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Don’t write it off as a tourist trap. Estes Park isn’t just for leaf-peepers and out-of-towners. Sure, this undeniably endearing mountain town has its fair share of souvenir shops and Texas license plates, but beyond the T-shirt emporiums and taffy shops, you’ll discover hole-in-the-wall restaurants worth a resy, a rich history, and world-class outdoor recreation—all less than two hours from Denver.
The key to an unforgettable daytrip? Knowing when and where to go.
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Drive time from Denver: 1 hour 30 minutes
Why We Love the Landscape
Rock nerds, rejoice! Nearly two billion years of geologic activity, from scalding magma to melting glaciers, shaped nearby Rocky Mountain National Park and Lumpy Ridge, which you can eyeball from town, meaning there are plenty of cool topographical features to hunt for throughout the area.
As its name suggests, Moraine Park provides panoramic views of lateral and terminal moraines, or ancient piles of rock and soil left behind by moving glaciers. If Trail Ridge Road is open (Memorial Day through mid-October), drive to the Lava Cliffs to see a sheer wall of dark volcanic rock that formed roughly 28 million years ago. Geologists willing to log some serious legwork will reap the rock rewards at Chasm Lake (trail info below), one of the most impressive glacial cirques in the park. The gradual melting of a glacier carved this stunning alpine lake, which nestles within a granite amphitheater in the shadow of 14,259-foot Longs Peak.
Chances are, you came to Estes Park to explore the great outdoors, and you certainly won’t lack for options all year long. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to more than 350 miles of foot trails. You can hike, bike on the paved roads, or ride horses on designated trails in the warmer seasons, and snowshoe or cross-country ski in the winter. (Go it alone or check out KMAC Guides if you prefer an expert-led adventure.) You can even go backcountry skiing if you’re a seasoned schusser.
For more excitement, set up an exhilarating off-roading tour (available year-round), which can be tailored in intensity for all members of your party, or take your family to the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center for axe throwing, ice skating, and a challenge course.
If you’re visiting Estes Park, you better pack your hiking boots. Rocky Mountain National Park and nearby Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests have trails suitable for every skill level. So whether you’ve never been above sea level or you’re a professional peak bagger, here are our favorite easy, moderate, and advanced hikes in the area.
Lily Lake Loop: Despite being a gentle, less-than-a-mile trail, you won’t feel like you’re pushing through crowds at Disney on the Lily Lake Loop. Ideal for children and outdoor explorers in wheelchairs, this fully accessible trail offers views of Meeker Mountain, Longs Peak, and Twin Sisters Mountain. We recommend packing a lunch and stopping at one of several picnic tables that dot the perimeter of the lake. Or, if your crew is up for a little climb, you can hop on the Lily Ridge Trail. From the parking lot, head clockwise around the lake. About 0.4 mile in, keep left to take the higher ridge trail. Although you’ll gain a little bit of elevation (less than 200 feet), you’ll be rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of the lake.
Crosier Mountain: This steep but stunning stroll through the Roosevelt National Forest is sort of a choose-your-own-adventure. If you have more than four hours of free time, set your sights on the summit of 9,233-foot Crosier Mountain. You’ll leave from the Crosier Mountain Rainbow trailhead and gain just over 2,400 feet in elevation. The trail is shady thanks to plenty of aspens, and the top serves up sweeping views of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you don’t have all 7.7 miles in you, mosey just 1.5 miles up the trail to Table Rock for a picturesque picnic. Nice: Your four-legged friends are allowed to tag along (unlike in Rocky Mountain National Park)—but be sure to keep them on a leash.
Chasm Lake: This 8.4-mile out-and-back delivers hardy hikers to a remarkable alpine lake—but it’s not easy. Two words: Start. Early. This hike begins at the Longs Peak trailhead, and the parking lot fills up fast. If you’re conquering Chasm in the summer, an early start time—like, before 4 a.m.—is essential to avoid getting caught above the timberline in an afternoon thunderstorm.
This trek is nonstop uphill, first through a serene subalpine forest and then an alpine tundra where pikas loiter. When the trail forks just after the three-mile mark, say goodbye to the conga line of hikers aiming for the Longs summit and hang a left to pick up the Chasm Lake Trail. You’ll do a bit of route-finding to ascend the last section into the cirque cradling Chasm Lake. If you time it right, you’ll catch the day’s first rays set the east face of Longs Peak afire.
Note: While we love the trails off of Bear Lake Road, these hikes are the most popular in Rocky Mountain National Park. During the summer, the Bear Lake Road corridor requires a permit and parking lots often fill up before sunrise. If you want to explore this area, we’d recommend doing so in the off-season when permits aren’t required and the masses are still in hibernation.
