Just 1.5 hours from Denver, Estes Park is one of Colorado’s most popular getaways in the heart of the Rockies. An idyllic mountain town teeming with snow capped peaks, sprawling forests, and alpine adventure aplenty, it’s inspired the likes of John Denver and countless others. Home to Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most accessible and most visited national parks in the country, its’ 250,000+ acres of pristine wilderness right at your fingertips.

A place to relax and reenergize or get off the grid and get back to nature – the choice is yours.  Here’s how and where to explore once you get there.

Things to do in Estes Park Year-Round

Things to do in Estes Park vary wildly by season, but Rocky Mountain National Park provides a wealth of attractions regardless of climate. Here’s what to seek out whenever you plan a visit.

Hike to Dream Lake

One of the most popular and photogenic hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for the reflective high alpine lake, wildflowers, and wildlife, Dream Lake is accessible year-round, although in winter, you will need spikes or snowshoes, which can be rented from Estes Park Mountain Shop. An easy two-miler, park where you can, hop on the free shuttle, and head towards the trailhead for the Bear Lake Loop.

Get Spooked at the Stanley Hotel

Where the Shining was filmed, the Stanley Hotel is notoriously one of the most haunted hotels in the country (and the only place to make me believe in ghosts after weird noises and light flickering’s). They offer ghost hunts and tours year-round, but it’s especially great around Halloween for obvious reasons. If you’re brave, spend the night, but if you hear anyone muttering Redrum, run straight to the Whiskey Bar (it’s one of the best in the state).

Things to do in Estes Park in Spring/Summer

Spring and summer is definitely high season in Rocky Mountain National Park, which means you’ll likely need to utilize the free park and ride shuttles as lots tend to fill up quickly. Expect large crowds and throngs of tourists eager to take advantage of Colorado’s prime adventure season.

Photo Credit: Matt Inden/Miles

Practice Your Wildlife Photography

Witness nature through your viewfinder. Guided photo safaris are one of the best ways to see Rocky Mountain National Park through an expert lens (pun intended). Local photo pros will take you to all their secret spots to scout moose, elk, mule, marmots, and pika while perfecting your composition and captures.

Opt for an ATV Adventure

To really immerse yourself in the landscape and cover more ground, you have to get off the beaten path and conquer the backcountry on an ATV or 4×4. There are guided excursions that’ll take you to some of the lesser-known park gems, or if you’d prefer, you can get wanderfully lost on your own and be sure to leave with a little mud on your face.

Photo Credit: Estes Park Trolley

Tour by Trolley

One of the most fun ways to traverse Rocky Mountain National Park? A trolley tour. Estes Park Trolley rides are a great way to see the park or hop between local breweries with 30 of your closest friends. There are photo, animal, and history routes available for all interests.

Photo Credit: Dariusz Kowalczyk

Drive Trail Ridge Road

One of Colorado’s National Scenic Byways, the iconic drive up Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous road in the US, and one of just a handful included on the National Register of Historic Places. Expect hairpin turns, insane elevation gains, and a surprising lack of guard rails as you cross the Continental Divide to take in glacier-carved valleys, jagged peaks, and high alpine lakes. If you prefer to focus on the views, be a backseat driver on an open-air jeep tour that takes all the stress out of the ride. The pass is open May-September.

Photo Credit: Open Air Adventure Park

Soar to New Heights at Open Air Adventure Park

An aerial challenges course and zipline, Open Air Adventure Park is heart-pounding fun above tree line. Whether you’re looking for a little family teambuilding time or to test your balance and agility, hang and swing your way through the obstacles while pausing for photo ops at canoes and chairs suspended in the sky. Oh yeah, and they also have ax throwing if you’re looking to blow off a little steam.

Photo Credit: Matt Inden/Miles

Embark on a Whitewater Rafting or Fly-Fishing Excursion

A river runs through it. Literally. Estes Park is surrounded by lakes, rivers, and streams, which means you have to get a little wet to fully immerse yourself in the landscape. For a mellow day out on the water, guided fly-fishing excursions will teach you the art and science of the craft. For those looking for a rip-roaring good time, hit the rapids on the Poudre or Colorado Rivers. There are varying degrees of difficulty for beginners to more seasoned rafters available April-September.

Meander the Riverwalk

Babbling brooks interspersed with boutiques, public art, and local eateries, the Riverwalk bisects Estes Park’s downtown corridor and runs right along Elkhorn Avenue. Stroll the charming shops and galleries scouring souvenirs, sampling the local pours, and sweets. If you get lucky, you may catch some live music or a cowboy sing-a-long.

