During the fall, it's almost impossible not to spot an elk in Estes Park. The muscular brown beasts, in their fall mating fury (officially called a rut), practically take over the town. For years, Estes Park locals have capitalized on this natural phenomenon, turning it into Elk Fest, a part-wildlife-viewing extravaganza, part-local fair. This year, the Fest takes place the first weekend in October, and paired with a leisurely art walk and hikes through Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), it makes for an active, yet cultural, weekend getaway. But if celebratory crowds aren't your thing, visit Estes Park any weekend in late summer and early fall. The elk, art collections, and cool fall hikes are around all season.
STAY: The Stanley Hotel opened in 1909, boasting the best of luxury: Bowling lanes, a golf course, and an electricity. Nearly 100 years later, multiple renovations ensure that the 138-room retreat—and the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining—still draws crowds with its views of the Rockies, elegant rooms, and spooky ghost tours.
HIKE: The approximately five-mile roundtrip trek to Mills Lake—named for Enos Mills, the advocate who fought doggedly for the creation of RMNP—is a leisurely but rewarding hike with views of Longs Peak and Glacier Creek.
Time needed: 3 to 4 hours
SHOP: Amid the souvenir shops on Elkhorn Avenue stands a gem: Mary Jane's, a newly relocated home, kitchen, and clothing emporium. After you've perused the contemporary and country-style accessories—and a couple trinket shops, too—stop into nearby candy shops for an old-fashioned splurge.
Time needed: 2 hours
WALK: Known for inspiring plein air art, the Estes Valley is home to more than 200 artists. Their works—shaped by deep colors and clear mountain sentiments—hang on countless gallery walls. But the best way to get a feel for them is on the 12th Annual Autumn Art Walk, a self-guided tour of 18 local galleries and artists' studios.
Time needed: 2 to 4 hours
RIDE HOME: Take the scenic Peak to Peak Highway, which cuts from Estes Park, through Allenspark and Clear Creek Canyon, to I-70. The up-close views of the golden aspens and rocky Continental Divide make up for the extra 30 miles on the odometer. Plus, you have an excuse to stop at Nederland's Wild Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery for a heaping platter of nachos topped with pulled pork. Wash it down with their hoppy, house-brewed Otis Pale Ale.
Time needed: 3 ½ hours