There are many ways to drive to Estes Park, but one of the most scenic is definitely the route from Silverthorne. Head north from Interstate 70, past the Gore Range and Green Mountain Reservoir on through miles of rolling ranch land.
The route takes a turn to the north before Granby and heads to Grand Lake, a quaint mountain town that has the largest natural lake in the state, all held at the western helm of Rocky Mountain National Park.
This is where your adventure truly begins.
The road into the park winds its way through marshland, where moose can often be spotted grazing in the tall grass. Trail Ridge Road is the route that takes cars up and over the mountains to Estes Park, and as the highest continuously paved road in the nation it offers an unforgettable ride.
“Rocky is an incredible, accessible park that epitomizes what people think of when they close their eyes and picture the Rockies,” said Kyle Patterson, public information officer for the park. “There are 124 named peaks, and of those 118 are above 10,000 feet” in elevation.
Patterson said the park has 147 lakes and seemingly countless rivers and streams. One-third of the park is above tree line, protecting the fragile alpine tundra. She said visitors come to the park for the scenic beauty, watchable wildlife and more than 355 miles of hiking trails.
For historical information and recreational guidance, visitors can stop at one of the park visitor centers, including the Alpine Visitor Center, which is near the peak of the Trail Ridge Road, and the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at the east entrance to the park.
“We are on the eve of our 100th anniversary, which is a very special time,” Patterson said. “Rocky was established on Jan. 26, 1915, by President Woodrow Wilson. We are one of the oldest parks in the National Park Service system. Since it’s such a momentous occasion, we want to celebrate for a year.”
From Sept. 3, 2014, through Sept. 4, 2015, the park will bring in speakers and hold special activities and community events to celebrate its centennial.
“We hope that our 100th anniversary will inspire visitors to experience and connect with the park that has inspired 100 years of protection and that will continue to inspire visitors for another 100 years,” she said.
Admission to the park is $20 per private vehicle and is valid for seven days at all entrance stations. An annual pass for Rock Mountain National Park is $40, and the fee for visitors entering by foot, bicycle or motorcycle is $10 per person. Kids 15 and younger are free, and seniors can purchase an all-parks pass for $10.
The park’s main entrances can be busy during high season, so ambitious hikers should get an early start. The park’s free shuttle service operates daily through Sunday, Oct. 12, connects park highlights on the eastern side of the park and is a good way to avoid parking headaches.
Bear Lake is a popular trailhead that accesses both mountains and lakes. Be prepared for the elements if you’re hiking (thundershowers and quick temperature changes are prevalent), and the area can be very crowded.
For a moderate walk, stroll around Bear Lake, or take the mile-or-so wander up to the lakes of Nymph, followed by Dream, and then Emerald, and finally, Lake Haiyaha, which sits about two miles up from Bear, slightly off the beaten path. Although the park trails are marked well with signs, consult a detailed map for all hikes, especially rigorous adventurous around the area. (www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm).
Dip into downtown
The Estes Park main street, Elkhorn Avenue, could be a region out of Candyland. At almost every corner and between, visitors will find windows filled with legendary sweets, such as Estes Park saltwater taffy, ice cream and fudge. The smell of a warm waffle cone is truly enticing.
Besides the treat shops there are jewelers and art galleries, Outdoor World, Macdonald Book Shop, the Inkwell & Brew papery store and cafe and stores with Colorado memorabilia. The papery has beautiful journals and cards, gourmet coffee and even Bhakti chai. Kevin Reed recently purchased the store, and he’s usually in-house if you want to stop in for a tea and say hello. (www.inkwellbrew.com, (970) 342-1297).
Restaurants downtown are plentiful and some, such as the Wapiti Pub, were hit hard by immense flooding in the area last September. The Wapiti just reopened, and it features a menu that’s diverse and a riot to read. Look over the draft beer list when you walk in, or scan the impressive list of 100 craft cans and bottles. (www.thewapitipub.com/estes, (970) 586-5056).
Quaint and cozy, Kind Coffee on the east end of Elkhorn was hit hard by the floods last fall, as well. The coffee shop has its own parking area, which is always a plus in Estes, and it has delicious coffee, with pastries to complement.
Snowy Peaks Winery is the only winery and tasting room in Estes Park, as the other was closed after the flood. The winery has been in operation for nine years and produces 15,000 cases of wine per year. Try tastes or full glasses of the varietals, such as of a newly released pinot noir, at the location right off of Elkhorn on Moraine Avenue; the spot offers a lot of variety, all from Colorado grapes. (www.snowypeakswinery.bravehost.com, (970) 586-2099).
“We have a huge range, so we pretty much can cover all the different palates,” said Candice Mohr, who co-owns Snowy Peaks with her husband, Erik. “I think our style tends to shoot food-friendly; we try to make styles of wine that pair well with different things.”
For beer lovers, Estes Park Brewery is a feel-good stop for food and brews. Drive or walk to the brewery on Prospect Village Drive, just minutes from downtown (www.epbrewery.com, (970) 586-5421).
Adventures for all ages
Once you’ve hit the mountains and walked around downtown, there’s still some room for some family-friendly amusement in Estes. Visit Estes Park is a great resource for all things Estes (www.visitestespark.com, (970) 577-9900).
The new Open Air Adventure Park provides 90 minutes of aerial experience — 10 to 21 feet above the ground. Cross rope bridges, tightropes, swinging log steps and moving platforms. The park is even open when it rains, but action stops when there is thunder and lightening. Minimum age to participate is 7, and reservations are recommended.
Fun City is another staple for families, with mini-golf, go-carts, giant slides, bumper cars and boats. For those looking to stay aligned with nature, a guided horseback riding trip with Sombrero Stables is leisurely and fun; fly-fishing with Estes Angler or bait fishing at the Trout Haven Fishing Pond, on Moraine Avenue, are good options.
Lake Estes is a beautiful spot and sits on the east end of town. Ride your bike or a rent a $9-per-hour cruiser from the marina to pedal around the lake or borrow a boat to paddle right on it. Fishing licenses and gear are also available at the marina store.
If the weather is a bit wet, which does happen a lot in Estes, especially during summer afternoon thundershowers, families can’t go wrong with Chippers Lanes bowling alley or the two movie theaters in town — Reel Mountain and Historic Park Theatre.
Take an entertaining and informative tour with Fun Tyme Trolleys, which offers historical sightseeing through the town and a lower loop drive of Rocky Mountain National Park. The trolley tours board at the Estes Park Visitor Center on Big Thompson Avenue. They run though October, and tickets are sold at the trolley and are available online.
The gondola-style aerial tramway that runs up and down a hill adjacent to downtown is a great way to see the sweeping vistas of the area. The tram is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Monday, Sept. 1; tickets for adults are $12, kids ages 6 to 11 are $8 and kids younger than 5 are free.
walk through history
There is one stop that is a must on most visitors’ bucket lists. The Stanley Hotel is a historic landmark, built in 1909 by Freelan Oscar Stanley, co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile. The hotel is also known for its role as the setting in Steven King’s book-turned-film “The Shining” and for its decades of reports, and now tours, of paranormal activity.
It’s fun to stay at the Stanley, and the history truly comes through in the authentic atmosphere. Next door, known as the Lodge, is what Damien Boynton of the Stanley calls a “resort within a resort,” a pet-friendly building that offers guests a more intimate, bed-and-breakfast style stay.
“It definitely has that exclusivity to it,” Boynton said of the Lodge. “Then you can come over here (to the main building) and be a part of the hustle and bustle that is the Stanley in the summer; you can sit on the veranda, sip a cocktail, read a book and take in the scenery.”
Whiskey lovers will swoon at the collection of more than 700 international whiskeys at the Stanley’s bar, known appropriately as the Whiskey Bar, which sits adjacent to the Cascades Restaurant. Not-often-seen labels and rare vintages line the backlit wall, just ask the barrel-aged experts behind the bar, Jimmy and Scotty.
Cascades’ menu has a lot to offer, including a creamy and savory trout dip appetizer and the popular Colorado meatloaf entrée — a hearty combination of organic elk, buffalo and Berkshire pork, served with wild mushroom sauce and a creamy potato puree.
Pastry chef Mark Metzger tops off the evening right with his sweet and eclectic selections. Try the Saigon cinnamon churros with dolce de leche or the Haystack Mountain cheesecake with fresh blackberries and oatmeal crumble.
“I think it appeals to so many people,” Boynton said of the Stanley experience. “You can be here and be out the door all day in the park and then come back and still have things to do, whether it be a ghost tour, a whiskey tasting or a relaxing evening on the veranda watching the elk.” (www.stanleyhotel.com, (970) 577-4000).
All that shimmers is gold
While summer is an excellent time to take full advantage of recreation in Rocky Mountain National Park, the fall brings Estes Park a special season all its own. The town slows down slightly, which does feel like a break in the clouds after a thundershower, and the Colorado colors start to come out in their most vibrant hues of orange, red and yellow.
The Golden Leaf Inn is a new bed and breakfast in the area. Innkeeper Monica Meyers has worked closely with owner Renae Adelmann to create a very quaint and special home away from home. Open now for just more than a year, Meyers said the first thing a lot of her guests do when they arrive is take a nap.
“It is very peaceful here,” she said while clearing a delicious breakfast of pressed coffee, juice, homemade scones, fruit and omelets. “It’s a convenient location but still very quiet.”
The Golden Leaf is just minutes from downtown (10, if you’re walking), and there is a trolley stop at the bottom of the hill, which makes the trip to town for a Thursday-morning farmers market stroll even easier.
Five beautiful rooms are adorned with cozy yet contemporary decor, and plush terrycloth robes invite guests to take a soak in the outdoor hot tub or to relax with their feet up after a full day on the trail. (www.goldenleafinn.com, (970) 577-1766).