Established in 1874, Grand County lies in the north central Rocky Mountains some sixty-seven miles west of Denver. It is named for the Grand River, an early name for the Colorado River. Encompassing 1,868 square miles, Grand County is bordered to the north by Jackson County, to the northeast by Larimer County, to the east by Boulder and Gilpin Counties, to the southeast by Clear Creek County, to the south by Summit and Eagle Counties, and to the west by Routt County. The Continental Divide creates portions of the county’s north, south and eastern borders.
The county’s major geographic feature is Middle Park, a large mountain basin that includes the headwaters of the Colorado River. It also features Grand Lake, the deepest natural lake in Colorado. The majority of the county’s land—about 75 percent—is administered by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners, and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Grand County has a population of 14,615. Hot Sulphur Springs (population 663) is the county seat, while the most populous town is Granby (1,864). US Highway 34 begins in the northern part of the county as Trail Ridge Road and continues south to the resort community of Grand Lake, situated along the lake and below the Never Summer Range. Highway 34 continues south to Granby, where it meets US Highway 40. Highway 40 continues south through the communities of Tabernash and Fraser, and on through the resort town of Winter Park to Berthoud Pass. US 40 also continues west from Granby through Hot Sulphur Springs and on to Kremmling, where it turns north toward the Jackson County line. State Highway 9 runs south from Kremmling into Eagle County.
The archeological record of Grand County shows evidence of human occupation dating to about 11,000 years ago during the Clovis, Folsom, and Plano periods. Paleo-Indians occupied the area until about 7,500 years ago. The projectile points found throughout the region display a variety of technologies throughout this period.
The first modern Native Americans to occupy the region were the Utes. By about the sixteenth century the Utes had migrated into Colorado’s mountains. They were hunter-gatherers who traveled throughout the Rockies, following game herds and gathering berries, roots, and other dietary plants. They hunted elk, deer, antelope, and bison and lived in portable or temporary dwellings such as tipis or wickiups. In the seventeenth century, after contact with Spanish explorers and settlements to the south, the Utes acquired horses, which made migration and hunting easier and expanded their hunting and raiding territory. The Utes spent winters camped near the natural hot springs by present-day Hot Sulphur Springs, which they used to revitalize both body and spirit.
By the early 1800s Arapaho and Cheyenne people began hunting in the Middle Park area during the summer, although they spent much of the year on the plains. The Utes and Arapaho often fought each other for control of the hunting ground, and the Cheyenne often fought alongside their Arapaho allies.
Early American Period
The United States acquired the current area of Grand County via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but it was still controlled mostly by the Utes and Arapaho for several decades thereafter. Vast numbers of beaver and other fur-bearing animals brought fur trappers into Middle Park as early as the 1820s. Fur trappers had led hunting parties in the Grand Lake area since the 1820s, but by midcentury they were building summer lodges by the lake. The first permanent white residents, however, did not arrive until after the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Joseph L. Wescott became the first permanent resident of the area when he built his cabin on Grand Lake’s west shore in 1867.
William N. Byers, founder of Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, came to Middle Park in 1860 and located the hot springs, pinched between two small mountains at the foot of the Rabbit Ears Range. He planned to turn the area into a resort community and founded the town of Saratoga West in 1860. Byers built a resort around the springs, and the town’s name was changed to Hot Sulphur Springs in 1863. While the Utes regarded Byers’ intrusion with disdain, from his perspective the timing could not have been better—Congress organized the Colorado Territory in 1861, giving territorial officials the means and motivation to develop Indian land and eventually wrest it from indigenous hands.
In 1862, for instance, the government established the Middle Park Indian Agency in an attempt to control the Yampa, Grand River, and Uinta Utes who lived in the area. The agency had no formal headquarters, doing business with Utes all over the region, from Breckenridge to Empire to Hot Sulphur Springs. That same year, road builder Edward L. Berthoud made new inroads for white settlement in Middle Park when he surveyed a stagecoach route along a seldom-used Ute trail that is now known as Berthoud Pass. Utes, for their part, never paid much attention to Indian agents and made an unsuccessful attempt to block construction of Berthoud’s road.
With the creation of the Colorado Territory, present Grand County was part of a larger Summit County that stretched from the Continental Divide to the Utah and Wyoming borders. In 1874 the territorial government formally established Grand County, choosing Hot Sulphur Springs as the county seat.
The creation of Routt and Moffat Counties established the current western boundary of Grand County in 1877. The Colorado Supreme Court established the current northern boundary in 1886, settling a dispute between Grand and Larimer Counties over land near the mining camp of Teller, in present-day Jackson County (the decision gave the land to Larimer County).
The town of Grand Lake was laid out in 1879, and in 1881 the county seat was moved there due to a brief mining boom. This led to a feud between two political factions, one supporting Grand Lake and the other supporting Hot Sulphur Springs. The feud culminated in a deadly shooting in Grand Lake in 1883, which left three county commissioners and the county clerk dead; the county sheriff, a backer of Hot Sulphur Springs, shot and killed a pro-Grand Lake official during the incident and later killed himself. The county seat was returned to Hot Sulphur Springs in 1888, ending much of the bitterness.
