The historic property at the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park served as a major springboard for summer tourism and is still a beacon for late summer and early fall mountain getaways
By Shauna Farnell
In viewing black and white photos of Grand Lake Lodge shortly after it was built 100 years ago, you’ll find the place looks very much the same as it does today. However, back in 1920, people didn’t flock en masse to mountain towns for summer weekend getaways of hiking, biking, camping and water sports like they do now. Still, at that time the scenic allure of the rugged Colorado Rockies, particularly the newly established Rocky Mountain National Park, was gaining traction.
Roe Emery, widely known as “the father of Colorado tourism” who once owned The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, had launched a popular scenic bus tour — the Circle Trip — from Denver through Rocky Mountain National Park, around Grand Lake and back. In order to provide bus passengers more than a passing glimpse of Grand Lake, Emery co-founded Grand Lake Lodge, a luxurious restaurant, lobby and collection of 70 cabins, all created from native lodge pole pine trees and located directly off Trail Ridge Road at the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park, majestically perched above the lake.
As summer tourism in the mountains quickly grew in popularity, Grand Lake Lodge became Colorado’s quintessential warm-weather getaway, drawing visitors from across the country and world. One of the lodge’s most famous visitors was Henry Ford, who stayed at the lodge in 1927 and who is the namesake for one of the resort’s most spacious overnight offerings (the Ford Cabin), equipped with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchenette and a large, screened-in porch.
With the passing of decades, numerous additional hotels and resorts sprang up in mountain towns throughout Colorado, but in many ways Grand Lake Lodge served as the prototype — if not the inspiration — for summer resort offerings that followed. Emery owned the lodge until 1953; it has changed hands a few times, including its four generations of ownership with the Ted L. James family, who helped the property reach National Historic Landmark status in 1993.
John Laake has seen his fair share of the lodge’s history, having taken a summer job here back in 1982, shortly after the lodge reopened following a multi-year closure due to a kitchen fire. Coming to Colorado from Ohio while he was still in college, Laake fell in love with the place. He returned every summer, eventually making the place his permanent home. These days he serves quite literally as the heartbeat of the lodge as the property’s year-round caretaker.
“I really can’t beat this view every morning,” Laake says. “I love the lifestyle. It’s a great place to work. It’s one of the few places in the country that can keep its original beauty because there’s not a lot of area to develop with the park on one side and the lake on the other.”
The exterior of the lodge and its cabins have maintained the same log-built look as they did 100 years ago, and the logs are indeed the very same ones that originally graced the inaugural structures. The property, while more rustic and certainly more character-endowed than the mega hotels that are found throughout surrounding ski towns, still possesses the distinct feel of a resort. Improvements over the years include a recent all-property renovation by current owner, Highway West Vacations, which revamped the cabins to modern luxury standards without losing the place’s overall rugged appeal. A pair of vintage Ford cars still grace the entrance to the lodge and its lobby is adorned with numerous relics from the past – a collection of old saddles as well as an Old West-era piano.
Opened only during the summer and early fall (through Oct. 4), the lodge’s Huntington House Tavern not only boasts one of the best views of any restaurant in Colorado, but is arguably Grand Lake’s most delectable fine dining haunt. Serving comfort dishes with fresh and creative flare, options range from gourmet burgers to filet mignon to scallop-topped crab cakes. In honor of its legacy, dinner is preceded with fresh baked rolls made from the lodge’s century-old recipe and its sumptuous cocktails include the One-Hundred-Year-Old Manhattan.
The Tavern also serves breakfast, delivered directly to your cabin, best enjoyed amid the smell of pines and wildflowers from the porch, perhaps with a moose strolling by, as the large creatures are one of many species of wildlife native to the area.
The lodge’s heated pool, hot tub and adjacent fire pit deck overlook the lake, which sparkles a couple of hundred feet below. These areas offer an ideal location for a relaxing hour or two respite after a day of hiking in the park or a round of golf at the nearby Grand Lake Golf Course. Families often entertain themselves all day at the lodge, which encompasses a picnic area, playground, horseshoe rings, volleyball and basketball courts.
The lake itself, the largest natural water source in Colorado, can be accessed on foot from a narrow dirt trail that winds down the wildflower-strewn mountainside below the property. The lake is bordered by Grand Lake’s historic downtown, featuring picturesque old saloons-turned-restaurants, bars, boutique shops and ice cream parlors. To get out on the lake itself, grab a paddleboard at Rocky Mountain SUP or pedal boat, pontoon, kayak or canoe from the marina.
With its assortment of private cabins, Grand Lake Lodge has proven an especially comfortable hub for visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Face coverings and social distancing are mandated in all public areas, pool time is made by reservation only and Tavern tables and fire pit deck chairs are spaced generously apart. The lodge has been buzzing throughout its centennial season and will likely continue to do so through its closing date of Oct. 5.