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No matter the season, tourists and locals flock to Estes Park for its breathtaking scenery, various outdoors adventures, and unparalleled wildlife viewing. This historic town—it was named for a gold miner named Joel Estes, who “discovered” the Estes Valley in 1859—is also (and most notably) the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, which includes 415 square miles of mountains, lakes, trails, and rivers. While the park and surrounding area were devastated in the September 2013 floods, the town of Estes Park is close to making a full recovery, thanks to federal emergency funds and tourists who continue to visit during Rocky Mountain National Park’s 100th anniversary celebration (concluding September 4, 2015). Every visitor helps, so what are you waiting for? Here’s everything you need to know to be on your way.
The Odometer: 65 miles, one-way
Historical Roots: Archaeological records indicate that Clovis Paleo-Indian hunters first entered the area about 12,000 years ago. Between 6,000 B.C. and A.D. 1800, Ute, Apache, and Arapaho tribes settled here—at least for the summer.
Bear Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park. Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Get Outside: 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 300 miles of trails. You can hike, bike, or ride horses in the warmer seasons, and snowshoe or cross-country ski in the winter. (Go it alone, or check out The Warming House if you prefer a guided tour). You can even go backcountry skiing if you’re an expert. Visit one (or more) of the park’s 150 lakes (we recommend the easy 1.7-mile trail to the gorgeous trifecta of Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes), or go fly-fishing or rock climbing in the warmer months. If you’re an experienced hiker, set your sights on Longs Peak—one of Colorado’s 54 venerable fourteeners—or aim a little bit lower for the 12,880-foot Mt. Ida. For more excitement, set up an exhilarating off-roading tour, 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 ziplining, whitewater rafting, and a challenge course.
One thing to keep in mind: While Estes Park is, without a doubt, a dog-friendly town, your four-legged companions are not allowed in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you want to bring Fido along on your getaway, never fear: There is plenty to explore in the Roosevelt National Forest (and little-to-no crowds).
Eat: 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 the Twin Owls Steakhouse, located in a 1920s log cabin at the Black Canyon Inn. This casual fine dining restaurant offers authentic game, beef, chicken, seafood and more. 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. Lastly, no visit to Estes Park is complete without visiting Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Taphouse. Try the ribs (pictured) or a double-meat smokin’ platter. (We loved the pulled pork and Texas Beef brisket.)
In the morning, head over to Notchtop Bakery and Café for a quick and delicious breakfast (don’t forget a sticky bun) or lunch. Or try 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.
Sip: 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).
Stay: No trip to Estes is complete without a stop at the historic, beautiful, and possibly haunted Stanley Hotel (pictured), 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.
Elk relax in Rocky Mountain National Park. Yes, this is real. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Wildlife Crossing: 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 vast 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 (pictured), Estes Park’s main drag. Stop and get some candy at the Caramel Crisp, which has been open for 34 years, check out the fascinating finds in the Old Church Shops, or pick up any outdoor gear you’re missing at one of the many outfitters.