Category Archives: Near RMNP

My 3 Favorite Cross-Country Ski Spots in Grand County

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More and more recently I find myself wanting to escape the hoards of people that flock to Winter Park Resort- my ‘home resort, at just 10 minutes from my home- and enjoy the quiet, snowy woods that encompass the Fraser Valley.

‘I didn’t move to the mountains to be around a whole bunch of people,’ I find myself thinking.

…Wow….that sounds a little bit curmudgeon-y….

But really.

It’s kind of true.

I love the peace and quiet and solitude that can be found way back in the woods, in winter or summer.

There are tons of places to cross-country ski and snowshoe in Grand County. At the more popular nordic centers, you will encounter problems similar to that at Winter Park Resort: crowds, people, and high prices.

Here are my three favorite places to leave the crowds behind in Grand County during winter:

Monarch Lake: This is a popular area in summer, but the lack of winter maintenance keeps people away for 6-7 months a year. With the backdrop of dramatic Indian Peaks Wilderness, this spot is scenic and serene. The trailhead is located off of highway 40, between Granby and Grand Lake, at the Arapahoe Bay National Forest turnoff. Parking in the winter is about one mile from Monarch lake. Once you reach the lake, you will complete a loop around it that is about 3 miles, and then take the same road back down to the car. Overall, this is a 5-6 mile ski.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Cross-country ski to Meadow Creek Reservoir.

Meadow Creek Reservoir: A ski to this reservoir affords you a different set of incredible views of Indian Peaks Wilderness. When you reach the reservoir, you will stare across the wide-open expanse of white at the jagged peaks on the far side. Like Monarch, this is a popular spot for fishing, hiking, and picnics in the summer, but is left deserted in the winter months when the road closes miles from the reservoir. To get to Meadow Creek, take County Road 8 out of Fraser until you read the ‘End of Winter Maintenance’ sign. You will park here, and trek up the long road to the reservoir. Unlike Monarch, Meadow Creek does not offer a loop option; the destination is the reservoir. This ski is approximately 9 miles.

The Fraser Experimental Forest: This is probably the most popular cross-country ski area of the three in this post, but there

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

Alex and Cece on top of Bottle Pass!

are so many miles of trail in this area that it is very likely to see nobody else while you are out here. The routes are seemingly endless here: you can trek as far up the Byer’s Peak road as you want; spend about an hour completing the DeadHorse loop; make up your own loop on St. Louis Creek and King’s Creek roads; head toward St. Louis Lake; climb to the saddle between Bottle and Byer’s Peak (we call it Bottle Pass); head toward Mt. Nystrom. The options are almost endless! We’ve done nearly all of these listed. We are nearly always alone in our journeys, and, in this area, are awarded great views of Byer’s Peak, the Continental Divide, the ski resort, Indian Peaks, and the distant mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park. For more information about the great trail system in this area, contact the local National Forest Service Office and acquire a map, as it’s possible to get mixed up on some of the county roads that serve as winter trails.

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Crater Lake Overnight

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Cece and Alex at Crater Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Cece and Alex at Crater Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Hiking Information:

Mileage: 14.4 miles roundtrip

Elevation Change: 2,000 feet

Altitude: 8,300 feet at trailhead, 10,300 feet at lake

To get there: Take Highway 40 through Winter Park, Fraser, Tabernash and Granby. Turn onto Highway 34 toward Grand Lake. Turn right onto the road for Arapahoe Bay and Monarch Lake, before the town of Grand Lake. Park at Monarch Lake. **Be sure to obtain an Indian Peaks permit at the National Forest office in Granby.

Some people say there’s nothing like fear to make you move quickly. In this case, there was nothing like fear to make me move slowly. Very slowly. What was I afraid of? A dry socket. We embarked on an overnight trip to Crater Lake 5 days after I’d gotten my wisdom teeth pulled.  And, according to the oral surgeon’s assistant, I’d been doing much wrong up to this point: icing too often and using the syringe too early. Not to mention breaking the ‘no heavy lifting for a week’ rule when I went to work and lifted toddlers all day 4 days after the surgery.

So, as we set out I was nervous about the strength of my blood clots and feared that the smallest bit of heart-thumping terrain would send a clot bursting out of the socket. I think this has to be on record as the slowest hike ever. Well, except for maybe descending into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison [LINK] last summer. When it was all said and done it took us about 6 hours to hike the 7.2 miles-and gain 2,000 feet elevation- up to the lake. Needless to say we really enjoyed the scenery.

The trail starts at Monarch Lake, which is a destination in itself. It is backed by craggy Indian Peaks Wilderness and is surrounded by thick forest, which is almost miraculous considering the rampant Pine Beetle kill in Grand County. Despite the popularity of the Monarch Lake Loop the trail was pretty quiet; the birds were chattering continuously, Cascade Creek was babbling in the distance, and soon we heard footsteps behind us. Hoof-steps, rather. Looking back we saw a female deer following close behind us. We’d take a few steps and she’d take a few steps. We’d stop and she’d stop. It went on like this, the deer following us like some friendly dog, until she got a little too close for comfort and Alex made just a little noise to scare her off.

On the backside of Monarch Lake we took the proper split in the trail toward Crater Lake and were soon hiking on one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever been on. The forest was green and lush, with big-leafed shade plants dominating the forest floor. Red, purple, white, and yellow wildflowers were starting to bloom. The Aspens and willows along the way had me aching already to come back here in September. And the higher up we went the better the cascade waterfalls got. The name ‘Cascade Creek’ is fitting; at points it seemed that the whole creek was just one waterfall after another.

