Estes Park to Grand Lake

Today I’m sharing about a recent day trip from Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. We typically make this voyage several times each summer because we enjoy it so much.

We always rise early to start our mountain adventures, but this year we have an extra reason to get an early start. Rocky Mountain National Park’s new timed-entry permit system is designed to help regulate traffic. If you get into the park before 9:00 AM or after 3PM, you don’t need to worry about a permit to drive over to Grand Lake. However, you still need a park entry pass. There is more information on the national park’s website.

We traveled over Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. When we went in early June, the seasonal highway had just opened so the snow was still piled high from a recent storm.

We didn’t realize that the Alpine Visitor Center has reduced hours in the late spring, so we waited around a little bit until they opened the doors at 10:30 AM. (Starting June 13, the doors open at 9:30 AM). At the visitor center we purchased a RMNP animals themed puzzle and some postcards to send to friends and family back home. We also enjoyed a cinnamon roll and hot chocolate in the cafe.

As we continued our drive down Trail Ridge Road towards Grand Lake, Colorado, it was shocking to see the wrath of the 2020 wildfires that burned 30,000 acres of the national park. Even though the fires are no longer roaring, some areas remain dangerous because of higher risks for falling trees, landslides, and flash flooding. Before planning a hike, it’s a good idea to check the National Park’s website for current closed areas (here) and to visit park visitors centers to get the latest trail information.

The fire not only impacted the forest, but also the people who live nearby. An art exhibit called Troublesome Stories: Tales from the wildfire opened in the town of Grand Lake. The gallery is free to the public. You can learn more here.

We were relieved to see that the hike into the East Meadow was open. The hike to East Meadow begins at the East Inlet trailhead at 8,390 ft in elevation. We followed the East Inlet trail for .3 miles to Adams Falls.

Adams Falls

This is one of our favorite hikes on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park because it is beautiful and easy for our young kids to hike on their own. We wrote more about this destination in our post, Peaceful Hike to East Meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

On the way to East Meadow

Past the falls and into the meadow, we spotted a moose in the distance.

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park
East Meadow

Grand lake colorado restaurants

We spent a little time in the meadow before turning around to head back to the trailhead. We worked up an appetite on our hike and decided to try a new Caribbean restaurant called One Love Rum Kitchen. We were able to get a picnic table outside where we enjoyed our meal. My husband and I enjoyed the flavorful blend of spices that they used to season the food. Our kids prefer basic flavors.

Next, we strolled down to Grand Lake where the girls (ages 4 and 6) enjoyed splashing in the water and playing in sand. This was the highlight of the day for them.

Our last stop was for a scoop of ice cream at Grand Lake Chocolates. Then we started our journey back over Trail Ridge Road to our cabin in Estes Park. The distance between Estes Park and Grand Lake is 46.5 miles and when I googled it this morning, it says it takes an hour and a half. I would plan for at least two hours each way because of traffic and sight-seeing.

Things to do in grand lake colorado

For us, this felt like a full day, but you could easily extend this day trip by adding more hikes. Some of our family’s favorite hikes in this area include the Ute Trailhead, Tundra Communities Trailhead, Alpine Ridge Trail, Lake Irene, and Coyote Valley.

Another way to add on to the day trip is renting a boat or kayak in Grand Lake. Last year we rented a kayak which we wrote about in a post called Kayaking Grand Lake, Colorado.

My final suggestion is to check out the locally owned shops and art galleries on the boardwalk in downtown Grand Lake.

East Shore Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

Today I want to share a scouting report for a new (to us) trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. East Shore is located on the west side of the national park near the town of Grand Lake and Granby Colorado. The trail borders Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby as well as the Colorado River. We parked near Shadow Mountain Dam. Our girls found the dam fascinating. (Their excitement could be attributed to the movie Frozen 2 which features a dam breaking as a major plot point.)

East Shore trailhead Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike near Grand Lake and Granby.

From the trailhead you could see Green Ridge Campground which is part of the Arapaho National Recreation Area.

East Shore trailhead Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike near Grand Lake and Granby.
National Park signage at East Shore trailhead.

The East Shore trailhead gives hikers access to RMNP as well as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. From Shadow Mountain Dam, we headed north for a half mile. The total distance of the East Shore trail is over 20 miles.

By the time we made it to East Shore, we had already hiked up on the alpine tundra and gone kayaking on Grand Lake. Given all the activities of the day, it’s not surprising that we only made it through a very small portion of the trail. We are excited to return when we have more energy and time to explore.

East Shore trailhead Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike near Grand Lake and Granby. Views of Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake
The East Shore trail features lake and mountain views. Imagine how pretty it would be at sunset.

Trail Positives: Lake views, mountain views, wildflowers, dam.

Trail Negatives: Distance from our cabin in Estes Park.

