When you drive around the Denver metro area and in the Front Range foothills communities, it’s not uncommon to see boats in people’s driveways. Tow boats, sailboats, runabouts, sometimes even medium-sized cabin cruisers. Those who aren’t familiar with Colorado’s boating community may think, “Where the heck are they going?!”
While it’s true that some Coloradans trailer their boats to major out-of-state reservoir lakes like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it’s also true that Colorado does, in fact, have some killer boating lakes. And no matter where you live, you can find a group of diehard powerboaters and sailors who find a way to spend time on the water.
Colorado is home to more than 2,000 lakes and reservoirs, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The metro area, despite its perch at the edge of the high Great Plains, offers major boating opportunities at Chatfield, Union, Bowles and Cherry Creek reservoirs, while easily reachable mountain lakes include Grand Lake, Lake Granby, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Lake Dillon and dozens more in Colorado’s 42 state parks. You can catch a glimpse of the larger lakes’ locations through Google maps.
We can’t possibly highlight all of the Centennial State’s top boating destinations here, so we’re sharing five of our favorites. They’re all either within the Denver metro area or within easy driving distance:
From Denver: Approximately 21 miles; 34 minutes by car
Located southwest of Denver just off U.S. Highway 285, Chatfield State Park is home to Chatfield Reservoir. A Denver Water flood-control reservoir along the South Platte River, this also is a serious hotspot for every type of boater, from anglers and paddlers to waterskiers and sailors. The reservoir features a marina, launch ramp, boat rentals and even a floating restaurant, and those who wish to stay on site can choose from four campgrounds, all within walking distance of the lake. There are nearly 200 single-family campsites and 10 reservable group-camping sites.
From Denver: Approximately 15 miles; 23 minutes by car
Cherry Creek State Park is southeast of Denver, and its 4,200 acres include a 880-acre reservoir with marina and launch ramp as well as campsites and picnic areas in a natural prairie environment. Boaters of every stripe also can enjoy this state park lake, which is home to an enthusiastic Hobie fleet. The sailors host an annual charitable event for local hospital patients known as Hobie Day; the lake also hosts community and junior sailing programs, as well as eagerly anticipated annual triathlon events.
From Denver: Approximately 69 miles; 75 minutes by car
If you head “up the hill,” as Denver locals refer to the ascent into the mountains, you’ll find a particularly passionate group of sailors at Lake Dillon, located just off I-70 near the town of Dillon in celebrated Summit County. A 3,300-acre reservoir created in 1963 to provide additional water storage for Denver, the lake is home to the Dillon Yacht Club, North America’s highest at 9,017 feet. Here, in the arms the Rockies, sailors immerse themselves in their sport; even experienced ones will find the mountain winds a serious and exciting challenge. At Lake Dillon, you’ll find marinas, launch ramps, fuel docks and myriad opportunities for boating, canoeing, kayaking and fishing.
From Denver: Approximately 102 miles; 2 hours by car
Grand Lake lies in Middle Park, one of Colorado’s three high mountain valleys, at 8,369 feet. This is the heart of the Arapaho National Forest, near the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. The Middle Park basin surrounds the Colorado River headwaters on the west side of the Front Range; the lake is the river’s source, and from these headwaters, the river flows on to Granby (home to another popular boating lake, Lake Granby) and on to Hot Sulphur Springs, Parshall and Kremmling. At Grand Lake, which is Colorado’s largest natural body of water, you’ll find opportunities for boating, water sports, swimming, fishing and camping.
From Denver: Approximately 219 miles; 4 hours by car
Blue Mesa Reservoir isn’t exactly a hop, skip and jump from downtown Denver. This 26-mile-long reservoir lies along U.S. Highway 50 east of Montrose in the Curecanti National Recreation Area in Gunnison. It has nearly 100 miles of shoreline, two full-service marinas and guided fishing tours (the fishing is superb here); Pappy’s Restaurant at Elk Creek Marina is a must-stop. Nearby, you’ll find the stunning Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and just 25 miles north of Gunnison, you can visit the historic mountain town of Crested Butte.
If you’re not an experienced boater but would like to start enjoying the on-water lifestyle in the Rocky Mountains, remember that having fun on a boat starts with being prepared. Colorado Parks & Wildlife has a helpful primer for getting started, providing information and links for state-certified boat inspections, local boating-safety classes, local rules and regulations, updates on product recalls and much more.
And don’t forget: Colorado fishing can be outstanding, so pick up a fishing license before you splash your boat.
For this lifelong boater, outdoor recreational experiences west of the Missouri River have confirmed an important fact. Boaters are an irrepressible lot, and they clearly won’t let a little thing like being landlocked stop them. There’s always a way to get out on the water. And in Colorado, you won’t be disappointed with your choices.