Grand Lake Golf Course: There's Anticipation in the Air

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GRAND LAKE, CO - Grand Lake is the type of golf course that thrives in a golfer's memory. It leaves an impression in the mind of a lovely, scenic place that is perhaps more vivid and beautiful than the actual course itself. That is because Grand Lake is unlike nearly every other course in Colorado, a mountain course in the truest sense of the definition.

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At 8,400 feet in elevation, and cut, literally carved, out of the thickest pines imaginable, it is impossible to envision a purer example of what golfing in the Colorado Rockies can be. Because of the density of the forest and stunning panoramic views, Grand Lake is atmospheric golf carried out on nearly hallowed ground.

The golf course resides on the north side of the town of Grand Lake, near the southeast entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in the world. Unassuming is an apt way of describing the physical aspect of the outer property. It is under marked and under marketed, both pleasant attributes and a rarity for mountain courses.

Grand Lake itself is a quiet, small town, very different from Steamboat Springs or Vail or other hot tourist towns, so a peaceful, natural tone is the norm. And with few descriptors leading to the course, it is easy to miss the entrance off County Road 48 - suddenly there is the parking lot. No part of the course is visible, as golfers gear up next to their cars.

The lot is like a nervous decompression chamber, or the wait on the platform before the launch. There is anticipation in the air, the quality of not knowing what is coming next. A powerful, exciting force propels Grand Lake - there is the possibility of enchanted mystery around every corner. It's present even in the parking lot.

An original nine holes opened the site in 1964, and in 1974 renowned Colorado designer Dick Phelps added nine more. The success of the layout, however, belongs purely to the land, specifically the forest and terrain. Creating holes at Grand Lake was more a task of clearing and mowing than of designing, but that in itself was a monumental chore.

Thousands of pines were removed and holes were grooved into this beautiful property like rivers running through steep-cliffed canyons. Grand Lake is corridor golf, played through the trees. Fifty-foot walls of pine border either side of each narrowly rolling fairway.

At 6,542 yards from the championship tees, Grand Lake qualifies as a short course. The thin air at this elevation will account for a club and a half to two club difference for most golfers. The men's yardage is 6,310 yards and for the ladies it is 5,678 yards. Controlling distance will be a challenge for advanced players, but Grand Lake's defense is not its yardage. Hitting the ball straight is the primary, if not only, concern. Playing eighteen holes here without putting any shots into the dense forest is a praiseworthy achievement for anyone.

There is little rough on the course. Many of the fairways are wide and generous, with only a light, thin strip of rough on the edges, but then the trees begin. The locals say that there is rough-and it's fifty feet tall.

The course is located far from most signs of civilization-only a handful of houses are seen from the course-so the only sounds to be heard come from the forest: either the wind humming through it or golf balls rattling around in it. By the end of the round, the far away, echoing sound (costly if it's too near) of click-click-click will be very familiar.

The mystique of the course is due to its seclusion. Few holes are visible from another and each tee box is the beginning of a new experience. Even the tees only give partial observation to most holes thanks to the design's aggressive doglegging. Ten holes bend one way or another, some slightly and some severely - 90° turns are not shied away from. Grand Lake is truly a shot-to-shot experience.

Wayward shots are penalized severely. Many balls that go into the woods don't come out, and without course familiarity, it's often difficult to aim the ball off the tees. This is one course, though, where it's a pleasure to play poorly. The serene beauty is unbelievable. The views of the Colorado Rockies are breathtaking spectacular. The preponderance of elevated tees offers tremendous vantage points from which to take them in, as well as give a boost to confidence.

Communion with such a mountain setting is life-and-golf-affirming, like playing in a cathedral. If the weather is clear and the sun is bright then golf at Grand Lake is an utterly unique and inspiring four hours. Several holes on the back nine will leave indelible memories.

Ten is a great short par four that plays downhill to a confoundedly mounded fairway then bends dead left over a swale to a plateau green. Picking the most advantageous line off the tee is critical.

The next hole, eleven, is a manly par three that plays over a pond at the bottom of a deep valley. The wide, shallow green is almost straight uphill from the pond below, a difficult walk, so anything short will yield a nearly blind chip. From the slope above the hole it is impossible. Choose the correct club.

Fifteen's tee shot is one of the more open on the course, and the second shot is one of the tightest. The green on this long par four is elevated and tucked around a grove of trees on the right that seems to swallow approaches. The best play is to the left, but only because the right side is death.

Sixteen is another isolated, picturesque short par three. It plays downhill out of a chute into a private clearance with gallery-like slopes. The green is large and open, but again, keep the ball below the hole. Take a picture of this one - it's a great theater hole. There is so much personality to every hole at Grand Lake that it seems unfair to single out these few. Golf here is as much a nature hike as it is a game.

This is not to say that the course is flawless. One of the consequences of maintaining a course at this altitude is the challenge of conditioning. Depending on the month, the grass on the greens may be fairly sparse or fairly rough. It is a grainy strain of grass and the ball rolls slow (except several places above the hole) and with the grain, so take note. Putts are difficult to hole.

The same is true of the fairways. The grass is longer than on most courses and lies are rarely tight, though this may be advantageous to the high handicapper. Phelps's integration of blind tee shots on several dogleg holes might aggravate some as well.

The bottom line, however, is that Grand Lake is an awesome golf experience. There are only a few courses in the country that can rival it for the style. The sheer isolation and atmosphere of the course is unforgettable. Until you've played golf on a course like Grand Lake you'll not understand the word "carved."

Golfers have been enjoying rounds here for nearly forty years, making it one of the grandfathers of Colorado mountain courses. Take the trip. The season is from May until October. Fees are $55, with carts an additional $25.

Grand Lake is located off Highway 34 approximately 2 hours from Denver. Take I-70 west to the Winter Park exit and go north or through Estes Park and over the top of Trail Ridge Road.

Grand Lake
1415 County Road 48
Grand Lake, CO 80447
Phone (970) 627-8008

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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