I’ve driven this road a hundred times, but it doesn’t matter. I still strain my neck trying to take in the scenic view as my car climbs the foothills out of Denver and heads into the heart of the Rockies.
I rise above the city, now just a tiny speck in my rearview mirror, and the scenery immediately changes. I’m surrounded by tall peaks, each one looming larger than the next.
Thick forests of dark pines cover the hillsides, and patches of aspen ? their green leaves shivering in the breeze ? dot the mountains like a quilt. Mountain streams running high with snowmelt meander through meadows covered in purple and white flowers.
By the time I reach 8,000 feet, I am totally relaxed. The mountains run on their own rhythm, and I’m on “Mountain Time” now. My fast-paced city life has been left in the valley below.
Like most Coloradans, I’ve spent a lot of time in the high country, yet I never seem to get enough of it. Today, once again, I’m heading to one of my favorite regions of the state ? the Fraser River Valley. My sister and I have planned a weekend of summer play, and the valley is the perfect place to do that.
Nestled on the edge of the Continental Divide some 90 miles from Denver, the Fraser Valley is filled with open prairie, working ranches and several small towns, including Winter Park, Fraser, Granby and Grand Lake.
Winter Park is home to the popular ski resort of the same name. This is where I learned to ski as a child ? and where I taught my own children to ski.
Owned by the city and county of Denver, the resort is popular for its great terrain, affordable prices and easygoing atmosphere. My family and I have spent many a crisp, winter day schussing down her slopes.
But it is summer now. The ski resorts have closed and the Rockies have put on their summer wear. There are birds coasting about in the warm breezes, cattle grazing in green pastures and people out enjoying the warm sun.
My sister and I pass dozens of mountain bikers as we make our way through the valley and into Winter Park. Only one main highway runs through the valley ? if you can call this narrow road a highway ? so we slow down often to share the road.
Winter Park is not a glitzy resort. There are no huge hotels, glittery restaurants or Hollywood celebrities flitting about town. Instead, tidy, unpretentious stores, hotels and restaurants, many of Tyrolean design, line the streets.
This down-to-earth attitude is what draws so many visitors to the region. Although the town may not put on airs, the encircling alpine scenery does. We are surrounded by purple mountain majesty. Who needs fancy hotels when you have a view like this?
My sister and I pass few other cars as we cruise through town, just a rancher in a huge 4-wheel-drive truck (a big dog in the passenger seat, of course), two businessmen deep in conversation (one of them gesturing as he drives), a pony-tailed man driving a beat-up $500 car with a $3,000 mountain bike on the top and more mountain bikers, who whiz past without breaking a sweat.
This eclectic mix of people is one of the things I like about this part of Colorado. This is the true West, a frontier that has, for more than a century, drawn independent spirits and free thinkers. The climate is not easy in the high country, and you have to be hardy to live here.
I meet that independent spirit face-to-face when we check into the Wild Horse Inn, our accommodations for the weekend. Tucked deep in the forests just outside of town, the Wild Horse is the idyllic picture of an alpine lodge. Made of thick, handcrafted 400-year-old logs with a double-sided moss-stone fireplace in the great room, the inn is cozy and intimate.
Owners Chris French and John Cribari immediately make us feel welcome, showing us to one of three well-appointed cabins with thick down comforters on the beds.
Chris and John have had successful careers in the business world, and I’m curious as to what brought them to this quiet corner of the Rockies. I ask them about it while we enjoy a cup of tea.
“Yes, I had a good job in the corporate world,” Chris says. “But one day I woke up and felt that the quality of my life wasn’t enough. John was working as a massage therapist for professional athletes, and he agreed. So we just jumped off!”
Their jump brought them to the Fraser River Valley, an area they had always loved to visit. Now they can walk out the back door and go hiking through the woods or cross-country skiing in the winter, Chris says.
I can certainly understand the attraction.
Now that we’re settled, my sister and I are ready to explore some of this beautiful country. With lakes, rivers and miles of trails, it’s the perfect place to play. The question is where to begin.
Many come to Fraser Valley for biking, since there are some 600 miles of bike trails. But biking requires too much energy, so I prefer hiking ? and there are numerous places to choose from. The Arapaho National Forest, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness are within miles of each other.
I’ve always had a weakness for the national park, so we drive over for an afternoon hike around Bear Lake. Regardless of how many times I’ve seen it, I’m still taken aback by the lake’s postcard-perfect appearance.
Sharp peaks reflect in the still, dark waters, and the smell of pine drifts around us in the fresh breeze. Hummingbirds argue over columbine flowers near the shoreline, and blue jays call out from the trees.
We walk the well-worn path around the lake slowly, stopping often to sit on boulders overlooking the water. There is so much beauty here that we want to see it from all different angles.
On the way back to town, we stop off for some shopping in the nearby towns, which are similar in size to Winter Park. There are no malls, so most shopping excursions require you to drive a bit, and get out and explore.
We stop first at the town of Grand Lake, situated on the shores of ? yes, you guessed it ? Grand Lake. Looking like something out of a western movie, Grand Lake has covered wooden boardwalks and a lively town square. The wooden slats creak as we walk down the main street, stopping at a quilt store to buy something for our mother.
We’re greeted at the door by an Australian shepherd dog, which wags her tail politely and then returns to sleep. It’s a common greeting around here. Locals love their dogs, and they’re a part of daily life in the mountains. Visit any stretch of homes or stores along the valley floor, and chances are you’ll meet several canines.
Later that evening, we meet another local pooch. Hoping for a little entertainment, we drive over to the one-film theater in Winter Park. It’s Tuesday night, but the tiny lobby is brimming with locals.
And in the midst of it all lies Mollie, the theater’s dog. She is stretched out in a deep sleep in front of the ticket counter, but no one pays her any mind. They simply step over her and buy their tickets.
Animal-loving aside, this is a community that has a serious obsession with Mother Nature and the adventure she brings. Most folks climb, bike, hike, ski, horseback ride or simply enjoy being outdoors.
Fishing is another popular pastime. The Fraser River Valley is an angler’s dream, with more than 1,000 miles of streams and more than dozen mountain lakes.
I’m no angler, but fly-fishing sounds like fun. So the next morning, I take a guided trip along the Colorado River. Intense sunlight reflects off the babbling river, and the water’s gurgle is a soothing sound. The guide patiently teaches me the techniques, over and over, but it’s no use.
Although a section of the river has been designated “Gold Medal” waters, due to the large percentage of trout 14 inches or longer, no fish nibble my line. The guide shrugs it off, handing me his hooked line to bring one in for myself.
We stay on the river all afternoon, and then head into town for dinner. I always choose restaurants from local recommendations, and two favorites are often mentioned in Winter Park: Carvers Bakery Cafe, a cozy café with knotty pine walls, which is always filled at lunchtime; and Hernando’s Pizza and Pasta Pub, which has the best pizza in town.
We spend our last evening in Winter Park at Hernando’s. Green dollar bills, signed by patrons, are plastered all over the walls and ceilings of the restaurant, and the busy rooms echo with laughter. We sit quietly, soaking in the sights and sounds around us. It’s satisfying to feel part of the community, if only for a few short days.
The sun is just starting to dip behind the hills when we finally head back to the inn. The sky darkens to a deep blue, and then one by one, the peaks turn to rose, as if backlit by some unknown director. As we pull over the car to watch this outstanding performance, the sun disappears, leaving an afterglow of fading orange and lemon.
It’s been another good day in the Rocky Mountains. And I, for one, am glad to be here.
If You Go
Wild Horse Inn is a lodge-style bed and breakfast tucked deep in the forest outside of Winter Park. Private cabins are also available.
(970) 726-0456, www.wildhorseinncolorado.com
Gasthaus Eichler is in downtown Winter Park. This Swiss-style chalet has 15 oversized European guestrooms, two restaurants and a guest lounge.
(800) 543-3899, www.gasthauseichler.com
Latigo Ranch is a family-oriented dude ranch. It offers a full children’s agenda, as well as an excellent riding program.
(800) 227-9655, www.latigotrails.com
Hernando’s Pizza and Pasta Pub has the best pizza in town. Come early to avoid the crowd. Located on the north end of Winter Park on Hwy 40. (970) 726-5409
Carvers Bakery Café serves breakfast and lunch daily till 1 p.m. This has been a Winter Park favorite for more than 30 years and is located behind Cooper Creek Square. (970) 726-8202
Stop at the Rocky Mountain Rostery in Fraser for some fresh-roasted coffee.
(800) 386-2326, www.rockymountainroastery.com
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.