ON A COLORADO ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
It was a trip that was filled with some truly wonderful experiences. There was the mountain lion at Devil’s thumb ranch that 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. Then there was the big bull moose that wandered past as we hiked the East Inlet trail at Grand Lake, 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, a noise that would be grating if it was me calling my spouse, but somehow in nature it is a beautiful sound.
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 to simply soak up the views.
We had landed in Denver on an early September afternoon and were soon driving our rental car over the scenic mountain passes to Winter Park, 100 kilometres (65 miles) to the west. 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 Whistler BC. 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 and Spa, a year-round, eco-luxury and 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 and over 120 kilometres for cross country skiing and snowshoeing in winter.
We are playing cowpokes for the day with the resort’s working cattle ranch program, on a relaxed ride that 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 yester-year, I head back to our comfortable room afterwards and then book a massage to tend to my saddle-sore muscles.
The next morning we are up 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 simply means that they are at the top of the game if your goal is to experience some great fly fishing. 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.
The charming village of Grand Lake at the entrance to Rocky Mountain Park is our next stop, 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 two kilometre 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 20 kilometres, and we have to quicken our pace homeward as the sun drops behind the craggy ridges to the west.
The drive eastward through Rocky Mountain Park along the Trail Ridge Road on our return trip towards Denver, 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.
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 Craft Beer Capital of Colorado, producing a whopping seventy percent of Colorado’s craft beer. We jump on a 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 boasts the wonderful Benson Sculpture Garden and it’s more than 160 bronze sculptures. Browse the park and then head to the Art Castings of Colorado foundry for a tour of the facilities and a fascinating look at how the sculptures are crafted. Take a hike on the Devil’s backbone to the keyhole, (to get an Instagram selfie with your honey), drop into the Sweetheart Winery for a tasting, and then head to the sprawling Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch for a sunset horseback ride.
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.
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