Grand County, Colorado 3-day Winter Vacay
I’ve always been enchanted by winter, and Utah’s snowy mountains are a big part of why I love living on the Wasatch Front. But sometimes the short days, long nights, and cold temps can leave me wanting to hibernate—especially if an inversion is blanketing the Salt Lake Valley. If you’ve got that cabin fever feeling, all you may need to boost your mood is a change of place and Grand County, Colorado delivers.
Located on the western side of the Continental Divide, this snowy retreat is home to Winter Park—one of the state’s oldest ski areas—and the western entrance to the nation’s third most-visited national park, Rocky Mountain National Park. Whether you go to cross-country ski across a frozen lake, dog sled through a forest, or take powder laps in Winter Park Resort, the area’s a great place to rekindle your love for winter. If escaping for a weekend, here’s the best way to spend it.
Day 1: Authentic Colorado: Rocky Mountain Wandering
Kick off your Colorado trip in the old-timey, single stop sign town of Grand Lake. Known as the Western Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, its Wild West-styled Grand Avenue welcomes outdoorsy travelers with gift and gear shops and homestyle cuisine—all tucked behind restored wooden storefronts along a historic boardwalk.
Once the snow falls, the roads are left unplowed for snowmobilers who descend on this winter playground. And while the ice cream shops are long since shuttered, year-round local gems like British-owned and operated Fat Cat Café remain open to serve. Its weekend brunch buffet features authentic English fare: scones, bangers, corned beef hash, and even vegetarian specialties—if you ask nicely.
Work off the hearty eats with a walk on (frozen) water at Grand Lake, where you can also skate or cross-country ski across if it’s solidly frozen. From here, head back to town and rent some snowshoes at Never Summer. Then take a quick two-mile drive to Rocky Mountain National Park for a ranger-led snowshoe tour.
Though it’s one of the nation’s busiest parks in summer, this part of Rocky Mountain feels deserted in winter. Take advantage and see this picturesque park in all its snowy glory, enjoying bluebird sunny days, white-capped peaks, and winter recreation. Cross-country ski in solitude on the closed roads, or go sledding in the park at the old Hidden Valley Ski Area.
Ranger-led snowshoe tours are a popular enough offering to require reservations, so book before leaving town. After strapping on snowshoes and donning poles, we ventured into the woods’ backcountry trail system behind the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
Trekking single file up into the mountains, you traverse a ridge to an overlook with sweeping views of ice-covered Grand Lake. From there, you descend onto a trail through an aspen grove full of black bear-clawed trees. During the two-hour trek, rangers explain the bear marks and share local lore before looping back to the visitor center parking lot.
Afterward, spend the night relaxing in Winter Park or Grand Lake. Tuck in at a reasonable hour for an early morning wake-up call and another full day.
Cross-country Paradise: Devil’s Thumb Ranch
Start the morning with a drive to Devil’s Thumb Ranch in the town of Tabernash, a place known for its pioneering spirit and reverence for preservation. This real working ranch has fast become one of Colorado’s preeminent winter recreation destinations for cross-country skiing, horseback riding, and snowshoeing while managing to peacefully coexist with nature.
Each beautiful lodge, restaurant, and event space is sustainably constructed, from new structures built with beetle-kill pine to a reclaimed and rebuilt barn that dates back to the Civil War. Guest amenities like a theater room, game room, gym, hot tub, bowling alley, and coffee shop make Devil’s Thumb Ranch worth an entire vacation unto itself.
Beyond the buildings, the Ranch boasts 6,000 acres of pristine terrain and a Nordic Center with 120 kilometers of cross-country trails ready for exploring. Rent classic or skate ski equipment on site and buy a day pass for $22 to access all the trails. (Bonus: Pass includes ice skating rink too.)
If you’re a newbie, try the easy Ranch Walk and Meadow trails for mountain views with just enough hills to keep it interesting. Ready for a challenge? Ski expert trails like Punishment Hill and Black 10 for tough climbs and big descents. Trails are expertly groomed each day, and you can spend hours exploring the longer loops—just be sure to pack snacks and water.
After cross-country skiing, unwind with a relaxing massage at Ranch Creek Spa, an 18,000-square-foot space with an outdoor hot tub, toasty fireplaces, and seriously fluffy robes. The full-body Sports Recovery massage works out all the kinks and includes assisted stretching to deepen the tension release. Stick around after your treatment to take in the Continental Divide views with a hot cup of tea.
Stay after for dinner at Heck’s Tavern, an expansive restaurant modeled after the historic Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood, Oregon. Timberline’s striking hexagonal design is the source of Heck’s name, and this structure was sustainably created at Devil’s Thumb with dead wooden posts and beams from 800-year-old Douglas Fir trees on Vancouver Island. The restaurant’s centerpiece fireplace was constructed entirely out of rocks from a nearby slide. In addition to this remarkable design, chef-prepared ranch fare like the Cast Iron Chicken Pot Pie and Waygu meatloaf wow even particular palates.
Day 3: Choose Your Own Adventure: Winter Park Resort or The YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch
For the last day of your mid-winter escape, it’s up to you how you adventure. If you’re a skier or snowboarder, you’d be remiss to skip a day at Winter Park Resort. Claiming 3,081 skiable acres, Winter Park is Colorado’s fourth largest ski resort and one of its oldest. Built during the 1920s, guests rode the train here from Denver in the early days, and tickets were a rock-bottom $4.25 when they added their first chairlift in the ’60s.
Plenty has changed since then, but one thing hasn’t: Winter Park’s diverse mountain terrain. You’ll find everything from bumps and steeps to long groomer cruisers in Winter Park’s seven territories, but my slice of heaven is Mary Jane. Its legendary tree skiing and deep moguls have been busting quads and thrilling riders for generations, and there’s no place you’d rather be at this resort on a powder day.
For the downhill skiing averse, the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch down the road offers tubing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, fat biking, and dog sledding. Dog sledding clinics are the most popular offering, and I loved playing with the 20-strong pup team before they were harnessed and racing through the woods. For the most action-packed ride, take a standing position in back where you’ll feel the speed and get to help a bit with the sledding.
Close out your trip with a stop at Hernando’s Pizza Pub, a Winter Park institution since 1967. An estimated $20,000 worth of one-dollar bills decorate the walls of this cozy pizza-pasta joint, and the homemade sauces and hand-tossed crust make for incredible pies.
Where to Stay
From Rocky Mountain National Park to Devil’s Thumb Ranch to Winter Park, there’s a lot of ground to cover during a visit to Grand County. Stay central to everything at Trailhead Inn, a revitalized retreat featuring hip, basecamp-style lodging for outdoorsy travelers. Oddly enough, I realized during my visit that I’d stayed here years earlier—before the remodel—and recognized it only from the distinct shape of its pool and hot tub. Suffice it to say, it’s been completely transformed, and your stay includes sweet perks like free breakfast, indoor saltwater pool, and hot tub.
Located in downtown Winter Park amidst the shops and restaurants, Trailhead Inn is just five minutes from Winter Park Resort and one hour from Rocky Mountain National Park. To access Devil’s Thumb Ranch, skip driving and take the hotel’s free shuttle.
Grand County is easily reachable via a cheap flight to Denver (Often $39 on Frontier!), and renting a car or taking the Home James shuttle to Winter Park. Or make it a road trip and drive the scenic seven hours from Salt Lake City. Just be sure to watch for moose and deer that frequent the road.
Whether you follow this three-day itinerary to a T or make it your own, you’ll leave Grand County, Colorado recharged on winter and ready for more snowy spring days in Utah.