What to Do in Estes Park
I have great memories of visiting Estes Park with my parents in the mid-1960s and again with friends after my high school graduation in 1971. It was great getting back after many years to explore and see local friends that I grew up with and who were there with their parents when I was with mine!
Located 70 miles from Denver, 42 miles from Ft. Collins and and 36 miles from Boulder, Estes Park is a town in northern Colorado that is known as a base for the Rocky Mountain National Park and the nearby wilderness areas of Roosevelt National Forest. In the warmer months you can explore the area by camping, hiking, biking, fly fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, kayaking and paddle boarding. From a distance you can also see elk, bighorn sheep, moose and black bears. In the colder months there is snowshoeing, sledding, ice climbing and back-country skiing. There are also many festivals and events from music to farmers markets to enjoy in town.
The 415 square mile Rocky Mountain National Park is the main attraction of the valley. The Park spans the Continental Divide and encompasses protected mountains, forests and alpine tundra. It’s known for the Trail Ridge Road and the Old Fall River Road, drives that pass aspen trees and rivers. The Keyhole Route, a climb crossing vertical rock faces, leads up Longs Peak, the park’s tallest mountain at 14,259 feet and located 9.6 miles southwest of Estes Park. A trail surrounding Bear Lake offers spectacular views of the nearby peaks.
Trail Ridge Road is the portion of U.S. Highway 34 that traverses Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park, Colorado in the east to Grand Lake. I have driven in on my previous trips to the area. The scenery and views are spectacular. At its peak you will reach 12,000 ft. I just hope that you won’t have car trouble and run out of gas like I did with friends in 1971. Our rented dune buggy had clutch issues on the way over the mountains and then ran out of gas as we cleared the top on the way back. Nothing like coasting and pushing it all the way into Estes Park. I could not imagine doing it now!
Bear Lake Loop: On my recent trip, I decided to hike the Bear Lake Loop. This is a lake located in Rocky Mountain National Park at the end of Bear Lake Rd., 9 miles from the entrance to the park on Highway 36. I went at the end of the day, so it was less crowded and I could park in the lot next to the trail-head. At more crowded times, you will have to park further away and take a shuttle bus. It is an easy hike of just under a mile and is at an altitude of approximately 9,500 ft. I had wonderful memories of my parents taking me there when I was a child as I saw the stunning views of Hallett Peak and Longs Peak.
According to AFAR Magazine, “in 2022, Rocky Mountain National Park is reintroducing entry permit reservation requirements for entry into the park from May 27 through October 10. (Outside of those dates, an advance reservation isn’t necessary.)
There are two types of reservations you can make. One is for the Bear Lake Road corridor, which will include access to Bear Lake as well as the rest of the park for entry between 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. (Reservations are not required for entry prior to 5 a.m. or after 6 p.m., and the park is open 24 hours a day.) The other permit is for all areas of the park except for the Bear Lake Road corridor for entry into the park between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (Reservations are not required before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m.)
The permits are available in two-hour entry windows—so, for instance, there are 5–7 a.m. slots, 7–9 a.m. slots, 9–11 a.m. slots, and so on. You must enter within that two-hour window but can leave at any time (obviously, the earlier slots are the most coveted).
Reservations to enter the park will go on sale on recreation.gov at 10 a.m. Mountain Time on the following dates:
- May 2 to enter the park from May 27 through June 30
- June 1 to enter the park during the month of July (and any remaining days in June)
- July 1 to enter the park during the month of August (and any remaining days in July)
- August 1 to enter the park during the month of September (and any remaining days in August)
- September 1 to enter the park during the month of October (and any remaining days in September)
The park will set aside 25 percent of all permits that will be available for purchase the day before at 5 p.m. Mountain Time through recreation.gov.”
If you are out hiking and come across a bear, I found an article, How To Be Safe Around Bears, that might be helpful in case you encounter one.
Another popular activity is to take the Estes Park Aerial Tramway that connects the town to the summit of Prospect Mountain for great views of the valley and the mountains.
I find that downtown Estes Park can be somewhat touristy, but it still has some fun bars, restaurants and shops to explore. One of my favorites was Macdonald Bookshop, located in an old 1908 forest-service cabin that became a riverside bookstore in 1928. It is owned by the granddaughter of the original owners. It has local-interest books and events throughout the year. 152 E. Elkhorn Ave.
Where to Eat and Drink in Estes Park
I loved seeing childhood friends who now live in Estes Park and really enjoyed the restaurants they suggested and that we visited. I advise getting out of town and away from the downtown area. My top recommendations include:
Dunraven Inn: I really enjoyed the Dunraven Inn for its great Italian food and service in a classic, western roadhouse decor. It has been a popular spot with locals since 1970. It is in the process of moving to a new location at the Estes Park Resort on Lake Estes. 1700 Big Thompson Ave.
Smokin’ Daves BBQ & Brew is a great place for BBQ. I loved the atmosphere and the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries and coleslaw. The service was also great. It has five locations in Colorado, including two in Estes Park. 820 Moraine Ave (Hwy 36).
Bird & Jim: Bird & Jim is just down the road at 975 Moraine Dr. This new contemporary, farm-to-table restaurant, is close to the Beaver Meadows park entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is named after early park pioneer Isabella Bird and her friend Jim Nugent, with pictures of Bird summiting Longs Peak in woolen ladies attire. I went with my local friends and had an excellent dinner. I enjoyed the service and meeting the owner, Melissa Strong.
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern: At 1675 State Highway 66, this is a rustic historic lodge from 1937, with a bar and restaurant along with live music.
Coffee on the Rocks was one of the coolest coffee shops I have ever been to with great views and outdoor seating around a small duck pond. This is a must when you are in town! They have coffee drinks as well as food items. 510 Moraine Ave.
I also enjoyed Kind Coffee, downtown at 470 E. Elkhorn Ave., for coffee on the way out of town. They feature coffee drinks, pastries and breakfast sandwiches. The outdoor seating along the river is so attractive!
Local friends frequent and recommend Twin Owls Steakhouse that will be relocating to the Taharaa Mountain Lodge in 2020, the Cascades at the Stanley, Ed’s Cantina for Mexican and Nicky’s Steakhouse on Fall Canyon Rd. There is also Grubsteak for burgers, steaks and wild game at 134 W. Elkhorn Ave.
Downtown Estes Park has a number of fudge and salt water taffy shops. I did enjoy visiting Sugar Shack for ice cream and fudge.
My other finds include the Wheel Bar which has been open in downtown Estes Park since 1945. In addition to cocktails, they offer 2 pool tables, shuffleboard, a dart board, foosball, arcade games and a digital jukebox for patrons to play their favorite tunes. 132 E. Elkhorn Ave.
The Slab Outdoor Pub is a fun, outdoor bar for food and drinks. They also feature live music. 116 E. Elkhorn Ave.
Recently recommended by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine is Notchtop Bakery & Cafe for breakfast and lunch.
The area has a growing number of micro-breweries and distilleries. I made a point to visit several while I was there. These included:
The Barrel: Located at 251 Moraine Ave, this Craft Beer Garden offers local beer, wine and spirits along with games and music.
Rock Cut Brewing Company: This is a local brewery located at 390 W. Riverside Dr., south of downtown at the base of Prospect Mountain. They make a number of ales, IPAs, lagers, wheat beer, sours and porters. I enjoyed tasting the Cucumber Crusher/Stonecrop Wheat which had a very refreshing taste.
Estes Park Brewery: This is a large brewery and restaurant featuring their beers along with burgers, salads, pizzas and sandwiches. They make 12 hand-crafted brews along with a root beer. The beers include wheat beers, ales, lagers, porters, stouts and IPAs. It is located at 470 Prospect Village Dr.
Where to Stay in Estes Park
The Historic Crags Lodge: The lodge is part of Diamond Resorts and Hotels. It is an historic hotel above Estes Park on the north side of Prospect Mountain. The views of Estes Park, the valley and the surrounding mountains from the rooms, the View restaurant and the bar are really spectacular. The restaurant is not open for breakfast which was a negative in my opinion, but the rooms have kitchenettes so I was able to buy my breakfast items and eat in my room without having to leave the property and drive downtown. I also recommend that you choose a room on the top floor facing downtown.
The Stanley Hotel: This historic hotel originally opened as a grand hotel in 1909. After the famously haunted property fell on hard times in the 1970s, “it might have eventually have succumbed to the wrecking ball, if not for a fortuitous visit by author Stephen King. A stay of one night was enough to inspire his third major work and first hardcover bestseller The Shining.” You can stay in the same room the renowned writer did, though you may have to book several months in advance — No. 217 is the historic hotel’s most requested accommodation.
It is a large property with a number of room options. You can stay in the original hotel, The Lodge boutique hotel, the Aspire where you can stay in a building with suites and apartments and The Residences where you can rent a private home on the property. I recommend staying outside the main hotel as the crowds that are touring the hotel can be very large. Also, I personally don’t want to stay in a property that is considered to be haunted. They also have the Cascades Restaurant, the Whiskey Bar and The Patio at The Stanley.
YMCA Camp of the Rockies: I first visited the YMCA Camp of the Rockies in the 1960s where I went with my parents. Friends of my parents had a cabin there which is still there today. I remember horseback riding and attending other activities. Today it has grown substantially. It is the perfect spot for a family vacation, reunion, wedding or a conference. Here you can rent a cabin and enjoy the many program offerings they have. These include yoga classes, art and photography, astronomy, mini golf, campfires, music, swimming, hiking, ice skating, whitewater rafting, snowshoeing, fishing and fly fishing, and archery along with church services.
Visiting Glen Haven, CO
Glen Haven, 15 minutes from Estes Park, is an unincorporated town in Larimer County and in the Roosevelt National Forest. It is a secluded and charming spot to visit. I remember my first trip there in the 1960s with my parents and again in 1971 with friends. Unfortunately in September, 2013, 80% of the downtown area was destroyed by flooding. There are still some fun things to do and explore while you are there. So make a point to drive up if you have time. The scenery along the way is really beautiful.
Glen Haven General Store: I remember it well from my first trip in the 1960s. Open from mid-May to October, this is a store known for it cinnamon rolls (they are huge), cherry cobbler, fudge, quilts and gifts. I loved going back and had to try the homemade cherry cobbler. 7499 Co Rd 43.
Across the street from the Glen Haven General Store is White Elk’s Visions in Glass. This is the gallery for a local glass blowing studio. The quality is excellent so make sure to walk over and see their work.
Inn of Glen Haven: This is a charming six room B&B, plus fine dining restaurant, in the center of Glen Haven. My local friends who live near Glen Haven highly recommend the restaurant when you are in town. Make sure to contact them regarding your potential dates as it is open seasonally. 7468 Co Rd 43.