Mount Evans Road Elevation Sign

How To See the Mountains From Denver

The Rocky Mountains are one of the best places to visit in Denver for anyone planning a trip to Denver, even though, technically, the mountains aren’t really in Denver.

Denver does sit at an elevation of 5,280 feet, and yet, it technically sits in a valley in an area gently sloping away from the foothills, a 20+ minute drive to the west. And, the mountains, are behind THOSE.

Seeing the Mountains While In Denver

To see the mountains from Denver, Boulder, or any of the cities along the length of I-25, seeing the mountains is as easy as looking west. There they are (if you don’t see them, then they’re behind that building) rising up out of the plains into a purple / blue / gray / white (depending upon the day) ridge in the sky. But, that isn’t what people really mean when they say they want to see the mountains. What Colorado travelers, and Denver visitors, mean when they ask to see the mountains is to be in the mountains.

This, is slightly trickier than it sounds, because being in the mountains actually makes it kind of hard to see the mountains. First, off, that little ridge you see in the front of the mountains is actually what we call the foothills. The real mountains are behind those. Second, when you are in the mountains, there will be what appear to be hills blocking your view of the mountains. Those “hills,” of course, ARE the mountains, but they can block that majestic feeling of vast mountain-ness you are going for. Fortunately, there are some great places to really see the mountains and experience the big, wide, huge, TALL mountain feeling you are looking for.

Mount Evans

Mount Evans Road Elevation Sign

 

Mount Evans is, among other things, the highest paved road in North America. It is also one of Colorado’s 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet high). It’s also a really great way to get friends and family up into the mountains, while satisfying that “I want to see the mountains,” wish. The road goes all the way to the top (there’s a little hill left to climb if you want to go to the tippy-top), and since it is the tallest mountain around, you get magnificent views of mountains in every direction.

mount-evans-view-denverIf you’re lucky, you may even see wildlife on the road up. Look for mountain goats and deer. Also, around the parking lot, it is common to see, and hear, marmots, which look a lot like beavers, without the special tail. They make a squeaking sound a little bit higher and squeakier than you would expect for their size.

baby mountain goat mt evans

The drive from Denver takes between 90 minutes and 2 hours depending upon traffic and weather. As you might expect, at 14,000 feet, the road closes in the winter once the snow buries it too much to bother plowing out. It usually reopens near the beginning of July. Check the CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) road conditions webpage to make sure the road is open if you plan to go in early summer.

In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Such storms can be dangerous and the clouds will restrict your views, so a morning start is best for this trip.

A similar view and experience can be had from Trail Ridge Road, which is further away up in Rocky Mountain National Park.

 

Georgetown Railroad Loop

Another great way to see the mountains is a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. Back during the gold rush days, they built a railroad connecting the towns of Georgetown and Silver Plume. This is a lot easier said than done thanks to steep mountainsides. To make the track work, engineers used narrow gauge track and plenty of switchbacks. Also, lucky for us tourists in Colorado today, they built a spectacular bridge over Clear Creek called the Devil’s Gate High Bridge that the train still crosses today.

georgetown loop railroad

 

Getting to Georgetown is easy. It sits directly off of I-70 about an hour west of Denver (traffic and weather dependent). There are signs to direct you up to the railroad. The train itself is just a loop from Georgetown to Silver Plume and back. But, on the way, you’ll spiral up the mountains without having to take a long hike, and get plenty of great views along the way.

Before or after, stop into Georgetown, a little mountain town with a few shops, and a nice lake just east of town if you want to see a cold, snow fed lake. In Winter, when the ice gets thick enough, they race Jeeps out on the frozen lake.

In town, find the candy shop where they make plenty of homemade sweets including multiple flavors of fudge. Sometimes, they even have Dreamscicle fudge, which tastes exactly like those orange ice cream treats (but not much at all like fudge, so get a chocolaty one too.)

Estes Park

Further away, and up a smaller, curvier, mountain road, than I-70, you’ll find Estes Park which is the town that sits on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. They have a few great streets of various mountain tourist shops, as well as two year-round Christmas stores. Get off the main drag to follow the river behind town for more mountain views and a rushing river as well. (Extra rushing available in springtime when the snow melts.)