For 2024, timed entry reservations will be required for Rocky Mountain National Park from May 24 through October 20.
We hope you’re game for, well, game. Sure, you might find it unsettling to eat elk after admiring their beauty in nature, but expect this majestic (and dare we say, delicious) animal to grace the menus of many restaurants throughout the area. We recommend Bird & Jim, an upscale yet charmingly rustic restaurant right down the road from Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows Entrance. Splurge on the Carnivore plate for a sampling of elk striploin, game sausage, and miso beef short ribs.
Or for a local feel, visit the historic Rock Inn Mountain Tavern, which serves up Rocky Mountain comfort food, strong cocktails, and live local bands. After a long day on the trails, we’re convinced nothing tastes better than a double burger with a side of cheese fries from Boss Burgers and Gyros. And if your legs are still toast from climbing to Sky Pond, you can swing through the drive-thru. Lastly, no visit to Estes Park is complete without visiting Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Taphouse. Try the ribs or a double-meat smokin’ platter. (We love the pulled pork and Texas beef brisket.)
In the morning, head over to Notchtop Bakery and Cafe for a quick and delicious breakfast (don’t forget a sticky bun) or lunch. We recommend swinging by on the weekends when they offer two-for-one mimosas. If the wait is long, pop next-door to Mountain Home Cafe, which offers classic fare, along with some healthy and gluten-free options. When you’re ready for a midday caffeine fix (or a glass of vino), stop by Coffee on the Rocks and sip your beverage of choice while relaxing beside the Big Thompson River or soak in the views outside the wall of windows at the Bird’s Nest while you nurse a hazelnut latte.
Unsurprisingly, the nightlife in Estes Park simply can’t compete with the mountain towns off I-70. But we’re not ashamed to admit that we’ve spent our evenings belting out karaoke at local favorite Lonigans or tossing a few back while learning about the history of the Wheel Bar (pictured), which opened in 1945. You can also taste the brews at Estes Park Brewery or try more than 20 types of Colorado wines at Snowy Peaks Winery and tasting room (call for hours in the offseason).
On your way back home, swing by Ed’s Cantina near the turn-off for Highway 36 to kick up tired tootsies and cheers your hike or ski with a legendary house marg.
No trip to Estes is complete without a stop at the historic, beautiful, and possibly haunted Stanley Hotel, which inspired The Shining. Book a room here for the experience, or if you are opting for a less expensive visit, there are many other lodges, hotels, and cabins to rent. If you have youngsters in tow, try the YMCA of the Rockies. Or check out the Murphy’s River Lodge or Murphy’s Resort, two easy and inexpensive properties that offer everything you need. Trailborn Rocky Mountains, which opened in December 2023, is a great option for adventurers traveling with their pups. This modern mountain lodge is just around the corner from downtown Estes Park.
If you plan to explore the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, pitch your tent at Aspenglen Campground, which is just inside the Fall Rivers Entrance. With 51 campsites for both tents and RVs, seasonal flush toilets, and lots of wildlife, this outpost is ideal for those looking to car camp with some creature comforts. It’s also the only campground open during the winter (on a first-come, first-served basis), so if you’re not afraid of a little snow, brush up on the basics and get out there.
For campers who don’t want to compete for limited spots inside the park, Overlook Ranch in Estes Park offers 11 sites with impressive vistas of the Continental Divide and the Rockies. You’re only 15 minutes from the closest park entrance and just a 10-minute drive from Lake Estes, an idyllic summer hideaway perfect for kayaking and canoeing.
Note: Moraine Park Campground is closed for construction through early summer 2024. Although this site gives campers unobstructed views of Longs Peak, it’s not yet open for 2024 booking.
There’s nary a visit that goes by without glimpsing a herd (or at least a pair) of Colorado’s distinctive elk strolling through the center of town or lounging in open spaces—especially in the fall, when they migrate to lower elevations for mating season. Head out into Rocky Mountain National Park or surrounding National Forest land, and you’re even more likely to spot these massive animals (antlered males average around 1,100 pounds!). Moose, deer, bighorn sheep, bears, mountain lions, marmots, coyotes, and a variety of birds also call this area home.
If You Do One Thing…
Besides visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, explore the shops along Elkhorn Avenue, Estes Park’s main drag. Stop and get some candy at the Caramel Crisp, which has been open for 83 years, warm up by the fireplace inside MacDonald Bookshop while you browse the shelves, or pick up any outdoor gear you’re missing at one of the many outfitters.