Shadowy shapes form silhouettes against the snow-covered ice. The
figures huddle around the eerie glow of a laptop computer, which rests atop the frozen surface a few dozen yards away from shore. A cloud-cloaked sky looms, starless and inky black.
Grand Lake in
winter draws both
By Dan Leeth
"Five. Four. Three." I hear one man count. "Two. One."
At the exact stroke of midnight, one of them pushes a button. Rockets whoosh, fireworks thunder, and the sky explodes in a salvo of flaming red, gold, green and blue. A chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" greet each blazing volley.
Several hundred of us sit wide-eyed, necks cranked skyward. By day we're a mismatched collection of recreationists, but tonight we share a common bond. We've all donned parkas and ventured into the dark chill to watch Grand Lake's annual "Diamonds in the Sky" launch another New Year.
"We started this in 1990, the year of Rocky Mountain National Park's 75th anniversary," explains Evelyn Schnittker, owner of Lake View Bed and Breakfast. "We wanted something really different and special."
Grand Lake, a two-hour drive northwest of Denver, features winter recreation without lift lines. Outdoor diversions include ice fishing Colorado's largest natural lake, snowmobiling national forest trails, inner-tubing a nearby hillside, ice skating a lakeside rink and snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park.
The town of 500 year-round residents exudes the aura of the Old West. Fireplace smoke flavors the air, and wooden buildings border streets lined with shoveled boardwalks. Shops range from trinket and T-shirt emporiums to stores selling Western sculpture and log furniture, and a gallery features works by local artists.
From Memorial to Labor Day, this park-edge town with its towering peaks and sapphire lake draws visitors like butterflies to buttercups. Lodging rooms fill, restaurant lines form and shops peddle a plethora of products to more than a half-million summer visitors. The cash flow plummets when temperatures fall and Trail Ridge Road closes for the season.
"We moved here in March of '84," Schnittker says. "We built a new motel and decided with the new mortgage, we had to have winter business. We couldn't be open just three months and closed nine."
Business owners banded together in a quest for economic survival. They decided that snowmobiling might provide the needed off-season draw. At the time there were few formal areas for the sport, and theirs would be the closest to Denver.
"We worked with the Forest Service to lay out a trail system," she says. "We started marketing like crazy, hoping people would come. And they did."
Now billing itself as the "Snowmobile Capital of Colorado," Grand Lake welcomes the machines with open arms. Plows pack snow over the pavement, allowing the backcountry vehicles to travel town streets. Owners can untrailer their machines and not crank up a car until it's time to return home.
"They can ride to the restaurants, they can ride to the bars or they can go shopping," brags Schnittker. "We're one of only two towns in the state of Colorado that allows that." (The other is Lake City.)
More than 150 miles of maintained trails extend into the surrounding forest. Many routes follow old logging roads, skirting through glades, crossing meadows and climbing hills for lofty views of lakes and mountains. Experienced riders who want to plow through powder will find another 150 miles of unmaintained routes.
For those who don't own a snowmobile, rental companies offer machines in two-, four- and eight-hour increments. All riding is individual-there are no commercial tours offered. With clearly marked trails, even first-timers can have a good time.
"We give them instruction on how to run, how to stop, how to do everything with the machine. We go over the map with everyone before we send them out. We even have a field where they can practice before they take off," says Tami Wold, co-owner of On the Trail Snowmobile Rentals. "We'd rather have people not go if they don't feel comfortable."
Of course, not everyone likes snowmobiles. While most riders are friendly and courteous, the noise and smell of the two-stroke engines can be bothersome to those preferring the sounds of solitude and the perfume of pines. Fortunately, in Grand Lake, both sides practice peaceful coexistence. Piston-powered riders have their forest trail system. Muscle-movers have Rocky Mountain National Park, where the machines were banned more than a decade ago.
"We decided it was not a compatible use in our backcountry," explains Doug Buttery of the National Park Service. "Our intention was to take back some of our wilderness area and make it just that."
Having had previous experience on snow machines, I opt to spend a day burning glutes, not gas. I head for the park. The road is plowed, but empty. Throughout the winter, the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park sees fewer than 10,000 visitors.
On weekends, rangers lead scheduled snowshoe hikes and cross-country ski tours but I choose to go on my own. I drive 10 miles past the Visitor Center to road's end at the Colorado River trailhead. From here, skiers and snowshoers have two options. They can glide or stomp up snow-covered Trail Ridge Road to Far View Curve and Milner Pass, or they can ski up the nascent Colorado River Valley toward the site of Lulu City, an 1880s mining camp.
After a steep start, the route into the backcountry follows a wide, meadow-lined valley that's rolling and quiet. Fairy-dust snow falls and a light breeze whispers through the trees. They combine to obliterate any possible moose tracks.
"They habituate the willow flats, so there's a real good chance to see moose in the winter here," says Buttery. "Because they use the mag-chloride on the roads, the moose oftentimes will come in and lick your car for the salt. You have to wait for them to finish their meal before you can get to your car."
I aim for Lulu City, but with nothing on the ground to tell me I'm there, the destination is nothing but a direction. Poling over the snow, I hear the rustle of wind, the zing of skis, and the occasional bird chirp. The air is crisp, clean and fresh. After lunch, I turn back and retrace my trail to the car. There's nary a salt-licking moose in sight.
It's time for dinner. Grand Lake offers dining options ranging from burger-and-a-beer bars to a barbecue grill with peanut shells on the floor. For those who want wine from a corked bottle, there are also a few white-linen-tablecloth establishments such as Back Street Steakhouse and the Historic Rapids Lodge, where I dine.
Settling in, I look around at my fellow patrons. Enjoying the spirit of peaceful coexistence, I try to guess which are snowmobilers and which are not. Of course, the only way to know for sure is to step outside and see who leaves in a car and who heads for a snowmobile.
Dan Leeth is a winter-loving writer from Aurora who has been seen snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing the backcountry when he's not flailing down moguls at some downhill ski area.
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