Meanwhile, Middle Park’s Utes had been moved to the western part of the state as per the Treaty of 1868, but they still ranged into the park to hunt. That is, until Utes at the White River Indian Agency revolted in 1879 against Indian Agent Nathan Meeker, who had attempted to force them out of their hunting and gathering way of life to become farmers. The Meeker Incident led to the removal of several Ute bands from Colorado to a reservation in Utah.
White occupation of Middle Park expanded after the Utes left. In the early 1880s Rudolph Kremmling built a general store on the ranch of a Dr. Harris in western Grand County; by 1885 the site had a post office called Kremmling. In 1888 ranchers John and Aaron Kinsey had part of their ranch platted as the town of Kinsey City. Kremmling moved his store to the Kinseys’ new town, and the current community of Kremmling developed around it, incorporating under that name in 1904.
Grand County also enjoyed a small mining boom in the late nineteenth century. The first gold strikes were in Bowen Gulch, north of Grand Lake, in 1879. James Bourn and Alexander Campbell founded the Wolverine Mine in the gulch; however, unlike its fellow intermountain basins North Park and South Park, Middle Park produced little for miners. By 1885 metal mining had all but ended in Grand County.
Ranching and agriculture grew during and after the short mining boom, as the grass in Middle Park proved especially nutritious for cattle. One well-known ranch in the area was the Cozens Ranch. Built by Billy Cozens in 1874, the ranch also served as a stopping place for travelers coming across Berthoud Pass through the Fraser River valley. Cozens helped build the town of Fraser and served as its postmaster. Agriculture was limited by the climate and altitude of Grand County, but lettuce and hay became major cash crops for the region in the early twentieth century.
The first railroad arrived in Grand County in 1904, allowing for easier shipment of crops and livestock to market and easier access to Middle Park for tourists. The Denver, Northwest & Pacific Railroad, also known as the Moffat Road, reached Grand County by building a line over the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass. The railroad first reached the small town of Arrow, just beyond the pass, in 1904, and later that year it established the town of Granby, which connected train travelers to a stagecoach line that ran north to Grand Lake.
The Moffat line reached Kremmling in 1906, continuing north to Steamboat Springs. In 1928 the long-awaited Moffat Tunnel replaced the line over Rollins Pass. The tunnel allowed the railroad to go through the Continental Divide rather than over it. The tunnel also included a pipeline to move mountain water to the Denver Metro area beginning in 1936. Later, in 1956, completion of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project further appropriated water from the Colorado headwaters for farming and urban development along the Front Range. Lake Granby, a large reservoir that is now Colorado’s third-largest body of water, was created in 1950 as part of the project and now serves as a popular tourist destination in the summer.
During World War II, German prisoners of war were held near the towns of Fraser and Kremmling. Captive Germans loaded timber on trains and cut ice. About 200 prisoners worked in the Fraser camp, loading about 25,000 feet of lumber on rail cars daily.
Tourism proved the most consistent industry throughout the history of Grand County. Hot Sulphur Springs brought visitors to the area as early as the 1860s under the direction of William Byers. The hot springs became especially popular for their medicinal qualities. The town of Grand Lake, meanwhile, attracted hunting parties.
The railroad brought hundreds of tourists from Denver in the early twentieth century. It stopped at a station on top of Rollins Pass that featured a restaurant and dance hall. Rail access and the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915 paved the way for tourism development in Grand Lake. In 1920 entrepreneur Roe Emery opened the Grand Lake Lodge, and in 1938 the completion of Trail Ridge Road across the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park offered tourists a scenic drive to Grand Lake from Denver.
Though skiing began in the early twentieth century, it did not become a major industry with modern resorts until after World War II. The increased population in Colorado, as well as returning veterans of the Tenth Mountain Division, led to interest and investments in ski resorts. Winter Park began in the 1930s as a mountain resort community known as Hideaway Park. The Graves family began the community with ten tourist cabins for rent. In 1978 the town incorporated and changed its name to Winter Park. Its proximity to the growing city of Denver helped Winter Park develop into a tourist town that primarily catered to winter sports. Today, the town supports year-round outdoor recreation.
Hot Sulphur Springs hosted its first Winter Carnival in 1911. The carnival included winter sports such as ice skating, tobogganing, cross country skiing, and ski jumping. This is considered to be the beginning of skiing in Grand County and is credited with bringing the ski industry to Colorado. With the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, additional tourists came to the area. Its west entrance was situated by Grand Lake, bringing a new road to the county through the park.
Granby Ranch is another all-season resort in Grand County, offering downhill and cross-country skiing. The resort also offers snowshoeing, and in warmer weather visitors can enjoy bike trails and a golf course. Grand County visitors can also enjoy the outdoors at the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.
Today, tourism is the main driver of the Grand County economy. Grand County’s difficult terrain and lack of major industrial development meant that the natural landscape of the mountain basin was generally preserved, and since a majority of the county is administered by both the state and federal government, much of the area’s natural beauty persists for visitors to enjoy. Accommodations and food is the largest employer, with construction as the second-largest. The county hosts a variety of outdoor recreation including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, skiing, and cross country skiing, among other activities. Hot Sulphur Springs held a 100th Anniversary celebration of the first Winter Carnival in 2011–2012, and the county draws many skiers and winter sports enthusiasts at Winter Park Ski Resort and Granby Ranch. In 2016 rail service reopened from Denver to Winter Park via the Winter Park Express, offering tourists a way to avoid heavy ski-season traffic on Interstate 70.