the front of the line and requests a huge push off from the platform. He takes to the sky like a bird in flight soaring over meadows, creeks and even dilapidated antique cars.
At $90 a pop, zipping at the Resort makes for a steep day but mix in history lessons on early explorers, fur trappers and prospectors and the adventure becomes worthy of repeating.
You don’t need to be an overnight guest at Devil’s Thumb Resort to zip-line but after a tour of the facility I highly recommend that you do. With 48 fireplaces in each romantic suite, a 3-story hexagonal stone hearth in the restaurant and a geothermally-heated pool leading to outdoor infinity hot tubs, few accommodations in Colorado come close to this degree of luxury. Behind an oversized bourbon-barrel round door is a concentric uncorking room that leads to a wine cellar stocked with rare vintages.
I’m just as happy seated in the spruce and stone Heck’s lodge famous for their super tender farmhouse Wagyu burger. Wagyu is Angus crossbred beef marketed by Colorado cattle breeders who literally message their cows for the best-tasting meat.
Wild West Cuisine in Grand Lake
Speaking of meat, the storied reputation of Rocky Mountain oysters is the only caveat to Grand County dinner.
“Howdy partners. Can I bring you a basket of oysters for starters?” asks our server standing in a pool of peanut shells at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill.
The challenging appetizer arrives battered and deep-fried with cocktail dipping sauce and a sizable stack of napkins. Not sure what Rocky Mountain Oysters are? Best to wait and ask after you’ve consumed a handful of bite-size morsels than ruin your appetite for the swinging beef. Regardless if you like the taste the shock value on your friends faces is reason enough to try this Wild West delicacy. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are available for queasier stomachs.
Isolated from fast food chains and big discount retailers the frontier town of Grand Lake is called the “Western Gateway” for a reason. The cowboy heritage runs deep here with carefully preserved wooden boardwalks, handcrafted log cabins and standing lodgepole pine buildings.
During Regatta week Grand Lake’s pristine depths attract thousands for competitive sailing. Instead, I squeeze inside a 2-seater kayak for an easy paddle around the perimeter. My partner and I circle the rugged natural beauty of Grand Lake topped off with iconic views of the Rocky Mountains and circling Ospreys overhead.
In the evening, the views of Grand Lake only improve as my overnight accommodations stay lakeside at the Western Riviera motel. The customary lodging has extraordinary views of the crystal clear environment including meditative stretches of beach, pedestrian docks, and secret fishing holes.
Around the corner is a coffee house with fast internet and the best breakfast buffer ever at the Fat Cat Café. Try the Scottish eggs followed by French toast with Sally’s (owner) special homemade hot sauce but come early because the line extends out the door.
Grand County Travel & Tourism: www.visitgrandcounty.com
YMCA Snow Mountain Resort
1101 County Road 53
Granby, Colorado 80446
Trestle Bike Park and Alpine Slide
Winter Park Resort
79050 U.S. 40
Winter Park, Colorado 80482
Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa
3530 County Road 83
Tabernash, CO 80478
Western Riviera Lakeside
419 Garfield Street, PO Box 1286
Grand Lake, CO 80447
Phone (970) 627-3580
Sagebrush BBQ & Grill
1101 Grand Avenue
Grand Lake, Colorado 80447
Fat Cat Café
916 Grand Ave
Grand Lake, CO 8044
Sonja Stark is an award-winning, freelance videographer and the founder of PilotGirl Productions. She shoots professional 4K video for top-rated television productions, shows and documentaries. She is GoNOMAD’s most regular blogger, click to read her latest post about travel and life in video.