Perched at 7,200 feet and 90 miles away from Denver, Estes Park is a fantastic basecamp for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park’s eastern side. You also can access the park’s west side via the park’s spectacular Trail Ridge Road, which connects the two sides of the park. Here are six tips on what to do in Estes Park during your Rocky Mountain National Park vacation.
1. Abandon Your Car
It may sound counterintuitive, but if you really want to see Rocky Mountain National Park hassle-free, leave your car behind. The town of Estes Park built a fantastic visitor center and 415-car parking garage on the edge of its downtown at 500 Big Thompson Ave., where free seasonal town and Rocky Mountain National Park shuttles will whisk you away to where you want to go. The free Hiker Shuttle Express Route brings you into the park and directly to the Park & Ride along the Bear Lake Road corridor. From here, you can catch the Bear Lake Route, Moraine Park Route or just start hiking. You’ll feel liberated not having to drive circles looking for a parking spot and that fresh Rocky Mountain air will be cleaner without your car huffing up and down the road.
2. Tread Lightly
You’re one of literally millions of people who travel to Rocky Mountain National Park every year, but there are ways to avoid the crowds and find solitude. For the best experience, enter the park while everyone else is still sleeping or sitting around the breakfast table. Or wait until early evening and spend the last several hours of summer light after everyone else is headed to dinner. While in the park, be mindful of ways you can reduce your impact on the wildlife you see, the natural areas you explore and the tiny town of Estes Park where you spend time. While a herd of elk may seem tame because it’s next to the road or grazing in town, keep a distance of 25 yards between you and them. Visitors have been charged, thrown in the air and injured by elk.
3. Explore Downtown
Take a stroll down its lively downtown lined with coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques. Or sit on a bench along the Riverwalk, which spans the downtown area from the Estes Park Visitor Center to Performance Park on the west end of Elkhorn Avenue. Along the way, stop in photographer Erik Stensland’s landscape photography gallery, Images of Rocky Mountain National Park, at 203 Park Lane downtown to see the park in a new light.
Estes Park’s best-kept secret is its Riverwalk, which cuts through downtown as it hugs the sides of Big Thompson River and Fall River. You can’t see it from the main drag, but you’ll find it on the south side of downtown where most businesses’ back doors open to it. Along the Riverwalk, you’ll find stores, restaurants, benches, beautiful flowers and the sound of clear Rocky Mountain water flowing over river rocks. The path extends to Lake Estes where you can do a 3.75-mile walk around the entire lake. Look for eagles and elk as you stroll. At Lake Estes Marina, you can rent stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, a 10-person pontoon boat and canoes. Or rent a cruiser bike to loop around the lake, stopping at a picnic table to admire the view and enjoy a snack.
4. Have the Park to Yourself
If you’re looking to have Rocky Mountain National Park almost to yourself, visit when snowflakes blanket the entire area. With Estes Park lit up with holiday lights and cozy cabins dotting the hill sides, you’ll find all the beauty of Rocky Mountain without the summer traffic, crowded hiking trails or restaurant lines. It’s also a wonderfully affordable winter getaway. “I think the biggest thing is the value of being in the mountains but not having the ski resort price tag,” says Josh Harms, digital content manager of Visit Estes Park. “And you’re seeing Rocky Mountain National Park through a whole new lens.”
Plus, there are festivals like Winter Festival, Wine and Chocolate Festival, and Rails in the Rockies, a festival for model railroaders.
5. Tour or Drink Whiskey at the Haunted Stanley Hotel
As you explore Estes Park, it’s hard to miss the iconic Stanley Hotel sitting slightly above town. The white palatial hotel opened in 1909 and was built by inventor F. O. Stanley who produced steam cars Author Stephen King’s overnight stay here inspired his best-selling book The Shining. Take a ghost tour, then in the evening, have a drink at the Whiskey Bar, which has Colorado’s largest selection of whiskey. You may even spot the ghost of Stanley checking in on his establishment.
6. Ride the Estes Park Tram
Get outstanding views of Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Continental Divide when you ride the Estes Park tram. You’ll start at 420 East Riverside Dr in Estes Park and then ride all the way up to the top of Prospect Mountain. The tram is open late May through early September. No reservations are required. For the best photo opportunities and to avoid possible thunderstorms, go early in the morning.
For more information:
Estes Park Visitor Center
500 Big Thompson Avenue, Estes Park, CO 80517