Grand Lake History
Formed by glaciers, surrounded by Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Grand Lake has smitten tourists for generations. No one forgets Grand Lake. The lake itself is the deepest and largest natural lake in Colorado, and the area attracts an impressive diversity of wildlife.
Prehistoric peoples, and later Native American Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes made annual pilgrimages to the area (each summer) to fish, hunt and reap the bounty of nature’s harvest. It wasn’t long before trappers, traders and explorers followed.
In the mid-1800s, European hunting parties discovered Grand Lake. Some hunters constructed summer lodges and hired local mountain men as guides. The area was permanently settled in 1867. Grand Lake Village’s first full-time, year-round residents were an intriguing mix of miners (who participated in a brief mining boom) and hunting guides. In the late 1870s, silver was discovered in the rivers and mountains near Grand Lake. Prospectors bought supplies in local stores and established small mountain mining communities. Almost overnight, the town of Grand Lake transformed into a bustling economy.
Thanks to the groundswell of new residents, Grand Lake became the county seat in 1881, though it was short-lived. Soon afterward, mines ceased operation and arguments over the placement of the county seat even led to an infamous Fourth of July shootout. Despite the bloodshed and suffering economy, some miners planted roots and settled in the area for good. They fished, boated, hiked and breathed in the pristine mountain air. For many, the experience would never be equaled. They returned year after year. To accommodate them, a flurry of small hotels were built. Hammers and saws were everywhere it seemed, as new summer homes and dude ranches kept the construction industry’s plate full. As the years passed, an increasing number of visitors braved the wagon and stagecoach trip over mountain passes to enjoy glorious Grand Lake summers.
While nature provided the perfect backdrop for tourists, it was the personality of locals who defined the area – hardy, resourceful and eccentric people. Locals gained renown for inventing and replicating city-folk creature comforts. What couldn’t be hand-crafted was brought in by wagon.
Though separated from what many called “civilization” (e.g. Denver), Grand Lake apparently missed the memo, establishing a Yacht Club in 1902 and the historic Kauffman House and museum in 1892., Today, the Village of Grand Lake maintains its historic charm. Keen observers will observe the area’s trademark architectural design, called “mountain rustic” The style remains popular among local homes, restaurants and stores.
What can you do when you get to Grand Lake? Wooden boardwalks line Grand Lake’s main street, which features quaint retail establishments and a variety of dining choices. Other popular activities include: horseback riding, fishing, boating, swimming, hiking, and snowshoeing. Skiers enjoy the adjacent trails of Rocky Mountain National Park. Snowmobilers are welcome in town and are pleasantly surprised by scenic trails surrounding town.
Come once to Grand Lake and chances are, you’ll come again.
Mountain Rustic in Grand Lake
More than a century ago, Grand Lake residents began building homes using nature’s most readily available resource: Lodgepole Pine trees. Rustic cabins were the most popular, popping up throughout the woods surrounding Grand Lake as the secret of the area’s beauty spread. Primarily constructed of round, hewn or hand-worked logs, builders, notched or “dovetailed” logs to fit securely together. Final touches, like chinking between logs (using clay, sand and sometimes even dung) sealed up the structures’ living area, preparing them for the Rocky Mountain climate.
More sophisticated homes soon followed, often built using milled and flattened logs. Whether simple or elaborate, Grand Lake’s log homes blended in with the natural beauty of the area.
As time passed, efforts were made to replicate fancy Victorian-style structures “back east.” Saplings were steamed and bent into rounded shapes; pieces of bark- covered and flattened logs were “jig-sawed” together in various designs.
Grand Lake Wildlife
When it comes to Grand Lake’s diversity of wildlife, what you see today has changed little in the past century: Elk, deer, red fox, coyotes, chipmunks and ground squirrels, yellow-bellied marmots, beaver, black bear, osprey, stellar jays and hummingbirds. The cobalt blue water of Grand Lake – which gave birth to the mighty “Grand River” (now known as the Colorado River) – was and still remains a natural sanctuary for Rocky Mountain wildlife.
Sadly, there have been casualties, namely the now-extinct mountain buffalo. More recently, moose and river otter have been reintroduced to the habitat. In higher elevations, pika and other creatures roam the majestic tundra, studying the stream of tourists and dodging boulders.
The diversity of climate zones, due to varying elevations, gives birth to an amazing variety of native plant life. Sagebrush gradually gives way to aspen and evergreens. Above the treeline, tundra plants thrive among Rocky Mountain Park’s cathedral-like peaks.
Grand Lake’s flora was also influenced by early settlers, who introduced a variety of flora for food and medicinal purposes. Colorado’s state flower, the white and lavender Columbine, flourishes in local gardens and throughout the forest.
Locals respect and appreciate the area’s abundance of flora and fauna. Where are the elk herds? Where can you see a moose? What about bighorn sheep? Ask a local. Most of us who live here know and are happy to share. We only have one request: Please don’t pick the flowers; nature doesn’t replace them as fast as tourists pick them.
Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne
The evidence left by prehistoric people in the Grand Lake area – some 10,000 years ago – tells a story of survival: low stone walls, arrowheads and other artifacts. The walls were used to drive animals to hunters, who probably doubled as fisherman. Thousands of years later, Native American tribes followed suit, harvesting fish, wild game and plants. Like many summer tourists, their pilgrimage to Grand Lake was seasonal; they arrived in the summer and left before the snow hemmed them in. Grand Lake’s history is still alive and well today, lingering in legends that have been told and re-told over the years. It is said that one summer, while the Utes camped along the Spirit Lake (Grand Lake) shore, they were ambushed by an Araphao and Cheyenne war party. During the melee, Ute women and children escaped on a large raft. Using poles , the women pushed the raft out into the lake – to safety, they thought – while the battle raged. Suddenly, a treacherous wind gust overturned the raft. All the women and children drowned.
Ute warriors who survived the battle were haunted by superstition. On summer mornings, many swore that ghostly forms rose from the mist of the lake. Winter was even scarier. When the lake was frozen, others claimed to hear shrieks of women and crying children from beneath the ice. The Legend of Spirit Lake, or The Legend of the Buffalo as some call it, also endures to this day. Years ago, herds of mountain buffalo roamed the Grand Lake meadows. According to the legend, one year, the lake froze over in early December. Early snowfalls blanketed the entire lake, with the exception of one little patch in the center. The ice formed and thickened quickly, allowing buffalo herds to roam freely on the lake’s surface. Buffalo tracks were everywhere, but one set of tracks in particular had everyone’s attention.
The tracks originated from the open patch of water and returned to the same spot. They were enormous, larger than anything anyone had ever seen,. The incident gave birth to the name “Spirit Lake” – because many believed that a supernatural buffalo emerged from the depths of what is now called Grand Lake … surfacing from time to time to roam the frozen waters.
Mountain Men in Grand Lake
Though the term conjures up images of Grizzly Adams and Jeremiah Johnson, the practical definition of a “mountain man” is simply one who can subsist in the mountains year-around. Years ago, it was not easily done. It took inner strength frequently, mountain men learned survival skills from Native Americans.
Though the evidence is scant, some historians believe that French trappers came to the Grand Lake area many years ago, trapping beaver and other animals. By the mid-1800s, Midwesterners flocked to the area, stopping first in Denver, and then venturing to the High Country. They shared the land with Ute camps, and busied themselves exploring, trapping beaver, weasel, bobcat and fox. Some constructed temporary cabins.
By the late-1800s, the vast herds of game and excellent fishing were no longer a secret. European hunting parties were lured to Grand Lake. Some European hunting parties numbered more than 100 and included servants. The foreigners left their mark on the area: One hunter’s small hunting lodge still stands today within the town’s limits.
Mountain men who guided hunting parties to the best game and maneuvered them through the Lodgepole Pine jungle were in high demand. Some guides permanently settled in Grand Lake.
Joseph Wescott holds the distinction of being Grand Lake’s first permanent citizen. Though not a particularly skilled mountain guide, he befriended many of the hunters and guides. According to an account in Mary Lyons Cairns’ Grand Lake in the Olden Days, Wescott barely survived one Grand Lake winter:
“One fall a young fellow who had been staying with him for several weeks volunteered to take the Judge’s large catch of trout across the range to Georgetown, sell them, and return with a winter’s supply of food. A few weeks of mild weather passed without his return; then winter set in with a biting fury. At last Wescott came to the sickening realization that he would have to spend the winter with only such food as he could get from the wilderness… The lake froze over and the fish ceased biting through the holes he cut in the thick ice…Almost to the point of starvation, he scraped the hair from a deerhide, cut the hide into small pieces and boiled them into a glutenous mass. That kept him alive a few days longer, when a hunting party headed by Frank N. Byers and Jacob N.Pettingell happened upon him and saved his life… He learned afterwards that his steward had sold not only the trout but the burros as well, and had pocketed the money.”
Colorado’s great mining boom occurred in the 1870s and 1880s. Rumors of silver and gold in the Grand Lake area attracted the usual suspects: prospectors and opportunists. Lulu City sprang to life during this period. Located north of Grand Lake, in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, its population swelled to 500 during the height of the boom. From 1879 to 1883, it bustled with stores, saloons, mail delivery, a fancy hotel, community dances, 100 platted blocks of homes, and high hopes.
Outside town limits, the tools of the trade were busy at work. Mines were dug. Mountains were blasted. Prospectors gleaned small bits of ore from streams and rivers. Everyone smelled a fortune.
Unfortunately, little gold was ever found, and the silver was of such a low-grade that it wasn’t worth mining. “Lulu” was largely abandoned by 1886. Other nearby mining ventures – including the towns of Gaskill and Dutchtown – suffered similar fates. During the boom, the town of Grand Lake prospered as the primary supply center for hopeful prospectors. Grand Lake became the county seat from 1881 to 1888 and published its first newspaper, The Prospector. New hotels, and stores sprang to life, providing all the amenities common to successful communities of the time.
When the boom went bust, people left in droves. Grand Lake’s and Lulu City’s populations all but disappeared. Only one store survived the bust, a reminder of more prosperous times.
There may not be gold in the hills, but the real treasures of Grand Lake sparkle with increasing brilliance as the years pass: the majestic Rocky Mountain cathedral, the lake teeming with cutthroat and rainbow trout, meadows full of wild flowers as stunning as they are fragile, pure mountain air, and wildlife that has stopped traffic for hundreds of years.