Rocky Mountain National Park Travel Guide
Where to Weekend

The Perfect Weekend Getaway: Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park From Denver

PHOTO: RondaKimbrow/iStock

Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.

Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.

It is one of the most visited National Parks in the country and offers visitors a plethora of outdoor pursuits, breathtaking landscapes, and wildlife. Perfect for both travelers looking to get off the grid and get back to nature and those looking for an adrenaline rush, Estes Park is a “choose-your-own-adventure” kind of vacation that puts Colorado’s rugged beauty on full display.

GETTING THERE

The quickest way to get to Estes Park from Denver is a straight shot past Boulder on US-36 West. But if you have extra time, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is a worthy detour, especially in fall. The longer route takes approximately three hours and promises views of old mining towns, creeks, and alpine lakes.

DAY1

A quick hour-and-a-half drive from Denver and you’ll be feeling worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the city. If you leave early enough, you can arrive by mid-morning to take full advantage of the day. Whether you make it a lazy, late brunch, or grab a quick lunch to-go, the Egg of Estes is one of the town’s most beloved breakfast joints. Splurge on apple cinnamon pancakes, strawberry banana waffles, or fill up with a hearty eggs benedict or scramble. If you’d rather keep rolling, keep it light with a sandwich, salad, or fresh-pressed juice for the road.

Since you’ve been in the car and probably want to stretch your legs, start with an easy-two miler to warm up and adjust to the altitude. The appropriately-named Dream Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for insane snow-capped peaks that reflect brilliantly off the water. Take in the beauty and breathe in the crisp mountain air. From here, you can either head to your hotel to freshen up, or if you have the time and energy, keep exploring. Many trails connect to make it a longer loop.

Once you’re rested and refreshed, it’s on to another kind of adventure. Hard to miss, the stately Stanley Hotel sits atop a hill overlooking the city. From the outside, it just looks like any other architectural marvel, but this early 1900s beauty has plenty of secrets hidden in the stark white walls.

Settle in for dinner at their restaurant, Cascades, the classic American steakhouse. Fill up on locally caught trout and wild-game before sauntering over to the Whiskey Bar for a nightcap. Boasting Colorado’s largest selection of whiskeys and single malt scotches, once you’re feeling all warm and fuzzy and get to chatting with the bartender, the hotel’s mysteries start revealing themselves. Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining and other hints of hauntings come to light.

Curious to see for yourself? Their after-dark ghost tours are sure to make your skin crawl as whispers of strange occurrences suddenly seem commonplace. Whether you leave believing in spirits or simply spirited is up to you.

DAY2

Shake off the reverberations of last night because you have a big day ahead. Fuel up with a hearty morning meal at Notchtop Bakery & Café. Mexican favorites like the massive Colorado burrito or breakfast tacos bring the heat, while the Banana Split Waffle and Banana Bread French Toast provide a much-needed sugar high.

When you’re finally ready to roll out of there, get ready because it’s time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park’s 265,769 acres from top to bottom. You can tour the park on two legs, four wheels, or four hooves and on trolley, ATV, or horseback riding tours, depending on your interests and fitness level.

But first, get your bearings with a harrowing drive up Trail Ridge Road. One of Colorado’s most impressive National Scenic Byways, it’s the highest continuous road in the U.S. and holds the distinction of being one of just a handful of roads included on the National Register of Historic Places. Full of hairpin turns, insane elevation gains, and a surprising lack of guard rails, you’ll cross the Continental Divide as you take in glacier-carved valleys, jagged peaks, and shimmering alpine lakes. The drive takes two-to-three hours to complete, depending on how hard you’re riding the brakes.

If you prefer to skip the driver’s seat or would rather take a load off, Estes Park Trolleys offers two-to-five-hour wildlife, scenic, and photography tours to the park’s major attractions, which are perfect for those looking to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, worry-free.

But for those really wanting to explore, you know you have to get off the beaten path. For the restless spirits looking to get off the grid, there are ATV, Jeep, and horseback riding tours and rentals to tackle the backcountry. Depending on how comfortable you are getting lost will determine if you need a guide or feel confident going at it on your own.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head back into town to grab a sandwich or wrap from Scratch Deli & Bakery and keep on rolling. For the adventurers, there’s rock climbing, hiking, and biking still to try. Or, for those looking to beat the heat, a half-day white water rafting, kayaking, paddleboarding, or fly-fishing excursion may be just what the doctor ordered. In the winter, a whole other set of adventures await. There’s skiing, ice climbing, snowmobiling, and snowshoe tours in the area.

When you’ve had your fill of adventure for the afternoon, fight the urge to collapse from exhaustion. Before you retire for the evening, unwind with beer and bites at The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern. Built in the 1930s as a dance hall, they still regularly host live music at happy hour, which promises epic brews and views under the setting sun.

DAY3

For your last day, ease your sore muscles and tired body with a slower-paced morning, soaking in all Colorado has to offer. Meander the Riverwalk, which runs along Elkhorn Avenue, Estes Park’s main drag. Babbling brooks interspersed with boutiques, galleries, murals, and public art offer the quintessential mountain town vibe. Get a java jolt with an espresso or smoothie from Kind Coffee, or indulge your sweet tooth at Cinnamon’s Bakery; if you can snag one of their coveted buns before they run out for the day. Treat yourself to a massage, shop for souvenirs, or tip one back at one of the local breweries.

For one last parting view, the Estes Park Aerial Tram gives you a taste of the ski gondola in summer. One of just a handful of European-style cable cars operating in the United States, the five-minute ride takes you above tree-line for a stunning bird’s eye view from above. Snap some photos and soak in every last bit of that mountain magic before heading home.

WHERE TO STAY

If you’re looking to splurge or be spooked, you can stay overnight at the Stanley Hotel, whose opulence is often overshadowed by its odd encounters. However, most visitors opt for cozy cabins or cottages, which satisfy a wide range of budgets and amenities, from hot tubs to pet-friendly properties.

For a truly memorable backcountry adventure, cliff camping with Kent Mountain Adventure Center is the ultimate bucket-list experience. Brave souls can spend the night roughing it on a portaledge that’s been set up on a sheer rock face suspended hundreds of feet in the air. If that sounds intriguing, but a bit too extreme (or you’re sketched out by the bathroom situation), they also offer “cliffnics” for photogenic, aerially suspended lunches or dinners.

WHEN TO GO

 

Rocky Mountain National Park is a year-round destination, albeit the attractions vary wildly by season. Summer and fall are the most popular times to visit and very crowded, which means you’ll likely need to utilize the park and ride shuttle as parking lots fill up fast. Trail Ridge Road is open May-October, with elk mating season a major draw in September and October when the animals are especially active. The snowy calm of winter has its own appeal if you don’t mind a little cold-weathered fun.

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