Estes Park and neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park are two of Colorado's top destinations for families and lovers of scenic beauty. Spend a day exploring Estes' main street and the natural glories of the Colorado Rockies.
One of the most popular parks in the country, Rocky Mountain National Park welcomes 3.4 million visitors each year and still manages to nurture cravings for solitude. (Tip: A new seasonal Bustang route will take you to Estes Park and the national park from downtown Denver).
Daybreak is the best time to explore the park’s stunning see-through lakes, sweeping meadows and dew-spritzed forests. The park's eastern entrance is in the town of Estes Park.
Take a drive on Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved through-road in North America. This rollercoaster route crosses the Continental Divide and offers breathtaking photo ops as you climb past subalpine forests and windswept tundra to 12,183 feet above sea level.
Or enjoy a family wildflower hike to Gem Lake or Bridal Veil Falls. For a little more challenge, try the 2.8-mile Mills Lake trek. You’ll be rewarded with grand views of 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds, a whimsical rock formation named for its shape. Pull over at Moraine Park for prime wildlife watching. More than 3,000 elk and 800 bighorn sheep live in the park, and this U-shaped valley is a regular gathering spot for bugling elk.
Inside the park, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers year-round seminars, guided fly-fishing, naturalist tours, hiking and photography classes. Estes Park and surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park are also superior birding spots, with more than 315 species to be seen. Grab your binoculars for a self-guided exploration of Matthews-Reeser Bird Sanctuary, or opt for a ranger-led bird walk within the national park.
At the Open Air Adventure Park, rope bridges, aerial tightropes and swinging logs challenge folks 5 years old and up. Kent Mountain Adventure Center, the first outfitter in the U.S. to offer breathtaking (literally) cliff-camping excursions, has activities like a kids mountaineering camp, a New Year's Eve Longs Peak trek, backcountry ski classes/guiding, and a year-round “snow-climbing school.” Or, get above it all in a different way at Estes Park’s own Jurassic Park. This climbing area just south of town features rock outcroppings, slabs and routes that make for a perfect outing.
Estes Park is the gateway into the national park, but it’s also a destination unto itself. Stop by The Barrel, a seasonal alfresco beer garden, and window-shop along Elkhorn Avenue, Estes' bustling main thoroughfare. Filled with one-of-a-kind stores, several fine restaurants and plenty of places for an afternoon snack, the area is just steps from the park’s eastern entrance. Stop for coffee and sit outside on the Riverwalk.
One block off Elkhorn, the beautifully landscaped path follows the Big Thompson River as it flows through town and hosts street performers in the summer. Take the path east for a tranquil walk around Lake Estes, or stop at the marina to rent bikes, pontoon boats or kayaks. Then, enjoy a glass of wine inside Snowy Peak Winery’s tasting room, the new Elkins Distilling Company, Rock Cut Brewing or Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co., a former gas station with a scenic beer garden and new brews on tap regularly. Keep an eye out for the Two Chicks Wings & Henhouse food truck, usually parked near Rock Cut (despite the name, these chicks have excellent vegetarian options).
Or ride 1,100 feet up the side of Prospect Mountain on the Aerial Tramway for fantastic views of Estes and the surrounding peaks.
Wind down with dinner at the storied Stanley Hotel. The elegant 109-year-old, white-pillared landmark sits on a hill overlooking downtown Estes Park. Guided tours take you through an underground tunnel and reveal how Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining while staying in room 217. Stop by the beautifully crafted antique Cascades Whiskey Bar to choose from 250 different wine labels and the largest whiskey collection in the state.
Newer to the town's dining scene, the farm-to-table cuisine from Seasoned – An American Bistro and Bird & Jim’s artisan approach have locals raving. Or, liven things up at Lazy B Chuckwagon & Supper Show, where a crowd-pleasing, cowboy-style chuckwagon dinner is followed by a Western musical stage show.
From extreme sports such as ice climbing and backcountry splitboarding to more relaxed activities like snowshoeing and curling up by the fire, Estes Park also caters to winter visitors. It’s easy to get there year-round and offers an alternative to the bustling ski resorts. A handful of new snowshoe tours pair with yummy side activities (fondue and whiskey tasting are two examples). Connect with Estes Park Mountain Shop, Colorado Mountain School and Kent Mountain Adventure Center for all the gear and guidance you may need.
Depending on your approach, you might go through lovely Lyons on your way to Estes. With galleries and public art on nearly every corner, an epic summer music venue (Planet Bluegrass) and plenty of craft beer, this small town is worth a stop. Tubers and kayakers roll through the whitewater park and the Dirt Jump Bike Track lets you show off your trick-riding skills. Lyons Quilting has more than 6,500 bolts for sale, and the country’s only butter bar, Bella La Crema, is a must for a unique tasting. Winter’s ice-skating rink brings simple cold-weather pleasure.
Watch a video on exploring Rocky Mountain National Park on horseback >>
Check out our Colo-Road Trips: 3 Sunny Days in Estes Park and Winter Roamin' in Estes Park & Rocky Mountain National Park.
Photos: Courtesy of Visit Estes.