Ride the Aerial Tramway

The one time they’ll tell you to look down. One of just a handful of European-style cable cars operating in the United States, the Estes Park Aerial Tram ensures you can get a bit of mountain magic in the summer months. The five-minute ride takes you to the summit of Prospect Mountain for a stunning bird’s eye view of the area and an epic photo op. Open May-September.

Splash Around at Lake Estes

For those looking to beat the heat, Lake Estes is a one-stop-shop to splash around. The marina rents stand up paddleboards, paddleboats, kayaks, canoes, and pontoon boats and has whatever you may need for fun in the sun. There is everything from bikes, volleyball, and horseshoes to rods and reels. Open May-October.

Go Cliff Camping or Have a Cliffnic

For the true adrenaline junkies, cliff camping with Kent Mountain Adventure Center is the ultimate bucket-list adventure. You’ll hike and rock climb up or rappel down to your portaledge where a tent sits, suspended hundreds of feet off the ground clinging to the cliffside. If that’s too extreme or you’re sketched out by the bathroom situation (no judgment, how it works is a mystery to me too), they also offer “cliffnics” for photogenic, aerially suspended lunches and dinners. Available June-September.

Photo Credit: Matt Inden/Miles

Saddle Up

You’ve explored on two feet, now explore on two hooves. Another way to get off the beaten path is on a guided trail ride through the park. Mosey on down to the stables at Estes Park Outfitters or Cowpoke Corner Corral to find your stallion.

Things to do in Estes Park in Fall

A little less busy than summer, fall is a great time to visit Estes Park as the alpines are awash in a golden yellow hue. The trees start changing in late September with zealous leaf peepers anxiously tracking their progress.

See the Elk

Wildlife is a big draw to Rocky Mountain National Park in September and October as elk mating season rolls around. Rutting is when the horny (pun intended) creatures strut their stuff, lock antlers, and put on a show. You’ll hear high-pitch bugling and deep grunts, their mating call, as you watch the circle of life in fascination.

Things to do in Estes Park in Winter

While summer is undoubtedly the most popular and busiest time in Estes Park, the snowy calm of winter has its own unique draw if you can stand the cold.


The winter equivalent of a 4×4, snowmobile rentals and tours are the way to traverse the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park and fly through the snowpack. It’ll give new meaning to the term powder day.

Have a Snowshoe and Fondue Outing

Snowshoeing is just glorified winter hiking, which means anyone can do it with the right equipment. Rent a pair and poles from local outfitters, or go on a guided excursion with ApexEx, which comes complete with hot apple cider plus chocolate and cheesy treats to warm you up.

Try Ice Climbing

A late winter activity as you have to wait for the ice to freeze completely and remain strong enough to support climbers, the chance to scale frozen waterfalls and peaks is worth the bout of patience. Colorado Mountain School can hook you up with gear and lessons and show you the ropes (literally) of this cool Colorado sport.

Photo Credit: Matt Inden/Miles

Sleigh All Day

Channel Santa and slay your way through the Rockies on a whimsical wagon ride. Snow Mountain Stables offers cozy alpine tours complete with crackling bonfires and hot chocolate.

Tour by Snowcat

Traverse remote trails and ascend in elevation in the comfort of your own private winter tank. Beasts made for traversing rugged mountain passes, snowcats are the latest trend in luxury mountain transportation while staying warm and cozy en route to a secluded lodge for a BYO dinner party.

Backcountry Ski

While Eldora in Boulder’s not too far for those seeking groomers, bombers will love Estes Park’s deep, untouched powder. With a name that’s fairly apropos, many head to Hidden Valley Ski Area, a resort that shuttered in the early ‘90s. There are no longer operable lifts, but if you can high tail it up the hill, plenty of acres of unspoiled terrain await. Others strap on their skins and head to Trail Ridge Road or the peaks around Bear Lake for another piste playground.

Check out this post for the best ski resorts in Colorado or more on Colorado’s ski season.

Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay in Estes Park

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3 replies
  1. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    Count me in for a ride on that aerial tram! Although, I know looking at it I’d be freaked out a little. The husband always has to explain the science behind a cable being able to hold all that weight to me 🙂

  2. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    Wow, this park looks amazing. Thanks for the tips on how busy it gets in the summer. I think it looks even more amazing to visit in the winter!


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