Just 90 minutes northwest from Denver, and nestled in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a prime destination to enjoy the great outdoors and plentiful wildlife. Home to the historic Stanley Hotel, and ranked among TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice: Top 25 Destinations in the United States for 2011, Estes Park offers a myriad of lodging and dining options along with numerous choices of guide operations and outfitters. In addition to summer, Estes Park is also a choice fall destination for romantic trips to take in the autumn color, and view the elk in town during Elk Fest.
Touch of History
Cattle rancher Joel Estes moved his family to the town after realizing the promise of the area on a hunting trip to Estes Valley in 1859. After staying with the Estes family, William Byers, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, named the area Estes Park in 1864. F.O. Stanley shaped the future of tourism in Estes Park when he built the road from Lyons, bringing visitors to Estes Park and his hotel, riding in a Stanley Steamer.
Where to Stay
Planning a trip to Estes Park isn’t complete without considering a stay at the luxurious and historic Stanley Hotel. Most widely known as the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining,” the hotel is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America.
Opened in 1909 by F.O. Stanley, the hotel features spectacular views, 138 guest rooms and suites, 16,000 square feet of meeting and event space, a fine dining restaurant and a full-service spa. Not to shy away from its supernatural past, the hotel offers daily ghost and history tours, taking visitors to the most haunted areas around the hotel, including room 217, where Stephen King and later Jim Carrey (very briefly) stayed. 970.586.3371
For something in line with the view and atmosphere, Estes Park Condos, situated along the Fall River just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance, features one to three-bedroom units complete with living rooms, full kitchens and upscale Rocky Mountain décor. Condo units also feature hot tubs, patios, barbeque grills and free use of fishing poles available at the front desk office. 970.577.0068
Where to Dine
Among the fine dining options available in Estes Park, the Cascades Restaurant at the Stanley Hotel should make anyone’s list. The restaurant features fine continental and regional Colorado fare with seasonal specials. Cascades also has an extensive wine list and selection of specialty beers. The horseradish parsley cream really makes the Buffalo Ribeye a standout. 970.586.3371
Another fine dining option is The Chalet Room at Marys Lake Lodge, Estes which offers a range of surf, turf and eclectic fare. The restaurant offers two different menus, delineating fine and casual (but gourmet) fare. Even a cheesesteak sandwich can offer something more when it’s made with slow-cooked prime rib and an option for au jus sauce. The adjacent Tavern Room also offers live entertainment. 970.586.5958
A more formal dining option, Twin Owls Steakhouse is located on the Black Canyon Inn Resort property. This popular wedding and special event restaurant also offers casual fine dining every night, starting at 5 p.m. Housed in a 1920’s log cabin, Twin Owls takes pride in its organically grown, grassfed beef. The menu also features other game, seafood, sandwiches and even vegetarian options. You can also enjoy a glass of locally crafted wine from Snowy Peaks Winery with your meal. Reservations are highly recommended. 970.586.9344
A casual dining option is Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Taphouse on Moraine Avenue, which serves all the hearty barbecue dishes you would expect, plus live entertainment. You can’t go wrong with either the pulled pork, or beef brisket sandwiches, doused with your choice of four gourmet sauces. 970.577.7427
What To Do
Named #2 Outdoor & Adventure Destination in the World by TripAdvisor’s 2010 Travelers’ Choice Awards, Rocky Mountain National Park has practically everything you could possibly do in Colorado—from hiking, climbing and fly fishing to camping, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the park has 359 miles of trails and more than 200 backcountry campgrounds. In town and the surrounding area, visitors can also enjoy golf, whitewater rafting, ATVs, jeep tours and bicycle rentals.
Estes Park is also a favorite romantic getaway destination during autumn, when couples can take scenic drives along Highway 7’s Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway and enjoy horseback rides, hikes to see the spectacular fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park and nature photography classes to capture it all.
The town’s main street, which runs along Big Thompson Rd. and Elkhorn Ave., hosts a portion of the more than 200 shops in town offering souvenirs, western wear, outdoor gear, tours and rentals, jewelry and ladies’ accessories, and of course sweets like ice cream and taffy.
Unique and fun events include the town’s Rooftop Rodeo, which takes place in July, and was voted the nation’s best small town rodeo by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 2010. In September, the Longs Peak Scottish Irish Highland Festival is a four-day event (September 8-11, 2011) featuring pipe bands from all over the world, folk dancing, Scottish athletic events, and the largest Celtic parade in North America. Estes Park’s Autumn Gold – A Festival of Bands, Brats and Beer is a two-day event (September 24 & 25, 2011) that also takes place in September.
In October, Estes Park celebrates locals of the four-legged variety with the Elk Fest (October 1 & 2, 2011). The elk’s mating season is in the fall, when they take over the town, causing elk traffic jams on both the streets and golf courses. The town celebrates in Bond Park with live music, education seminars, exhibits and elk-viewing bus tours.
Wine tasting draws visitors to Estes Park’s downtown Riverwalk and shopping district, especially in the fall.
For those who opt for the scenic route, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, a stretch of Highway 7 that can be accessed at Lyons on the way to Estes Park has spectacular views of the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park, including Long’s Peak, a Colorado 14’er. The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway also provides access to the park via the Wild Basin entrance, where numerous trails and lake access points are located for visitors to enjoy.