The first three campsites in the area are below the lakes so we continued up and

Lone Eagle Peak, above Crater Lake.

Lone Eagle Peak, above Crater Lake.

soon reached Mirror Lake, where we had the choice to go left for sites 4 through 7 or right for sites 8 through 12. We went left in search of site 7 and, after a questionable stream crossing, reached this pristine site at the end of the trail. We were on the same side of the lake as the dramatically pointy Lone Eagle Peak (sites on the other side of the lake may have better views of the peak) and could crane our necks up at it or look across the lake at steep rock terraces that host countless waterfalls that flow into Crater Lake. Along this steep hill are areas of lush plant life, and at the top are more of Indian Peaks jagged and geometric rock formations.

We are in and out of the tent as the sky spits rain on and off. Our site is only a few steps from the lake, and we find a good, flat rock for sitting, reading, fishing off of, and cooking on. Without too much to do it’s easy to spend the evening and the next morning relaxing thoroughly next to the lake, enjoying the sounds of waterfalls and birds and taking in the backcountry stillness.

View from campsite 7 at Crater Lake.

View from campsite 7 at Crater Lake.

Hiking Info from Hiking Grand County, Colorado by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan.

Hot Sulphur Springs

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The name for the hot springs in this tiny Colorado town is fitting. They are definitely hot, with some pools getting up to 109 degrees, and, well, they smell like hard-boiled eggs. It took months to get the smell of sulphur out of my towel and swimsuit last time we visited these hot springs (don’t wash your towel with other clothes…or everything will smell like sulphur). This resort has 22 pools, some only big enough for one person; two if they don’t mind rubbing up against each other. There is a pool for every preference it seems: covered pools, a mountain view pool, super hot pools, a cold pool, pools out of the way of the others, a pool with a waterfall, pools that seat 1,2,4,10 people. Most of the pools have underwater benches in them, which makes it easy to lounge and relax. Because of the lack of shade and the heat of the pools, I find Hot Sulphur Springs hot springs in the summer to be more enjoyable at night than during the day. However, I look forward to going back this winter (when it just might be negative 56 degrees) since I live right around the corner from these hot springs.
We were at the hot springs until closing time and then went to camp with our friends at the free campground right across the train tracks. The pros of this campground are that it’s free, it’s easy, it’s in pretty good shape, it’s on the river, and I don’t think it fills up too fast. Suspicions about why it doesn’t fill up fast? One: There are frequent trains that barrel by, honking and rattling and screeching, on the tracks right next to the campground.Two: There’s a steady flow of people (we thought they were high schoolers) speeding by on the dirt road that goes by the campground. Three: Hot Sulphur Springs is weird and gives off creepy vibes…I don’t really know why. With the fire ban in Grand County lifted, we were able to enjoy the campground with a long fire before we good ol’ fashioned Coloradoans retired to bed in our Subarus for the night.
The last part of our visit to Hot Sulphur Springs was 18 holes of Frisbee golf the next day. This was a challenge. The course has a lot of long holes and is also populated by many trees, bushes, and tall grasses to lose a disc in. It’s possible that we spent a longer time searching for discs than actually playing, the climax being when we kept throwing them over the fence that blocks the course from the train tracks (lucky for us, someone who must play the course frequently cut conveniently-placed holes in the fence for disc retrieval). After this hours-long game in the midday sun, we stopped at the Dairy De-lite for a satisfying dipped cone.

Monarch Lake

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Monarch Lake

Monarch Lake

Hike details:

  • Mileage: off the road with a 3.9 mile loop around the lake
  • Elevation gain: 260 feet
  • Altitude: 8,590 feet
  • To get there: From Granby take Highway 34 north to the entrance to the Arapaho National Recreation Area. Travel east on Forest Road 125 for about 10 miles to the Monarch Lake Trailhead.

I find myself continually talking about how vertical, how unceasingly uphill Rocky Mountain National Park is, but, to my relief, that isn’t the case at Monarch Lake. The catch, though, is that Monarch Lake is not actually in RMNP. The lake is situated in Arapaho National Forest, on the western outskirts of the national park. I’ve heard that on the west side of the park things are a bit calmer and quieter. Maybe it’s because this side of the park is not as easily accessible from Denver, or maybe it’s because it doesn’t offer the dramatic mountain views that the east side does. Whatever the reason, a visit to the west side makes for a nice change of pace, scenery, and heart rate, I thought as I walked along the fairly flat trail around Monarch Lake.

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Lily Mountain

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Panoramic of a sunset from Lily Mountain

Marveling at a rainy-day sunset from the top of Lily Mountain.

Hiking details:

  • Mileage: 4 miles roundtrip
  • Altitude:9,786 feet
  • Elevation gain:1,006 feet
  • To get there: Take Highway 7 south out of Estes Park to the Lily Mountain trail head.

I don’t know where to look, and I say so out loud. Alex and I are alone on the top of Lily Mountain for a sunset. It’s 8:30, quiet and calm. The Continental Divide is looking back at us, every single mountain in the chain perked up to greet us, it seems. All day it rained on and off, leaving layers of heavy clouds stacked above the mountains. From behind Sundance Mountain the sun is turning the cloud’s edges orange, like the fading embers of a flaming piece of paper. Later, they will be cotton-candy pink, the cloud variety that pleases me most. Further south the clouds line up behind Long’s and Meeker and turn purple in the fading light. For fear of missing an important element in this Thursday night light show, I am scanning the mountains. Where do I look?

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