I-70 Scenic Views

If all this sounds like too much, the easiest way to visit the Rocky Mountains is to drive up I-70. Keep going until you find a scenic overlook that looks promising. Roll down your window, and you can get amazing scenic mountain vista shots without even getting out of your car.

 

Estes Park Denver Day Trip

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.

You’re welcome.

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.

Rocky Mountain National Park

rocky-mountain-national-park-graphic Rocky Mountain National Park, RMNP, is the crown jewel of Colorado’s great outdoors. Covering some 415 square miles, the park lies north and west of the Denver area. Of course, the park envelopes part of the Rocky Mountains mountain range that runs from Canada down across virtually the entire width of the United States, finally petering out somewhere in New Mexico.

Within Rocky Mountain National Park are 17 peaks higher than 13,000. The highest mountain in RMNP is Long’s Peak, with a peak elevation of 14,255, making it one of Colorado’s famed “14ers,” mountains with a top elevation above 14,000 feet. But, there is more to Rocky Mountain National Park than just high mountain tops.

Much of the park’s land has an elevation of just 7,500 to 9,000 feet. While, still most defiantly mountainous, the terrain and scenery at this elevation can be beautiful and lush. In addition, it is packed with all manner of animals including, elk, bears, wildcats, several species of deer, moose, beavers, and the official state animal of Colorado, bighorn sheep. Recently, Canadian Lynx were also reintroduced to the park, as part of a national effort to repopulate the Lynx’s former habitat within the United States.

Trail Ridge Road

One of the favorite ways to enjoy Colorado’s largest national park is by taking a scenic drive over Fall River Pass on Trail Ridge Road. In addition to consistently being named one of America’s most scenic drives, Trail Ridge Road holds the distinction of being the highest paved road in the U.S.

There are numerous places along the road to pull off and take in the beautiful mountain scenery. Watch for signs designating scenic viewpoints. The twisty nature of the mountain road can make it hard to see these areas until drivers are right on top of them, so the signage warning, is the best way to ensure that you don’t miss anything, while not having to jam on your breaks and crank the steering wheel to avoid missing it.

Near the summit of Trail Ridge is the Alpine Visitor Center on Fall River Pass. The visitor center itself sits at 11,796 feet. The large wooden sign outside makes a favorite tourist photograph and a great keepsake souvenir of any traveler’s visit to the Rocky Mountains.

The full drive is 48 miles long and takes around 3 hours for those used to driving in the mountains, and a bit longer for “flatlanders” or those from areas without any hills or mountains. Trail Ridge Road is only open during the summer months. During the winter, snowfall and wind make it impossible to keep the road open. Highway crews try to get the road open by Memorial Day each year. It usually closes sometime in October when the snow drifts start to overmatch the plows.

Trail Ridge begins as branch off of Fall River Road which passes through the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is also designated as U.S. Highway 34. It winds its way up the mountains until Milner Pass which sits astride the Continental Divide. From there, it runs back down to the Southwest side of the park and the Grand Lake Entrance.

Estes Park

To get to the road from Denver, visitors head for Estes Park. Estes Park is a small mountain town whose primary purpose is to be the town next to the national park entrance. For the most part, it is composed of a main street and two or three blocks extended outward on either side. However, there are some great little pockets of charm, beauty, and fun to be explored. These include the Stanley Hotel, made famous by the movie The Shining — the good one with Jack Nicholson. The exterior shots of the sinister Overlook Hotel are of the Stanley Hotel, though the interior of the hotel was not used for the movie which was shot on a Hollywood movie set.

The quickest way to Estes Park is to take I-25 northbound to U.S. 36 (a.k.a. Boulder Turnpike). Travel on U.S. 36 through Boulder and Erie. The highway then winds its way all the way up to Estes Park.

Numerous signs in Estes Park point the way to Rocky Mountain National Park and the nearby Fall River Entrance.