It’s the perfect alpine escape. Estes Park, Colorado, known as the gateway to the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park, stands on its own as a terrific destination. With its rich history, stunning views, great range of accommodation options, and wonderful restaurants, there are many reasons why you should consider making this mountain hamlet your home base for your next Colorado adventure.
How To Get There
Unless you’re on a private charter, Denver International Airport is the closest to Estes Park. From there, your best option -- not only to get to Estes but to explore from there -- is to rent a car. The drive from the airport to Estes Park is 90 minutes. You can also take the shuttle from downtown Denver or from the airport. You must purchase tickets online in advance; a round-trip shuttle ride costs $95 per person.
Keep in mind that the road does climb a bit and features tight turns in spots, but this won’t be an overly challenging drive. Until you reach Estes, you’re in the foothills as opposed to the Rockies themselves, so you’ll skip those scary mountain passes!
While Rocky Mountain National Park will have snow in the winter, you might not see a flake in Estes. That said, check driving conditions before you head out. If you’re making the trek when conditions are less than favorable, make sure your vehicle has all-wheel drive -- and preferably snow tires.
Where To Stay
From cabins to hotels, there are a wide range of accommodations from which to choose in Estes Park.
There are Estes Park hotels for every budget. Many of them are independently owned and operated lodges, with a lot of charm and a resort-like feel. As is true of all accommodations in Estes, you’ll want to book early for the busy summer season.
One hotel here truly worth a shout-out is the historic Stanley Hotel, a gorgeous spot built at the turn of the 20th century. This is where the novelist Stephen King was staying when he had the nightmare that inspired his book The Shining. The bravest of travelers can even book the very room where he stayed!
If the idea of a hotel appeals to you, but you’d like more self-service options (including a kitchen and laundry facilities), a condominium might be the way to go. With this option, you can choose your number of bedrooms, self-cater, and feel a bit more at home.
Bed And Breakfasts
What about a cozier stay with a homier feel? An Estes Park bed and breakfast will provide that and more. There are several located along the scenic Fall River and in the heart of Estes Park. The best part? You’ll be able to fuel up for your day’s adventures with a hearty breakfast that’s included in the price of your stay.
If you’re traveling with the whole family, renting an entire home for your alpine getaway might make the most sense. Offerings ranging from small, quaint cabins to mountain mansions complete with home theaters and spas can be found on homesharing sites like Airbnb and Vrbo.
Cabins in Estes Park run the gamut from rustic to near-palatial. There are dozens of cabin complexes in and around Estes, offering a variety of lodging choices and recreation options. Many individually owned cabins can also be found and reserved on the homesharing sites mentioned above. The YMCA of the Rockies is a perennial family favorite, with a variety of cabins available.
Of course, if you really want to experience Mother Nature, Estes Park is a terrific place to camp, with several well-maintained sites in and around town. Many of these feature RV hookups and tent sites; some have basic amenities like swimming pools, general stores, and recreation options. This is also the cheapest accommodation option.
Where To Eat
Estes Park offers outdoor adventures around every corner, and to fully take advantage of them, you’ll need to make sure you get the proper fuel. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of dining options here, from haute cuisine to down-home diners. Here are a few of our favorites.
For A Night On The Town
There are several options in Estes Park that will please even the most discerning of palates.
Even if you’re not staying at the aforementioned Stanley Hotel, make reservations for dinner at the Cascades. The hotel’s steakhouse serves up Colorado game like elk and bison and strives to use locally grown ingredients.
The View, located at Crags Lodge, offers hearty American dishes with incredible views from every table.
Twin Owls Steakhouse, which will be relocating to the Taharaa Mountain Lodge in May of 2020, is a longtime Estes favorite, with steaks, chops, and a terrific supporting wine list.
For A Casual Bite
If dressing up during your outdoor vacation doesn’t appeal to you, no worries! Casual dining is popular in Estes, and there are plenty of terrific options.
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern offers great food and craft beer on draft in a cozy fireplace-lit setting. On many nights, guests enjoy live music.
For a great breakfast and lunch, head to Mountain Home Cafe. Don’t let its shopping-center setting fool you!
And Wapiti Pub, known for its fantastic burgers and pub grub, is an Estes favorite for a reason. It’s a great spot to grab a bite after exploring downtown.
Be sure to save room for dessert at You Need Pie! All the old-fashioned favorites are prepared from scratch here and can be purchased whole or by the slice. There’s also a great baked goods menu featuring other sweet treats like muffins, bars, brownies, and scones. Call ahead for the best selection so that you’re not stuck with your second-favorite choice.
For Eating In
If your accommodation allows for self-catering, you’re in luck. Estes has some terrific markets that sell grocery essentials as well as locally grown and produced products. There are the big-box markets you’d expect, but look beyond those for some true gems: The A la Carte Kitchen Store offers a good selection of specialty foods, and Country Market sells fresh Colorado produce and meats.
What To Do
So, now that you’ve found your accommodations, how about filling in your itinerary? Here are a few of our favorite things to do in Estes.
Try Your Hand At Kayaking
Lake Estes is a reservoir that’s a recreational hot spot in its own right. It has 4 miles of sandy shoreline, and dipping your toes into the cool water (no swimming allowed -- the water is too chilly!) is a rite of passage in the summer here. Consider renting a kayak or paddleboard at one of the several marinas that ring the lake for a terrific adventure in the heart of town.
Fall River runs right through Estes Park, and it’s a prime spot for fly-fishers to try and hook both brown and rainbow trout. Keep in mind that you will need a state fishing license, and know that some stretches of the river are catch-and-release. Check ahead with your resort, or get in touch with a local outlet such as Estes Angler, which offers guided trips and rental gear.
Explore Downtown Estes Park
If you’re ready for a retail respite after all of your outdoor fun, take time for a stroll through downtown Estes Park. There are more than 300 shops, boutiques, and galleries here for you to peruse, with gorgeous souvenir options for every kind of traveler. If you need a sweet pick-me-up, stop into any of the taffy shops downtown for a quick sugar boost.
Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
We saved the obvious for last here. People come from around the world to visit -- and marvel at -- Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a vast, grand place, filled with incredible sights that are truly bucket-list worthy. Click here to learn more about this spot.
What To Know Before You Go
While Estes isn’t the highest of Colorado’s high country, it’s still 7,500 feet above sea level, which might be more than you’re accustomed to. Make sure you stay hydrated and ease off on the booze while you’re here to make the most of your trip.
Also, the Estes Park elk are well-known tourist attractions on their own, with visitors clamoring for selfies with the big beasts. Use common sense, don’t get too close, and do not get between a bull and his “harem.” It’s a recipe for trouble, especially during mating season.