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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay in Estes Park
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