When most people think of Colorado, they think of mountains. The Rocky Mountains are visible from Downtown Denver and provide a handy navigational guide (they’re west). Although Denver sits along the front range and its weather is dominated by the mountains, the city isn’t really in the mountains. Many Denver visitors enjoy a trip into the mountains.
There are numerous choices for a mountain day trip. One popular and fund mountain day trip from Denver is Estes Park. Estes Park is a small community located right near Rocky Mountain National Park. Many park visitors use Estes, as it is known locally, as their base of operations when visiting RMNP, but it is a fun destination all on its own.
Getting to Estes Park from Denver
Estes Park is about an hour and a half drive from Denver. Of course, if you aren’t used to driving the winding, twisting mountain roads, it can take a little longer.
There are basically two ways to drive to Estes. The most common, and shortest, route is to to drive north on I-25 to the Boulder Turnpike (U.S. 36) and then up to Boulder, Colorado. Plenty of visitors enjoy a visit to Boulder, and its a good place to grab a bite to eat if you are hungry on the way up, or on the way down. Stay on Highway 36 (U.S. 36) through town and up to the north. Eventually, you’ll come to a T intersection. Head left through the town of Lyons.
Beware the speed limit in Lyons. Even though this part of town is little more than a single block wide spot in the road, they drop the speed limit on the highway down to 25 MPH and they mean it. There is little for the police here to do other than ticket speeders, so slow down, grit your teeth and remember that Lyons isn’t very big. Head right (north) through town and follow the winding road all the way into Estes Park.
If you prefer a more interstate heavy route, take I-25 all the way north to Loveland and then head west on Highway 34.
What To Do in Estes Park
There isn’t any particular thing you do in Estes Park. Remember, you come here for the beauty of the mountain area. That being said, Estes is a charming little mountain town. While there is a whole residential area on the eastern part of the town, most visitors will want to stick with quaint walking area on the western part of town.
Drive into town on Elkhorn Ave. and find a parking space anywhere. The larger public lots are city owned and free, with no time limit. If you make it up early in the day on the weekend or anytime during the week, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a spot. On busy weekend afternoons, you might have to circle a lot or tow and wait for someone to pull out, but it usually works out well.
The main attraction of Estes park is the line of shops along Elkhorn Avenue. This part of Estes sits on a mountain so that as soon as it ends, your heading up the side. Walking up is west, down is east.
There are plenty of tourist traps in here, along with the requisite “funny” T-shirt shops, but there are plenty of quaint little shops and interesting stores as well. What makes the walk so worthwhile is the eclectic mixture of shops ranging from clothing and rustic furniture and decorations to a handful of Christmas shops (open year round) and other specialty stores. Take your time and duck into any of the shops that pique your interest. Look for the Golden Leaf on the eastern (lower) end of town for a selection of nesting dolls bigger than any you’ve seen not in a place called “Little Russia.”
On your walk down (East) be sure to turn up Riverside Drive at the stop light and head toward the old movie theater. Right before you get there, look for a path that follows the river down the mountain. There are plenty of nice shops back along this way and a nice view of the river and mountainside across it as you go down. Work your way back up (if necessary) on the main Elkhorn road.
Eating in Estes Park
The other reason people loving going up to Estes is the food, but not necessarily the restaurants. Rather, Estes has more than its share of mom and pop sweets stores. You’ll find fresh saltwater taffy, homemade ice cream, multiple kinds of fudge, and more. A personal favorite, called Grandma’s near the west edge of town sells cookies (and more) made into sandwiches with a huge frosting middle. Get the snicker-doodle cookie sandwich.
Staying in Estes Park
There are more hotels and motels in Estes Park than you might imagine. Remember that there aren’t a lot of lodging options in Rocky Mountain National Park and you’ll know why there are plenty of lodging options here.
The most famous (and most expensive) hotel in Estes is the Stanley Hotel. The Stanley is famous for being the place where the Shining movie was filmed, the original one with Jack Nicholson, not the crappy remake. Of course, the hotel was only used for the exterior shots. The inside was filmed at a movie studio lot.
If there isn’t a major event or it isn’t too crowded, you can drive right up to the hotel and park in a visitor lot. Otherwise, you’ll have to hike up. Either way, head inside to the bar and grab a drink to enjoy out on the huge front patio. You’ll get a nice drink, a great view, and wonderful ambiance.