Grand Lake


High up in the Colorado Rockies lies Grand Lake, headwaters of the mighty Colorado River. Located at the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park at an elevation of 8,369 feet, Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest natural body of water, as well as the state’s oldest tourist destination. Rich in both natural history and western lore, Grand Lake truly embodies the essence of a Colorado mountain paradise.


For thousands of years, travelers journeying to Grand Lake have encountered an astonishing abundance of fish and wild game, vast stands of virgin timber, precious minerals, and breathtaking vistas. The area’s first visitors were Paleo-Indians, the Clovis peoples, who crossed the high mountain passes in search of game, possibly even mammoths, which they found plentiful in the rugged glacial valleys surrounding Grand Lake. In later centuries, the volume and variety of travelers entering the region increased markedly. Like a classic book on the Great American West, Grand Lake’s early recorded history is filled with spellbinding tales of Indian warriors and raiding parties, fur trappers and mountain men, legendary explorers and hardy settlers, gunfighters and gold miners, conservationists and entrepreneurs.


In the 1800s, Arapaho, Sioux, and Cheyenne Indians began venturing into the Grand Lake region in search of bison and other big game. Conflicts with the Grand River Utes, who lived throughout Middle Park, soon escalated. A famous local tale written in 1882, “The Legend of Spirit Lake,” recalls a ferocious battle fought between these rival tribes. One evening long ago, as an ominous thunderstorm rolled in over the Never Summer mountains, a small tribe of Ute Indians camping on the shores of Grand Lake was attacked by an Arapaho-Cheyenne war party. Surprised by the sudden assault, the Utes hurriedly loaded their children, squaws, and elderly onto pine rafts and set them adrift on the cold, black water. A furious battle ensued on the west shore of the lake; both sides lost dozens of warriors to arrow and knife. Later, after the raiders had been driven off, the victorious Ute Chief looked out across the empty, white-capped lake. The rafts had capsized in the storm, leaving only broken timber floating on the surface. The next morning, the frightened Utes observed the spirits of their dead families rising as spectral mists above the now placid lake. They fled, vowing never to revisit “Spirit Lake.” By 1879, the Utes of Middle Park had all been moved west to the White River Reservation, where Ute braves took part in the terrible Meeker Massacre and The Battle of Milk Creek. Shortly thereafter, the Utes and other Native Americans disappeared from the region entirely.


In the aftermath of the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 (“Pike’s Peak or Bust!, access to Grand Lake remained limited to a handful of trans-mountain Native American trails. From 1864 -1874, wagon roads on Rollins Pass and Berthoud Pass were completed, along with a crude trail from Hot Sulphur Springs to Grand lake. “The Island in the Rockies”- isolated and remote Middle Park – soon experienced rapid growth due to these early roads, and Grand Lake began attracting a variety of early miners and settlers. During the 1870s and 1880s, great changes occurred in the Grand Lake area. In 1875 silver, lead, copper, and gold ore were discovered in the Never Summer Range, less than 20 miles from the shores of Grand Lake. A mining boom soon echoed across the region, creating such towns as Gaskill, Dutchtown, Teller City, and Lulu City. Mines like the Ruby, Eureka, Bonanza, and the Wolverine brought eager miners from Georgetown, Denver, and points east. The Town of Grand Lake was surveyed in 1881 with 320 acres platted. Soon mercantile shops opened, hotels appeared, and saloons and parlors began offering refreshment and entertainment to the miners.


Grand Lake was a true “Town of the Wild West.” After the County Seat was moved from Hot Sulphur Springs to Grand Lake in 1881, animosity between rival political factions led to a bloody shoot-out on July 4, 1883. Four men died on the lake shore that day, including three County Commissioners and the County Clerk. Sheriff Royer, who committed suicide some weeks later, and Deputy Redman – who may have been murdered by a posse near the Utah border – brought the death toll in the Tragedy of 1883 to six men. The shoot-out scared off new investors, and hard times descended upon Grand Lake. Soon came the end of the mining era, too, as the boom went bust. By 1886, all mining sites and camps were abandoned. Lulu City became a ghost town, and in Grand Lake, the pace slowed down as businesses – even the County seat – moved away. By 1890, Grand Lake’s population plummeted from 600 to 80 year-round residents.


By the turn of the century, the Grand Lake area had shrugged off the economic depression that followed the collapse of the mining boom. Tourists, ranchers, and recreationists began returning to the lake in large numbers. Population records indicate that over 1000 folks resided here in the summer of 1900. Regular church services were held, guest camps and inns such as the Kauffman House, the Fairview House, and Camp Wheeler prospered, and the Holzwarth (or Never Summer), Green Mountain, and Harbison Dude Ranches soon developed.

In addition, people of wealth from Denver and cities in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas came to Grand Lake by stage coach to construct lavish lake shore cabins. They registered a yacht club in 1902, the World’s Highest, and built a Clubhouse in 1912. Later that year, Sir Thomas Lipton- the famous tea baron and English yachtsman- donated the exquisite Lipton Cup to the Club, and ever since, avid sailors have raced for the prestigious cup during Regatta Week, held every August. Hikers and naturalists, in addition to boating enthusiasts, were also lured here. The Grand Lake region, like so much of the American West during President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation movement of the early 1900s, helped inspire the nation’s new-found appreciation for nature and wildlife. From the Estes Park area came calls to create a large National Reserve in the Long’s Peak Region. Naturalists like Enos A. Mills, ìFather of Rocky Mountain National Parkî and a close friend of John Muir, labored tirelessly to protect this domain. Six years of campaigning finally convinced Congress to set aside the Long’s Peak Region as a National Park in January 1915.

Rocky Mountain, with 417 square miles and 124 glacial peaks over 10,000 feet, became the Nation’s Tenth National Park. “After standing on the summit of an eternal peak and feeling the inspiring influence of its pictured and silent story, one will return to duty and live amid life’s changing scenes more kindly and cheerfully than before,” wrote Mills. Visits to the Park tripled by 1918 to 150,000 tourists. The Era of Tourism had finally come to Grand Lake.


Further Reading

A Quick History of Grand Lake Lodge

by Michael Geary

Published Sept. 1999 by Western Reflections – Paperback – 129 Pages – ISBN 1890437379

A Quick History of Grand Lake presents a concise and interesting account of the people and events that have influenced the human history of Grand Lake and its immediate vicinity — including Rocky Mountain National Park and the Grand Lake Lodge.

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