Final Thoughts: This trail would be a good option for people visiting Grand Lake or Granby, Colorado. Remember that hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park requires a park pass and a timed-entry permit.

East Shore trailhead Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike near Grand Lake and Granby. Views of Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake
The section of the trail was flat and easy for my 5-year-old to walk on.
East Shore trailhead Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike near Grand Lake and Granby. Views of Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake
Wildflowers blooming along East Shore trail in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Kayaking Grand Lake, Colorado

One of the highlights of our July trip to Colorado was renting a kayak on Grand Lake. We were staying at our cabin in Estes Park, Colorado so we drove over Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park to get to Grand Lake. A national park pass as well as a timed-entry reservation are required to drive this route. We stopped along the way to do a short hike up on the Tundra Communities Trail. The drive would take about an hour and a half without stops. On our drive to Grand Lake we spotted a couple of moose which is common in this area of the national park.

Grand Lake Colorado kayaking. Rent a kayak on Grand Lake.

renting a kayak on grand lake in Colorado

We rented a 15 foot tandem kayak for our family of four from Mountain Paddlers Kayak Shak. The kayak had enough room for two adults and our two small children.

Mountain Paddlers is located right on the lake. Rentals are first come, first served. We rented our kayak for one hour, which was a good amount of time for our first ride with the kids.

best time to go kayaking in grand lake

Mountain Paddlers is open from 8:00 am until 7:00 pm seven days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day unless the weather is bad.

The rental came with floatation devices for everyone in the kayak as well as a safety whistle and dry bag.

kayaking lake estes vs. grand lake

Last summer we went kayaking on Lake Estes in Estes Park, Colorado. We enjoyed our time on the water. I wrote about our experience in this post.

Grand Lake is a bigger lake which means that there are more boats and some faster boats on the water with you. I enjoyed the natural landscape. As a HGTV fan, it was also fun to see the lake homes. Some of them are dream homes! Grand Lake is the largest natural lake in Colorado while Estes Park is man-made. Grand Lake also connects to Shadow Mountain Lake. We didn’t get that far, but I would like to extend our rental time in the future so we can explore Shadow Mountain Lake as well.

things to do in grand lake, Colorado

We worked up an appetite paddling, so once we were back on land, we ate lunch outdoors at a Mexican restaurant. We enjoyed dessert at an ice cream shop. Then we went on another quick hike before heading back towards Estes Park. I could not have asked for a better day trip. Want more ideas for things to do in Grand Lake? I wrote this post about Great Reasons to Visit Grand Lake, Colorado with Kids.

Great Reasons to Visit Grand Lake, Colorado with Kids

One of my friends recently asked if I would recommend bringing two young kids to Grand Lake, Colorado.

Grand Lake, Colorado

My answer is yes! The mountain town of Grand Lake has a ton to offer families who are seeking outdoor adventures. Grand Lake is located on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you love water, you will enjoy having Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, and Lake Granby all within a half hour drive.

Typically when we are visiting Grand Lake, we are coming from Estes Park and have been in the car for a long time. Town Square Park is a beautiful green space with a nice playground. The park is wonderful to burn off the energy from our car ride.

Ice cream in charming downtown Grand Lake, Colorado

Downtown Grand Lake has numerous shops and restaurants to explore. We love grabbing an ice cream cone and walking along the shore of Grand Lake, the largest natural lake in Colorado.

The mountain lakes are wonderful, but I’m also impressed by the colorful displays of flowers around town. It feels very welcoming. Local residents seem to take great pride in their beautiful home.

Grand Lake Colorado is simply beautiful!

grand lake is less busy

Grand Lake is typically less busy than Estes Park, which is located on the East side of the national park. This means you will most likely benefit from shorter lines at the national park entrance and less trouble finding parking spots downtown.

outdoor adventures abound

Outdoor adventures in Grand Lake, Colorado include water recreation such as boating, swimming, sailing, and paddle boarding.

Grand Lake beach

Although there are adventures to be had year-round in Grand Lake, some top attractions are only open seasonally including Trail Ridge Road. The scenic highway typically opens at the end of May depending on the weather. You can learn about road conditions on the National Park’s website.

Hikes Near Grand Lake, Colorado

Some of our favorite family-friendly hiking spots near Grand Lake include:

Coyote Valley
Lake Irene
Adams Falls and East Meadow

If you are looking for a challenge, you can cross over the continental divide from Bear Lake to Grand Lake. You can read about the 18 mile hike here.

more to explore!

There are many hikes, picnic spots, and attractions we haven’t had a chance to explore yet including the Holzwarth Historic Site.

Did you know Rocky Mountain National Park has its own podcast? We listened to an episode titled, “Getting Wild on Rocky’s West Side” which was a great resource for learning more about Holzwarth. Additional resources when planning a trip to Grand Lake include grandlakechamber.com and visitgrandcounty.com.

Grand Lake is great for families
Grand Lake – toddler fun