Experienced cross-country road-trippers nod knowingly when someone brings up Interstate 70 in Colorado. Oh yes, they’ve all traveled this celebrated stretch of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, with engineering marvels such as the Eisenhower Tunnel at 11,158 feet, Vail Pass and, well, all of Glenwood Canyon.
They might not know that I-70 also takes them within a stone’s throw of some of the best boating in the Rocky Mountains, any more than the millions of skiers who descend on Summit County’s A-Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone ski resorts each winter do. But the truth is, if you venture into the high Rockies during the summer and early fall months, your perspective on the West might change.
It’s really not all about the skiing.
We first became acquainted with Lake Dillon just a few years after moving to Colorado. We’d passed it many times on I-70, but we’d lived in the Great Lakes for nearly a decade — we were used to big water, and we weren’t really interested in boating on the Centennial State’s “puddles.”
Fortunately, we met some Denver-based sailors who spend their weekends racing on this 3,300-acre, shimmering expanse of blue, which is tucked against the Continental Divide amid dramatic 13,000-foot peaks. They told us if you can sail here, you can sail anywhere; they recounted stories of uncontrolled jibes, microbursts, knockdowns, weird thermals, winds that would have a boat spinning in a circle on a single point of sail, and two boats flying spinnakers sailing toward each other. Tempestuousness, clearly, would be an understatement.
“We generally have two or three weather patterns colliding due to the Continental Divide,” explained Scott Snyder, past commodore of the Dillon Yacht Club, which is North America’s highest at 9,017 feet. “The wind patterns are nowhere near consistent. On other bodies of water, you might see wind shifts of 10 degrees and call those big shifts. Here, you’ll see shifts of 40 to 50 degrees, or the wind will do a complete 180, with a shift back 20 seconds later.
“The velocity runs up and down quickly, too. You can go from 5 to 25 knots in a heartbeat,” he continued. “It will definitely keep you on your toes.”
We decided we needed to experience this lake for ourselves. To our great delight, we discovered that Lake Dillon has a gentle side, with plenty of warm sun, gentle breezes and flat water. Even with fall approaching.
Not Only a Sailor’s Lake
The night before our boating adventure, we savored a creatively prepared meal al fresco at Kemosabe Sushi in Frisco, at the lake’s southwest end. Then, before retiring to our hotel in Silverthorne, we drove to the Frisco Bay Marina to have a quick look around. We parked and walked with our 6-year-old daughter along the paved bike path, which circles the lake, to the waterfront.
The sun was already low in the sky, so most of the boats were tucked into their slips for the night. Rigging clinked against masts, tiny waves purled ashore at the free public boat ramp, and a cheerful hum drifted from the nearby Island Grill.
We walked into the marina’s rental office, where staff can hook you up with everything from canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to fishing boats (you can even rent a pole), pontoons and runabouts. We opted for a small runabout with a bimini top, knowing how intense the sun can be at this altitude. After a quick romp in the Marina Park playground, we called it a night.
The next morning proved to be quintessentially Colorado. Not a single cloud marred the cobalt sky, and the autumn mountains blazed with aspen gold. Once we’d exited the marina’s no-wake zone, we throttled up and the sky’s wavering mirror image shattered into a million sparkles as we streaked across the water.
Lake Dillon isn’t only a sailors’ lake. Snyder advised that roughly a third of the boaters here are powerboaters, and if you don’t have your own boat or are just passing through, you can do as we did and rent one at the Frisco Bay Marina, or at the Dillon Marina on the lake’s north shore. It’s the highest deep-water marina in North America.
“I think the number of powerboaters here will keep growing,” Snyder remarked. “All summer you’ll see people cruising, sunbathing picnicking, and tucking into all these great little gunkholes that are only accessible if you have a swing-keel sailboat or a powerboat.”
From Mining to Marinas
It’s hard to believe this was once a high mountain valley, filled with mining prospectors’ wagons, stage coaches and pioneer mountain cabins. In the late 1800s, three rivers converged here, making it an ideal spot for the frontier town of Dillon.
The original town now lies more than 230 feet beneath the surface, thanks to the construction of the Dillon Dam in 1963. That earth-fill dam changed everything — for Denver, which now could divert water from the Blue River Basin through the Harold D. Roberts Tunnel to the South Platte River Basin (the tunnel egress is just 15 miles from our Front Range home in Bailey), and for the mountain towns that abruptly found themselves facing a renaissance.
