On The Road In Colorado: Ride The Rails To Grand County For Picturesque Mountain Golf

By David R. Holland, Contributor

GRANBY, CO -- Think about it for a moment. What resort destination in Colorado can you travel to by hopping aboard a train? Shoot, for that matter you have two train choices -- top that.

Even a guy in Chicago can climb aboard Amtrak and head for Grand County -- home to Winter Park Resort for world-class skiing and four scenic, challenging and fun golf courses -- Pole Creek, Grand Lake, SolVista and the newly-opened Grand Elk Ranch & Club.

Amtrak's Chicago-Oakland route makes it easy to ride the rails to Fraser or Granby and passes through Denver's Union Station. The Denver Rio Grande Ski Train fires up for day trips through the Moffat Tunnel to the slopes of Winter Park and SolVista Golf & Ski Ranch every Saturday and Sunday during the ski season with summer trips on the weekends.

It's a beautiful ride to Grand County no matter how you arrive. Many visitors drive up over U.S. Highway 40 and Berthoud Pass from Denver, arriving at Grand County's eastern border just 76 miles away. Or one can drive one of America's most beautiful byways -- Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in America, over the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, for a spectacular entry into Grand Lake.

Once you arrive in Grand County there's another thing you might like just as much as the scenery. It's a down-to-earth feeling, a cowboyish culture and a place where you don't have to pay 30 cents a gallon more for gas, $12 for a hamburger or $12 a night for valet parking. Six dollars for a Colorado Kool-Aid? Heck fire, I just want one, not a six-pack. Hint: That's a tiny jab at the Vail Valley.

Jerry Jones, the mind behind the just-opened Grand Elk Ranch & Club and the highly successful "Ski The Summit" pass he invented in the 1970's, immediately saw that. A focus group study confirmed his theory.

Craig Stadler likes that down-home attitude, too. The PGA Tour player, who moved to Colorado for its skiing and outdoors opportunities, is more at home in jeans and boots with a fly rod in his hand than dining at a 5-star eatery.

That's not why Jones, who served as president of the Beaver Creek and Keystone ski operations, selected Tripp Davis and Stadler to design his new heathland-styled golf course in Grand County. But it certainly didn't hurt.

The land where Grand Elk Ranch & Club was created reminded Davis of the historic Gleneagles in Scotland.

"There's a gentle roll of mountain foothills amongst a valley of mountains rivers and streams," said Davis, who recorded a media-day hole-in-one on the par-3 14th, a 165-yard shot with a 9-iron. "It's a perfect setting for a golf course."

But the calming surroundings don't translate into easy golf. Grand Elk traverses 7,208 yards at par 71 with several opportunities to fire at greens just over a stream or wetland that are difficult to see because of tall willowy shrubs or native grasses.

"You can find easy golf courses everywhere," said Stadler on opening day of his "Signature" course. "We wanted a fair golf course, but one, when the wind comes up in the afternoon, that is near impossible from the back tees."

Grand Elk, at an elevation of 7,935 feet, does have wide, generous tee-shot fairways, but the approach is paramount and demanding. "Actually the back nine is shorter yardage-wise," said Stadler, "but it may play longer because of the shot selections."

Just across Highway 40 from Grand Elk is SolVista Ranch & Club, where you can see and hear the rush of the Fraser River alongside the front nine as well as the passing Amtrak.

Michael Asmundson's front nine opened in the summer of 2001. The back nine, which can be seen from the Kicking Horse Lodges, was scheduled to open this summer, but has been delayed until Spring 2003.

SolVista's back side is seeded and sodded, just waiting for more maturity in the seeded areas. It runs back up toward SolVista's ski lifts and ski community (formerly Silver Creek) and has much more of an elevation change as it climbs into the sage valleys and DeBerard Draw.

Drive just eight miles from Grand Elk and SolVista and you find Pole Creek Golf Club, one of the more popular destinations in Colorado golf. Here, they like to call this slice of heaven a 10,709-yard, par 108 -- there are three challenging nines -- Ridge, Meadow and Ranch.

Pole Creek emerged on the Rocky Mountain golf scene in 1985 when Golf Digest proclaimed it as the Best New Golf Course in America.

This is the essence of the down home qualities of Grand County, but with superior service, awesome scenery and stern golf shot qualities. Tree-lined fairways, dramatic doglegs and breathtaking views of the 13,000-foot Continental Divide and Indian Peaks are premium here.

Gary Player and Ron Kirby created the original 18 -- Meadow and Ranch, but in 2000, the third Ridge nine was added by Denis Griffiths.

Conclude your golf vacation with one of Colorado's true hidden gems. Grand Lake Golf Course is a 6,650-yard, par 72 that was cut through huge stands of lodge pole pines, just minutes from spectacular Grand Lake, a trout fisherman's paradise.

It's a tight course that demands straight drives and accurate approaches at 8,420 feet, just down twisty Highway 34 from Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park.

