1920 to 2020: Grand Lake Lodge harbors century of history
In many ways, the Grand Lake Lodge hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years.
Its iconic front porch still gives stunning views of the bright blue Colorado sky and the imposing figure of Mount Baldy nestled between forest-covered hills. The sun still sparkles off the deep blue waters of the state’s largest natural lake.
One hundred years ago this Friday, the Grand Lake Lodge hosted a Grand Ball to celebrate the first day of what would become a century-long legacy.
The property would grow to over 100 structures on site, see famous visitors like Henry Ford’s family and Tim Allen’s wedding, overcome a seven year closure due to a fire and be listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Charity Baxter, general manager of Grand Lake Lodge, said that every day she hears visitors describe their wedding at the lodge 25 years ago, or their parents’ wedding 40 years ago, or working there as an employee 30 years ago.
“To connect with those people and recognize … that we’re making those memories for people 50 years from now,” Baxter said. “I think there’s a tradition of continuing that.”
To learn more or to see more historical photos, visit the 100 year exhibit compiled by the Grand Lake Area Historical Society at the Grand Lake Lodge, the Kauffman House Museum or at grandlakehistory.org.
The idea for the Grand Lake Lodge came from Roe Emery in the early 20th century, who wanted to build a company that toured visitors in a circle from Denver through Rocky Mountain National Park and back. The lodge, built with native lodge pole pine milled on site, would be the place for visitors to rest.
Fall River Road, which Emery hoped to take through Rocky, had been under construction for 34 years and would not open until two months after the lodge opened. Once it was complete, the circle tours officially began.
The Grand Lake Lodge sat on the grounds of Rocky, which had been established as a national park only five years prior to the lodge’s opening. It wasn’t until 1963, thanks to a land exchange and an act of Congress, that the park boundary moved north and the lodge became private property.
A kitchen fire broke out in 1973, which closed the lodge for seven years. Workers scraped the charred bits off the wood poles that still support the lodge’s roof today.
According to the Grand Lake Area Historical Society, the lodge was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1993 for its “Rocky Mountain rustic stick style of architecture once so prevalent in the parks throughout the American West.”
The lodge closed in 2006 and was put up for sale due to economic hardships, reopening three years later. The Grand Lake Lodge was sold again in 2017 to Highway West Vacations, which operates the property today.
“Their hope is provide a few updates needed aesthetically, but to really maintain the spirit of service and make (the lodge) what it was known for,” Baxter said.
Highway West operates resort-style locations in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii along with the Grand Lake Lodge. The company has remodeled the main lodge and updated the cabins, but much of the architecture has remained the same.
One big difference from a century ago is the fact that the lodge can’t host a ball this year. While Baxter said there were plans for a 100 year celebration, things changed quite a bit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lodge hopes to extend celebrations into July of next year when things might be a bit more normal.
Like all businesses, the Grand Lake Lodge has adapted to public health regulations. The lodge has still seen quite a few visitors at its 70 cozy cabins since it opened for the season. The Grand Lake Lodge has about 50 staff members right now, most of whom live on site and work seasonally.
While they’ve had to adapt, Baxter said the sense of community and family between employees is as strong as ever. She thinks that, combined with the unmatched views at the property, make for something very special at the Grand Lake Lodge.
“When you have those two things, you create a backdrop for amazing memories,” Baxter said.
As the lodge embarks on another century of service, the hope is to continue celebrating the rustic and natural features of the property. Baxter is also hopeful that the Grand Lake Lodge can recapture some of the energy that made it a premiere destination throughout the 20th century.
“We talk about the next 100 years a lot,” Baxter said. “Sustainability and genuine, authentic hospitality is really what our goal is.”
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West Grand seniors Rene Dominguez, right, and Angel Dominguez pass the baton during one of the nighttime relays at the 2021 Joe Shields Invitational at WGHS.