Dillon, Frisco and Keystone now had access to a lake with 25 miles of shoreline and a respectable June-to-September season. They seized the day, developing waterfront dining, campgrounds, parks, hiking trails and paved bike paths to enhance the outdoor experience during a Summit County summer. Business districts boomed with new restaurants and microbreweries, an active performing arts scene and concerts in the park, and attractions like the Summit County Historical Society museum, Frisco Historic Park & Museum, Lake Dillon Amphitheater, Frisco Adventure Park, Dillon Farmers’ Market and more.
During our time on the lake, we ran its length to the Dillon Marina, home to Pug Ryan’s Lakeside Tiki Bar & Grill, which joins the Frisco Bay Marina’s Island Grill on the Denver Post’s list of “Five Favorite Beach Bars in Colorado.” We putted eastward along the lake’s narrow Snake River Arm, then explored the broader Blue River Arm, admiring tranquil waterfront campsites and deserted, still-green ski slopes in the distance.
On this September day, as we pointed our nose southward and began our slow motor back to the marina, we already were thinking of how to incorporate Rocky Mountain boating into our next summer season.
Camping certainly is one way to do it. Lake Dillon has three large campgrounds, although making reservations early is highly recommended if you want a weekend waterfront site. From the campgrounds, soaring mountain vistas meet lake views bustling with sailing-school classes, paddlers and recreational boaters of every flavor. The lake also frequently hosts a variety of national and international championships, as well as the Dillon Open. It’s the highest regatta in North America, and it draws 130-plus boats from all over the West.
The Most Beautiful Boating Venue
You can have the unique experience of boating in the morning, enjoying a picnic along the lakeshore, and then heading into the vast White River National Forest for an afternoon of hiking, mountain biking and even horseback riding. Then, revel in the lively sunset atmosphere at Pug Ryan’s Lakeside Tiki Bar or the Island Grill; if you can’t decide where to go, the Lake Dillon Water Taxi can carry you to both.
Other major highlights during the summer months include the classic boat show at the Frisco Bay Marina in August, and the Fourth of July, which Snyder said is one of the best days of the year to be on Lake Dillon.
“One year,” he remembered, “we had 45 boats rafted together to watch the fireworks.”
The marinas close down in mid- to late October, but that does leave time to celebrate the fall season before ice locks up the lake. The Dillon Marina and Dillon Yacht Club welcome the public to Lake Dillon’s Fall Festival, Frisco hosts its own Fall Fest, and Keystone has Oktoberfest, with an impressive array of Colorado brews ready for tasting.
In the end, however, the greatest pleasure on Lake Dillon just might be the sight of those jaw-dropping mountains from the water. Snyder said he still thinks this is the most beautiful boating venue in the world.
We’d have to agree. After decades of boating in the Great Lakes, Florida, the Caribbean and even the South Pacific, we can say with confidence that there’s nothing else quite like Lake Dillon. Anywhere.
LAKE DILLON 101
* Bring plenty of sunscreen and water. Lake Dillon is nearly 2 miles high, and people underestimate the effects of altitude.
* If you’re towing your own boat from sea level, ask the marina staff to check the engine and provide a tune-up if necessary. Altitude can affect your boat’s performance, as well as your own.
* All visiting boats will require an invasive species inspection. Check with marina staff for inspection-station hours.
* Lake Dillon provides Denver’s drinking water, so swimming, waterskiing and PWCs are prohibited (SUPs, canoes and kayaks are fine). Unless you’re a polar bear, however, you’re shouldn’t be too disappointed. Summer water temps are snowmelt-cold.
Dillon – www.townofdillon.com
Dillon Marina – www.townofdillon.com/marina
Dillon Yacht Club – www.dillonyachtclub.com
Frisco – www.visitfrisco.co
Frisco Bay Marina – www.townoffrisco.com/play/frisco-bay-marina
Island Grill Frisco – www.islandgrillfrisco.com/
Kemosabe Sushi – www.kemosabesushi.com/
Keystone – www.keystone.travel
Pug Ryan’s Lakeside Tiki Bar – www.pugryans.com/tiki-bar
Author: Heather Steinberger is a contributor to HeartLand Boating magazine