Small Town Charm, Big Time Allure in Estes Park

Why we love it: It’s a charming gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Fireworks over Estes Park
Photo by John Berry, courtesy of Visit Estes Park.

It’s 5 o’clock and I’m stuck in traffic. But this time the hold-up isn’t commuters’ rush hour traffic; it’s migrating elk. As Justin, my fiancé, and I make our way back to Estes Park from Rocky Mountain National Park after a day of hiking, we are stopped by the herd. Or, more specifically, we are stopped by the bull who is acting as a crossing guard for his posse of cows. And his antlers must not be the only humongous thing about him—because, man, there are a lot of them. Instead of a whistle to usher them along, the bull lets out primal, haunting bugles that echo through the valley with a commanding presence. Beginning as a low, guttural moan that rises in intensity, it transforms into a series of high-pitched notes that pierce through the crisp evening air. Sitting at a complete stop, it’s the first time I am grateful to be stuck in traffic. 

Elk
Photo by Logan Moreno Gutierrez, courtesy of Unsplash.

The elk aren’t trying to be a nuisance, and they aren’t lost. Estes Park has been part of the elk’s natural migration pattern for centuries. And they never adjusted when we humans moved in. I like to think it’s partially because they like our company as much as we get a kick out of their presence. Regardless, every fall the population of Estes Park nearly doubles as the elk descend the Rocky Mountains and shack up on the front lawns and parks in town. And it’s not just a few here and there. They come in herds, and they are everywhere. There’s even an annual festival called Elk Fest at the end of September to celebrate this. But you don’t need a festival, although there are quite a few unique ones, to get the most out of Estes Park because it’s a small town that shines year-round.

Stay

Stanley Hotel
Photo by Padraig O Flannery, courtesy of Unsplash.

No trip to Estes Park is complete without a spine-tingling visit to the iconic Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel The Shining. While the hotel may not resemble the movie, it’s a living embodiment of the book—think grand, gorgeous, and hauntingly captivating. For the ultimate immersion, take the nighttime ghost tour or séance; for a genuine experience, cozy up with a bourbon at the bar and chat with an imaginary bartender. Don’t worry, it’s Estes Park—weirder things happen here. Like the town’s annual Frozen Dead Guy Days celebration, which migrated down from Nederland in 2023 after the popular festival outgrew its hamlet host, and Bigfoot Days, which debuted this April.

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While the Stanley Hotel is a must-see for a tour or a drink, the idea of spending a whole night there has me convinced I’d be starring in my own horror movie sequel: Insomnia Strikes Back. Instead, opt for the brand new, haunting-free Trailborn Rocky Mountains & Rocky Mountains Outpost. Trailborn is a national brand elevating national park trips with luxurious, amenity-rich hotels right at their front gates. There are two properties in Estes, each with a pool, ​​communal fire pits, and complimentary yoga classes and bike rentals. The hotel also offers excursions both on property (think crafts and cocktail classes) and in the park—everything from guided hikes to weekend meditation retreats. You can enjoy the Mexican-American-inspired cuisine on-site or head to town for a taste of the local flavor.

Bird & Jim food
Photo by Joe Pyle, courtesy of Bird & Jim.

Bird & Jim sits at the higher end of the dining spectrum in Estes Park with its locally sourced and ingredient-driven dishes. Standouts include the game meatloaf, the carnivore’s plate with elk striploin, and the frontier trout. The impressive wine list is only rivaled by the massive whiskey selection. More ingredient-led dishes define the menu at La Cocina de Mama, which can satisfy any cravings for authentic Mexican cuisine in the mountain town. Then head to The Old Fashioned Candy Store and satisfy your sweet tooth while getting a taste of nostalgia. The small shop on East Elkhorn carries a massive selection of more than 600 of your childhood candy favorites as well as limited-edition sweet treats like freeze-dried candy cannoli. 

After an active day in the mountains, you’ll find plenty of spots to quench your thirst. Estes Park is home to several breweries, including Lumpy Ridge Brewery Co. and Rock Cut Brewing Company. Both have great beers on tap and food trucks on site, plus pleasant patios. If you’re more into grapes than hops, look for the tasting room of nearby winery Snowy Peaks where you can try its Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, and Riesling. For a hit of the harder stuff, visit Elkins Distilling Co. The distillery only sells its whiskies on location, much to the chagrin of tourists who inevitably get hooked on the Colorado-crafted spirits. The annual releases like Colorado Honey and Colorado Fire have garnered both local and national followings.

Play

Hiking trails sign
Photo by Nicholas Szewczyk, courtesy of Unsplash.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a year-round destination. During winter and spring, the mountains transform into a snowy adventure wonderland for backcountry skiers and split boarders. RMNP is a much-loved backcountry spot, in part thanks to the Colorado Mountain School, which guides trips there, and partially because it’s off the busy I-70 corridor. And, it’s worth noting that since it is a national park, if you need to be airlifted out due to injury or avalanche, the state will be picking up the tab, not you. In the summer, purple lupins, blue columbines, lavender irises, yellow alpine sunflowers, red Indian paintbrushes, and pink primrose fill the meadows with a rainbow of wildflowers. And in the fall, the changing aspen trees glitter like diamonds as they rustle in the brisk air. A fitting analogy, because in Colorado, leaf-peeping season is a girl’s best friend. The perfect activity to make the most of the scenery—take a hike! (But make a reservation here first through RMNP’s Timed Entry Permit System.)

