Recreational boating is one of the most widely enjoyed forms of outdoor recreation in the United States, and its no different in our land-locked state. Whether you’re an avid boater or simply enjoy sailing or paddling a few weekends a year, the mountain lakes, rivers and creeks of Colorado’s Front Range have something to offer most everyone.
Within the region, and in close proximity to each other, you can experience a peaceful excursion on serene alpine waters in a canoe or on a paddleboard, sail a serene high mountain lake, paddle river and creek headwaters or zip across a reservoir on a motorboat.
Boating is an activity popular with people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds and, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, recreational boaters enjoy both relaxing trips to ease daily stresses and “the thrill of boating.” Whether it’s enjoying a quite lake, sailing in stiff winds, catching a great fish, participating in towed water sports, or getting a thrill from some great whitewater, recreational boating can enhance our quality of life, environmental awareness, health and economy. It’s also the perfect way to cool off during summer heat.
Boating is an exciting way to “get away from it all,” but for the most part, it’s just plain fun. You can, of course, boat alone, but many more find enjoyment in boating with others, bonding with family and friends, and developing teamwork. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, “working together to leave the dock, racing, cruising, anchoring, and returning to harbor can expand your life and relationships.”
Persons aboard recreational boats participate in a great variety of both active and passive activities. Relaxing alone or with friends was reported by 88.2 percent of boating participants in a U.S. Coast Guard survey, followed by socializing at 84.3 percent and cruising at 74.2 percent. Other popular activities included sightseeing and nature observation at 70.6, percent, swimming or diving at 58.7 percent, and fishing or crabbing at 56.6 percent.
Recreational boating is also an important contributor to the state’s and local economies. The NMMA says it has a total annual economic impact of $850.2 million statewide and $152.0 million within the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Boulder, Gilpin, Clear Creek, Larimer, Grand and Summit counties and the mountain communities of Jefferson County. The district is home to 177 boating businesses and 1,215 industry jobs.
There is a lot to choose from when it comes to finding a place to launch your boat in the Front Range high country. Boatable waters range from large reservoirs and natural lakes to peaceful alpine lakes to fast-moving creeks and rivers.
A top spot for any type of boating enthusiasts lies just over the Continental Divide from Estes Park in Grand County. With the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park serving as a backdrop, Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby offer everything anyone could want from a Colorado boating experience.
Located at the headwaters of the Colorado River at 8,367 feet in the heart of the Arapaho National Forest and near the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest and deepest natural lake. Here you will find great opportunities for both motorized and non-motorized boating, swimming, water sports and fishing on its 500 acres. Camping is also abundant nearby. There are no restrictions on boats or any fees to use the lake. Visitors can rent a pontoon boats, whalers, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards to enjoy the exceptional views of the western side of the Front Range. Grand Lake hosts the Spirt of the Lake Regatta, Aug. 13, featuring paddling and rowing events that attract participants from across the country.
Shadow Mountain Lake, south of Grand Lake, is a reservoir created by Shadow Mountain Dam. It forms a continuous body of water with Grand Lake. The creation of Shadow Mountain Lake was authorized by the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Water from the lake is diverted through the Alva B. Adams tunnel to the east side of the Continental Divide. You can explore the lake’s uninhabited western shore and camp alongside the lake at Green Ridge Campground near the dam.
Granby Lake, also supplied by the Colorado River, is one of the state’s largest bodies of water at 7,000 acres with approximately 40 miles of shoreline. It’s numerous coves and marinas make it a popular place for sailors, boaters and jet-skiers. The lake is famous to anglers, but is also home to the Lake Granby Yacht Club. At an altitude of 8,280 feet, it is one of the highest-elevation yacht clubs in the world. Rent boats and jet skis from one of the lake’s marinas.
Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park is another area offering a variety of boating opportunities in one place. Enjoy both motorized and non-motorized boating on the 185-acre Lake Estes to experience the spectacular views of the national park and surrounding mountains. The marina offers boat rentals from a one-passenger kayak or paddleboard to paddle boats to 10-passenger pontoon boats and has a launching area available. Swimming and jet skis are not allowed. In addition to several other regulations, all boats put on Lake Estes are required to have a Lake Estes Boat Permit and must be launched from the designated launch area on the north side of the lake next to the marina. Although Lake Estes is a wake-less boating lake most of the time, water skiing is permitted Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays after 5 p.m. Check with the marina manager for further details.
Kayakers can enjoy a kayak run right alongside the Riverwalk downtown. There is fairly easy moving water here, but no matter your skill level, the experience is unique.
Non-motorized boats may also be launched on any lake in Rocky Mountain National Park except Bear Lake. Lily and Sprague lakes provide the most convenient access, given the proximity of their parking lots. Cast a line or simply float and enjoy the mountain atmosphere, sights and sounds. Additional lakes can be accessed with additional effort.
Lyons has traditionally been a hub for kayakers to play on the cascading falls of the St. Vrain Creek. Lyons also annually hosts the Lyons Outdoor Games with a strong kayaking event component. Lyons plans to enhance the kayaking environment on the river throughout its flood recovery process which whiped out its previous kayak course.
The Brainard Lake Recreation Area, near Ward is set in a glacially-carved valley in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. With a wide variety of year-round outdoor recreation opportunities available, the area is the most popular destination on the Boulder Ranger District. The 14-acre lake is easily accessible with non-motorized boats from a paved public boat launch adjacent to the south side of the bridge/dam. Numerous popular trailheads and the Pawnee Campground is nearby. Non-motorized boats are also allowed on Lake Isabelle, located 2.1 miles from Long Lake Trailhead, and Lefthand Creek Reservoir, which are also accessed from the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Fees are charged through mid-October to access the area. Passenger vehicles and RVs cost $10 for a three-day pass. Hikers and bikers are $1.
