Epicenter: The Scene In Grand Lake, Colorado

Slide through Rocky Mountain National Park's mellower back door.
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Slide through Rocky Mountain National Park's mellower back door.

The logic behind entering Rocky Mountain National Park from the west is simple: RV stampedes almost invariably sweep through Estes Park on the opposite side, head to the summit of Trail Ridge Road, then retreat to the park's eastern-gateway sprawl. On the west side, the landscape is cooler and more verdant, and the trails far less traveled.

No one knows this silent wilderness better than gear-shop owners and Grand Lake lifers Tim and Marilou Randall. Their top long-weekend escape is the 23-mile Tonahutu Creek/North Inlet Loop, which starts just outside of town on the North Inlet Trail and leads to a campsite just below timberline. Day 2 is a traverse above the trees and along the Divide (start early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms). Bag nearby Hallett Peak (12,713 feet) for sprawling views of the Rockies' signature skyline, and finish up by descending the Tonahutu Creek Trail back to Grand Lake.

Named after Colorado's largest natural lake, the town has seamlessly evolved from a gold-rush basecamp to a summer retreat for gridlock-weary Denverites. Now practically embedded in the park, Grand Lake resembles a tourist whistle-stop straight out of central casting--albeit on a smaller scale than Estes. Hike, then surrender to the kitschy boardwalk and ice-cream shops.

You gotta...

Eat

» The Grand Lake Lodge's front porch has killer views of the lake's neon-blue waters and majestic Mt. Craig; this may be the finest place on either side of the Divide to nosh on a buffalo Reuben. www.grandlakelodge.com

» Have a drink in the Lariat Saloon with owner Gene Stover, whose 20-year tour as town mayor ended recently. Bar food and pizza round out the menu; wacky beer-hall décor-such as the back end of a horse-fills the walls. (970) 627-9965

Sleep

» Shadowcliff Lodge and Hostel sits on a cliff just 3 blocks from town, a Frisbee's huck from the Tonahutu Creek trailhead. Hostel bunks are $20. www.shadowcliff.org

» Timber Creek Campground, about 10 miles north of Grand Lake in the national park, is open year-round; sites are $20. www.nps.gov/room/pphtml/camping/html

Know

Best dayhike Amble down the Continental Divide Trail south out of town to Shadow Mountain Trail and up to the 9,923-foot summit's climbable fire tower. Take in views of Grand Lake, two larger man-made reservoirs, and Indian Peaks Wilderness to the east, then retrace the 5.1 miles.

Best way to get your John Wayne on Beginning at 6 a.m., Sombrero Ranches (www.sombrero.com) leads horse trips up and over the Divide; they end with a clomp right through town, covering 26 miles.

Best way to get in over your head Walk from town to the public beach and dive into the 12-mile-long, 400-foot-deep glacially carved drink. Or rent a kayak from Grand Lake Sports (www.grandspiritsports.com) or pontoon boat from Solvista Marina (www.solvista.com).

Gear up

Named for the mountain range to the north, the Randalls' Never Summer Mountain Products sells and rents everything you'll need for hiking. (970) 627-3642