Take a Hike

Easy Pick: Dream Lake is a nonchalant 2-mile out-and-back hike that passes several high-altitude lakes. We parked at Bear Lake trailhead around 6 a.m. to beat the crowds and get a jump on the day. (This is a very popular hike so parking fills up fast and the trail can resemble and 2-mile long line later in the afternoon.) We walked through ponderosa pines and blazing aspen groves, only passing a few trail runners already on their descent. Justin and I chat as we walk since I have a minorly crippling fear of running into bears or moose after far too many close encounters. But in the silent moments in between, we hear the birds chirp, and what sounds like a yellow-bellied marmot screaming in the distance. Now that is one wild animal I always hope to see while on the trail, and we finally see him (or her) poking its head out of a rock pile as we approach the lake. I name him/her Pikachu for its astounding ability to ball up so quickly and hide. Sitting at Dream Lake eating our breakfast bagels, I leave scraps of the smoked salmon on the rock, hoping to lure Pikachu out with a salty treat and snap a picture. Pikachu keeps coming closer, only to be scared off by my shuttering lens. Camera shy, I guess. We play this game of cat and mouse for a little until I turn my attention to photographing the lake. The water is so profoundly still that the red peaks surrounding it are perfectly mirrored on its surface. Careful not to make the smallest ripple, I crawl out onto an outcropping rock and take the picture. It’s one for the memory books. Side note: I have also done this hike in the spring and enjoy hiking one lake further to Emerald Lake to watch the backcountry skiers make their descents down the bowl. 

Moderate Pick: For a slightly more challenging hike, continue another two miles out-and-back to the baby blue waters of Lake Haiyaha. When I first saw photos of this lake pop up on Instagram, I thought it was the dreamy, sparkling turquoise waters in Iceland or another far-flung destination, not right in my backyard. This is one of my favorite hikes in Colorado now and a go-to to impress my out-of-town friends and locals alike. Be sure to plan extra time for photos, and try to align your hike with sunny weather since that’s when the water shimmers the brightest. 

Visitor at Chasm Lake
Photo by Alyssa Teboda, courtesy of Unsplash.

Hard Pick: Colorado is known for its peaks that tower over 14,000 feet. The state is also known for its gung ho adventurers whose pride and joy are waking up well before the crack of dawn to bag another peak. Longs Peak is the only 14er in RMNP and is most popularly reached through the Keyhole route. At 15 miles roundtrip with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, this is a serious climb that requires a helmet and careful planning. Ideally, you would be off the peak before noon when afternoon thunderstorms threaten hikers, especially those above treeline, so recommended start times are around 2 or 3 a.m. If you, like me, treat life like horseshoes and think “close enough” counts for something, then a hike to Chasm Lake, with gorgeous views of Longs Peak, that still offers a challenging 8-mile round trip hike and 2,500 feet of elevation gain.

Daring Drive

Trail Ridge Road, only open in the warmer months, earns its nickname Highway to the Sky. 

Take a drive on one of the country’s most thrilling—if you ask Justin, who was thankfully driving—and terrifying—if you ask me—roads in America: Trail Ridge Road. The Highway to the Sky, as it is often called, is a 48-mile stretch of winding road between Estes Park and Grand Lake that crests at 12,183 feet. It offers a rare slice of sweat-free alpine adventure where passenger princesses can spot bighorn sheep, go for a walk through the alpine tundra at the Rock Cut viewpoint, and contemplate just how long it would take for them to stop rolling should they fall off the road just inches from the schist stone cliff. While our Sprinter van’s panoramic windows provided an unbeatable view, the height of our car also meant we swayed dramatically in the gusts of wind that prevailed near the summit. All the better to see us fall, I thought. But alas, we made it from Estes to Grand Lake and beeline for the bar: celebratory drinks are in order—we survived! 

Dream Adventure

Live life on the edge when you book a cliff camping experience with KMAC Guides

Rock climbers camping on cliff face
Photo by John Berry, courtesy of Visit Estes Park.

“People self-select for this adventure pretty well,” says Reed Woodford, CEO and co-owner of KMAC Guides. Cliff camping is not for the faint of heart. But it is for the adventure seeker and nature lover who wants to take their camping experiences to the next level. “Spending the night 150 feet above the ground can totally change people’s perspectives,” says Woodford. “Even though we are still a stone’s throw away from Estes Park, it feels very isolated, private, and pristine. It’s a great opportunity to connect with nature on a whole new level.” 

After traversing a section of Via Ferrata, guests rappel into their vertical campsite where the guides assemble the portaledges. These are typically reserved for superstar climbers like Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold when tackling such monstrous climbs that they must spend a night on the wall. With KMAC, there’s no need to endure grueling hours of climbing to reach your ledge; just an hour or two of effort is needed to reach your high-altitude haven.

Woodford has hosted campers for various occasions: astrophiles align their trips with meteor showers, adrenaline junkies throw their birthday parties on the edge, and adventure couples take a leap of faith, exchanging vows amidst nature’s grandeur. The ledge is a place where the world below you falls away, leaving you suspended in a moment of pure presence. Looking to level up your next camping trip? Bookings are available from June 1 to September 30.

Shop fronts along street
Photo by John Berry, courtesy of Visit Estes Park.