While it may be tempting, but no boating or swimming is allowed on Barker Reservoir in Nederland. Paddling Boulder Creek below the reservoir is for experts only, but the lower creek just west of Boulder is a more boater-friendly area. A stretch of Boulder Creek near Eben G. Fine Park at the mouth of the canyon offers a 20-slalom-gate course for kayakers to hone their paddling skills.
Denver Water Board’s Gross Reservoir, on South Boulder Creek between Nederland and Boulder on County Road 85/Gross Dam Road, is free to non-motorized, car-top canoes and kayaks from Memorial Day until Labor Day. No trailer-hitched boats are allowed. The 440-acre lake offers back range views, fishing, camping, picnicking, and paddling. There are also fingers of the lake to explore and to disappear into. Swimming, wading, scuba diving or other water activities are not allowed on the reservoir. Nearby camping is available in adjacent national forest campground. Additional kayak access to the river below Gross Reservoir is available at the parking area below the dam. Lower South Boulder Creek holds three Class V+ exceptions and is a front range kayaking treat with remoteness and challenge.
Clear Creek County is a whitewater rafter’s paradise with several licensed companies running Clear Creek in the spring and early summer. The creek, which offers world-class fishing opportunities, is also popular with kayakers and other paddlers.
Georgetown Lake, easily accessible at exit 228 off Interstate 70 in western Clear Creek County, offers excellent fishing along with non-motorized boating, paddleboarding and inner tube access. Picnic grounds, parking, restrooms, wheel-chair accessible fishing docks and a big-horn sheep viewing station are developed on the 55-acre reservoir’s western shore.
The Lawson Hole Whitewater Park, also in Clear Creek County at I-70 exit 234, was created for recreational canoeing, kayaking and rafting. The park on Clear Creek has several in-stream structures and the original Lawson Hole. It is used for a rafting put-in as well as for kayaking and fishing. The park opens one hour after sunrise and closes one hour after sunset and includes trails, terracing and public access points. There is parking, public restrooms and a changing area.
Evergreen Lake off the Evergreen Parkway in western Jefferson County offers a serene mountain backdrop and a variety of boating opportunities. Sailboat, canoe, paddleboat, kayak, trike and paddleboard rentals are available. Gas-powered engines are not allowed, but electric trolling motors can be used. Private boaters will be charged a daily fee of $4 or have the option of purchasing a season Park Pass for $35. Enjoy the lake at night, under the stars with night boating Aug. 13 from 8- 10 p.m. The Evergreen Parks and Recreation District offers hourly paddleboard rentals and private/semi-private lessons at Evergreen Lake and paddleboard yoga and fitness classes at Buchanan Ponds.
Lake Dillon offers magnificent mountain vistas with easy access to the town of Dillon, shopping, lodging, RV sites and camping. The Dillon Marina hosts exciting weekend sailing regattas and other boating events for fun and sport. Located at 9,017 feet in Summit County off I-70 exit 205, Lake Dillon is the largest storage facility in the Denver Water system. Dillon Reservoir’s 3,233 acres of water and 26.8 miles of shoreline support many recreational activities. Boating includes boat fishing, sailboating and motorboating. Marinas offering pontoon boat, runabout, kayak and paddleboard rentals are operated from Dillon and Frisco. Canoeing, rowing and other portable water crafts including kayaks, canvas boats and inflatables is permitted. The Frisco Rowing Center, located at the Frisco Bay Marina, provides an opportunity for the public to learn more about rowing. Personal watercraft, including jet skis, are not permitted.
In additional to following all local and state laws and wearing a personal floatation device, the Coast Guard urges water enthusiasts to remember to stay well-hydrated and wear sunscreen, limit caffeine and alcohol intake, have an alcohol-free “designated driver” and carry a first-aid kit.
Front Range Mountain Marinas & Boating
Beacon Landing Marina
1026 C.R. 64, Grand Lake
970-627-3671 • http://www.beaconlanding.com
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Brainard Lake Road, Ward
303-541-2500 • http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/arp/brainard
Clear Creek County Whitewater Rafting
Denver Water Board (Dillon & Gross)
150 Marina Dr., Dillon
970-468-5100 • http://www.townofdillon.com/marina
Evergreen Lake House
29612 Upper Bear Creek Road, Evergreen
720-880-1300 • http://www.evergreenrecreation.com
Frisco Bay Marina
267 Marina Road, Frisco
970-668-4334 • http://www.townoffrisco.com/play/frisco-bay-marina/general-info/
Grand Lake Marina
1246 Lake Ave., Grand Lake
970-627-9273 • http://www.glmarina.com
Grand Lake Yacht Club
1128 Lake Ave., Grand Lake
970-627-3377 • http://www.grandlakeyachtclub.com
1026 Park Ave., Grand Lake
970-627-3435 • http://www.townofgrandlake.com
7878 U.S. 34, Granby
970-887-3541 • highlandmarinaonlakegranby.com
Indian Peaks Marina
6862 U.S. 34, Granby
970-627-9273 • http://www.indianpeaksmarina.com/
Lake Estes Marina
1770 Big Thompson Ave., Estes Park
970-586-2011 • http://www.evrpd.com/marina/marina-info
Lawson Hole Whitewater Park
C.R. 306, Lawson
970-586-2011 • http://www.evrpd.com/marina/marina-info
Trail Ridge Marina
12634 U.S. 34, Grand Lake
970-627-3586 • http://www.trailridgemarina.com/
Originally published in the August 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly