- Distance from Denver: 65 miles
- Best time: March; June to August
- Best for: FamilyBudgetOutdoor
Rocky Mountain National Park is the largest and grandest of Colorado's four national parks, encompassing 415 majestic square miles. At least 60 peaks soar over 12,000 feet, dominated by the sheer granite face of the 14,259-foot Longs Peak. More than 300 miles of trails traverse the park, which is home to 60 different mammals including elk, bighorn sheep, black bear, moose, and mountain lion. On the east edge of the park sits the small town of Estes Park at 7,522 feet. With kid-friendly restaurants, kitschy souvenir shops, and reasonably priced accommodations, Estes is an ideal base camp for families. The unpretentious resort town is also a visual delight in its own right, with panoramic mountain views and the occasional elk herd grazing on the golf course. For a memorable family getaway, these are our favorite spots, both in town and in the park. –by Jayme Moye
1 Start your getaway with a birds' eye view of the area from the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. Open daily from May to September, the tram runs from town to the top of Prospect Mountain, climbing 1,100 feet in less than five minutes. From the observation deck on top, visitors overlook the city of Estes Park and enjoy sweeping views of Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Continental Divide.
2 Dine beside the Big Thompson River at Poppy's Pizza and Grill in downtown Estes Park. On summer evenings, the patio is jam-packed with local families and visitors enjoying homemade pizzas, salads, and sandwiches. Owners Rob and Julie Pieper have a special affection for craft beers and offer more than 100 international brews, including many from the region. Tip: the hand-cut onion rings are a must-try.
3 Rocky Mountain National Park's Night Sky Program kicks off between 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm every Friday night in the summer. Meeting points alternate between the Upper Beaver Meadows Trailhead and the Estes Park Memorial Observatory. Park rangers and local astronomers lead free 30- to 90-minute sessions observing constellations, the moon, and the Milky Way. Bring a flashlight and binoculars, if you have them.
1 Get acquainted with Rocky Mountain National Park at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, located three miles from town and open daily at 8:00 am. The center is a National Historic Landmark, designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. Inside, study a giant relief map of the park and watch a 20-minute video of the park's natural features and ecosystems (including the plants and animals you can expect to see in each). Park rangers are on hand to answer questions and offer suggestions, and a well-stocked gift shop sells books and mementos.
2 Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile byway through Rocky Mountain National Park, is arguably one of the most scenic drives in the country with 360-degree mountain views, wildflower meadows, and wildlife galore. Starting in Estes Park, the road ascends 4,000 feet in the first few minutes. If you're short on time, plan to drive only the first 16 miles to the Alpine Visitor Center, which takes you well above treeline to nearly 12,000 feet, and affords multiple picture-perfect vistas.
3 Head back into town for lunch at Nepal's Cafe (184 E. Elkhorn Avenue). The small eatery is hard to find, tucked away behind the Subway on the main drag, but the $9.95 lunch buffet is worth the effort. The Asian-style food is every bit as delicious as you'd expect from an authentic family-owned restaurant, and the buffet lets you try a little bit of everything, from the Chicken Tikka Masala to the Nepal Curry.
4 Leave some time to peruse Elkhorn Avenue, Estes Park's main road and shopping district. The typical t-shirt shops and souvenir stands are interspersed with notable galleries, home furnishing boutiques, and local arts and crafts. Be sure to visit Earthwood Artisans, representing more than 240 jewelers, painters, woodworkers, and sculptors, and Mountain Blown Glass, whose on-site artists create glass vases as you watch.
5 Mosey on over to Jackson Stables located at the YMCA of the Rockies for a cowboy-led trail ride in Rocky Mountain National Park. Long-time Estes Park residents Allen and Julie Jackson oversee the everyday operations of the stable, with some 130 horses in their care. The one-hour ride is suitable for first-timers and children, following mellow terrain along Glacier Creek to the scenic Dorsey Lake area.