Richard Phelps designed this busy layout at the base of the Never Summer Mountain Range in 1964. Many golfers want to stay and gaze at Mount Baldy from the elevated 17th tee, but don't stand there too long or golf concentration will wane. The hole is short and downhill at 363 yards, but the pines gobble up many a drive, left or right, and the smallish, subtle green can prove devilish.

But whoa hoss -- Grand County, one of Colorado's most prized destinations, has more to come.

Rendezvous, a 1,150-acre master-planned community located adjacent to Winter Park at the entrance to Fraser, is on the drawing board. Long-term plans include a championship golf course, resort, hotels, residential opportunities and an extensive trails network.

Another new nine, The Greens at Winter Park, is also scheduled to be constructed near Pole Creek.

"Lots of people view the area as the last undeveloped frontier, just 85 miles from Denver," said Grand Elk head pro Phillip Martin. "The area is a great weekend getaway or place for a second home. And now we are all working together with a marketing alliance among the four golf courses. Time will tell if that alliance will grow -- there's talk of more new golf courses to come in the future."

Where To Play

Grand Elk Ranch and Club
439 County Road 56, Granby
Tee Times: 866-227-4268 or 970-887-0914
Internet: www.grandelk.com

SolVista Golf & Ski Ranch
2579 County Road 894, Granby
Tee Times: 866-765-8478 or 970-887-2709
Internet: www.solvista.com

Pole Creek Golf Club
U.S. Highway 40, Winter Park
Tee Times: 800-511-5076 or 970-726-8847
Internet: www.polecreekgolf.com

Grand Lake Golf Course
1415 County Road 48, Grand Lake
Green Fees: $60, carts $12.50
Tee Times: 800-551-8580 or 970-627-8008
Internet: www.grandlakegolf.com

Where to Stay

The Vintage Hotel in Winter Park is located at the base of the Winter Park ski runs. It's a short drive to all four of the Grand County golf courses and offers traditional hotel rooms to studios featuring kitchenettes and fireplaces.

You can also book golf packages for Pole Creek and SolVista through www.winterparkresorts.com at The Vintage Hotel, Iron Horse Resort and Winter Park Mountain Lodge.

One night lodging, 18 holes of golf, cart, (double occupancy) rates start at $117 for The Vintage Hotel, $143 for Winter Park Mountain Lodge and $157 for Iron Horse. SolVista packages start at $112 for The Vintage, $138 for Winter Park Mountain Lodge, and $152 for Iron Horse.

Call The Vintage Hotel at 800-979-0332.

The brand-new Kicking Horse Lodge condos are available for rent. Call 888-850-4615. Views include the ski area and back nine of SolVista Golf Club. You have a full kitchen, washer and dryer and access to a nearby hot tub.

These units are the first lodging property to be built and managed by SolVista. Ironwood Builders, whose impressive resume includes projects in Beaver Creek, partnered with SolVista for this project, which was so popular with buyers that more than 90 units sold in the first two days of the real estate launch. SolVista golf packages are offered at www.solvista.com/lodging.

In Grand Lake try the historic Grand Lake Lodge or Gateway Inn. Log on to www.grandlakelodge.com or call 970-627-3967. Also log on to www.gatewayinn.com or call 877-627-1352.

Where to Eat

Winston's Restaurant at The Vintage Hotel specializes in American cuisine -- steaks, seafood, pasta and a variety of salads. The room service menu also offers guests the alternative of enjoying Winston's specialties in the comfort of their own room. There's also a 19th century English bar.

Also try:

Moffat Station Bar and Grill
81699 U.S. Highway 40
Winter Park
Phone: 970-726-4211

The Lodge Restaurant at Grand Lake Lodge
15500 US Highway 34
Grand Lake
Phone: 970-627-3967

More Things to Do

Rocky Mountain National Park
Visitor Information: 970-586-1206.

Hot Sulphur Springs Resort
5609 Grand City Road 20
Hot Sulphur Springs
Phone: 800-510-6235

Grand Adventure Balloon Tours
Winter Park
Phone: 888-887-1340

Sombrero Ranch Stables
Grand Lake
Phone: 970-627-3514

Other Helpful Sites

For more information on Grand County, call the Grand Lake Visitor Center 970-627-3402 or log on to www.grandlakechamber.com. Winter Park and Fraser Valley info call be found at www.winterpark-info.com or call 800-903-7275. Grand County website is www.grand-county.com.

Getting Here by Amtrak

Amtrak's California Zephyr allows you to follow the trail of pioneers, gold prospectors and the Pony Express along America's earliest transcontinental rail route. You can get acquainted with farmland, prairies, deserts, rivers, and mountains. Amtrak's Sightseer Lounge gets you up close to the natural splendor of the West without disturbing nature's awesome beauty. Let your mind wander back in time as the train takes you across the country. The California Zephyr also travels through Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.

Driving Directions

To get to Winter Park from all points around the Denver area, head West on I-70 out of Denver. Go approximately 40 miles to Exit 232 to Winter Park, Empire and Granby. Go over Berthoud Pass (great photo-ops) and in to Winter Park. Mileage from Exit 232 to Winter Park is approximately 24 miles. Total mileage from Denver is 67 miles.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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