6 No trip to Estes Park is complete without dinner at Cascades Restaurant, perched on a hillside above town in the iconic 104-year-old Stanley Hotel. Start with aperitif (handcrafted cocktails for the adults, Shirley Temples for the kids) on the front veranda, soaking in the views and the late afternoon sunlight. Cascades is best known for their Colorado Angus steaks (choose from three different cuts), but the local striped bass, prepared with braised fennel and roasted tomato, is hard to pass up.
7 Linger at the Stanley after dinner for ghost stories ($5 for guests, $7 for non-guests). Gather at 8:00 pm in the hotel's library, where you'll sit around the fireplace with the lights out and hear some of the many ghost stories about the hotel (including how it inspired Stephen King's The Shining) and the town of Estes Park. The session lasts 45-60 minutes and is geared toward families, with milk and cookies, and fun, creepy stories for all ages.
1 One of Rocky Mountain National Park's most beautiful hikes also happens to be its easiest, making it accessible for youngsters. The Bear Lake hike is a 0.6-mile loop in the heart of the park that circumnavigates a crystal clear subalpine lake set beneath Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide. Interpretive placards along the path help visitors name the ample flora and fauna. Get there before 10:00 am, when the large parking lot at the end of Bear Lake Road usually fills.
2 Learn about the founding of Rocky Mountain National Park and the history of the area, from the Ice Age up to today, at the Estes Park Museum on 4th Street. Open on weekends year-round, and daily in the summer, the museum is free for everyone. Browse the museum's ever-changing exhibits, including pioneer and Native American artifacts, or take a self-guided walking tour of Estes Park's historic sites.
3 Before heading out of town, make a stop at the Snowy Peaks Winery and Tasting Room. In addition to their 20-plus varietals made in Estes Park, they also carry wine from a dozen other Colorado vineyards, many not available out of state. There's a No Wine-ing play zone for the kids, and a robust selection of gourmet treats and food items ranging from cheese to chocolate from Colorado and beyond.
Where to Stay
The storied Stanley Hotel (rooms from $134/night) is hands-down the best place to stay in Estes Park, located in a magnificent setting above town and less than six miles from Rocky Mountain National Park. Besides serving as the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining, the elegant landmark hotel is listed on the national register of historic places and retains much of its original architecture. The stylish Stanley Overlook Condos (condos from $260/night), built behind the hotel in 2004, offer an alternative for families who require more space, or a kitchen.
For one of the best kid-friendly stays in the country, head to the Estes Park Center at the YMCA of the Rockies (rooms from $79/night), a year-round family vacation center located minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park. The rustic lodges and cabins are hardly roughing it, having been renovated in 2013 to include upgraded linens and flat screen TVs with satellite reception. Rooms come with optional meal plans at the buffet-style dining room, and access to a dizzying array of on-site activities including horseback riding, miniature golf, sand volleyball, zip lining, fishing, and mountain biking. When the adults need alone time, there's a craft house for the kids to do art projects, and both day and evening camps.
When to Go
Estes Park is a year-round destination, with summer being the most popular thanks to warm days, cool nights, and optimal wildlife-sightings at Rocky Mountain National Park. July is the height of wildflower season when the meadows explode into blues, yellows, and reds. Fall is a close second, with cooler temperatures and leaves turning colors—most notably the bright yellow of the aspen trees. Fall is also when you can expect to hear the bugle-like mating call of the park's many elk, and spot a bighorn sheep. Spring, especially March, gets the heaviest snow and the fewest visitors. But it also affords the best hotel rates, as well as a chance to spy baby animals. Winter is serene and beautiful, for those who don't mind the cold. Snowshoeing is a popular activity in the park during the winter, and a good way to view wildlife.
How to Get There
By car (from Denver): Estes Park is just under two hours from Denver by car. Follow I-25 north toward Fort Collins. Take exit 257 for US-34 toward Greeley/Loveland. Turn left onto US-34 W and take it into town.
Tip for driving in the mountains: Cars can overheat while driving in the mountains. If you can hear your car struggling on the uphill, it may be in danger of overheating. Roll down the windows and turn the heater on full blast to siphon heat from the engine.