Estes Park’s “off-season” can be the best way to enjoy the Rocky Mountain winter
During a long weekend in Estes Park earlier this winter I spotted a tourism brochure that read “Always in Season,” promoting the town as a year-round playground. This might rank as news since most know it as a popular summertime gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Yet the chilly “off season” shows a different side of Estes – one that’s less of a tourist zone than it is a welcoming sanctuary. In a way, that notion returns to the town’s roots as an 1860’s dude ranch, and later a remote mountain resort as envisioned by steam car kingpin F.O. Stanley, who built his namesake hotel here. Unlike those olden days, time and technology have made Estes Park an especially cozy winter basecamp for outdoor adventures and après-inspired fun time.
This year being Rocky Mountain National Park’s 100th anniversary, there are special events and outdoor activities to help celebrate the occasion. One way to participate is through the Rocky Mountain Conservancy’s Field Institute, where you can learn about the Park’s history and ecology during guided four-hour snowshoe hikes that are equal parts aerobic fun and educational discovery. My Snowshoe Trek geared for kids and families was an easy, fun romp in the snow with plenty of interactive nature moments. But participants can bump it up by taking the new Winter Survival Skills program delving into serious survival situations. Another snowshoe theme is their Light & Snow Winter Photography outing that keys into the techniques and logistics of backcountry winter photography.
Speaking of discovery, Estes Park Outfitters might be the best-kept secret in these parts. Owner Tim Resch met our group near town in his vintage Snow Cat, then headed high to his private 9,000-foot ranch to find primo powder stashes for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. After several hours of exploring seven miles of remote trails in Roosevelt National Forest, we enjoyed Resch’s stunning lodge as well as scrumptious bowls of homemade elk chili, hot chocolate and adult beverages. Words of advice: if you want the full experience of winter solitude in the outdoors followed by an amazing lodge experience, book an overnight stay and head out for a “Midnight Run” on snowshoes or in the Snow Cat. If the weather cooperates, you’ll see Denver’s city lights 45 miles away while toasting the end of a wonderful winter day.
I thought tangling with trout was a fair-weather proposition, but Kirks Fly Shop set me straight. With guide Jerry “Zen Fly Fisher” Lehtinen, we fished ice-free pools below Lake Estes’ Olympus Dam, where the tail-water fishery served up 16- to 18-inch rainbows and brown trout. Even with insulated layers beneath waders, the four-hour session in 36-degree water was slightly chilly; not a bad trade off, though, considering we competed with zero anglers for the privilege of catching and releasing more than a dozen plump fish. In fact, it’s so good here that if clients don’t catch fish, everything is on the house.
Experiencing the Park at night with a knowledgeable ranger is, quite literally, an eye-opener. Our group of 15 headed out on the Park’s Full Moon Ranger Walk from Moraine Park Campground with a ranger who called out the planets and detailed other facets of the night sky. After 20 minutes of darkness before the moon rose above the peaks, our eyes adjusted to the dim light, enabling us to fully absorb the Milky Way’s distant starlight. Meanwhile, we kept our ears open for the nocturnal sounds around us, including the yip-yips of coyotes feeding their excited pubs and the distinct hoots of a nearby owl.
Climbing Life Guides is among the best, most knowledgeable local outfits to ramp up your backcountry ski touring skills. Some years ago, before high-tech alpine touring gear made the rounds, I skinned up terrain beside 12,720-foot Hallett Peak and struggled with cold, wet leather boots and free-heel bindings on crash-prone descents. How times have changed for the better. On a variety of guided trips for newbies or seasoned skiers, CLG’s trained/certified ski guides show you the ropes with modern gear, techniques, terrain features and other important facts about ski touring and mountaineering. My one-day small group tour helped fine-tune our collective skills while descending low-angle slopes virtually free of avalanche threats. More aspiration-driven snow sliders can commit to the five-day Backcountry Ski Week designed for backcountry skiers or boarders with prior avalanche and survival training, using a 10,000-foot basecamp for ski tours into the Park’s upper valleys.
If I had more time I could have ice climbed, ridden a snowmobile, ice fished Estes Lake, experienced more of the Park’s guided, interactive programs, enjoyed a sleigh ride and probably a few other winter-only activities that I’ve yet to discover. But really, the take-away is simple: Estes Park is for all seasons.
When You Go
Stay: Set on nine forested acres near town, Solitude Cabins of Estes Park offers modern, tastefully designed two-story retreats with panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 1,200-square-foot cabins include cable TV, gas fireplaces, jetted tubs, full kitchens, large bedrooms with king/queen beds, two bathrooms and free WiFi. solitudecabins.com
Dine: Born as a dance hall during the Big Band era and still a top gathering place, the Rock Inn has plenty of Rocky Mountain flair with its vintage wood stoves, string band performances and lively bar. As a restaurant, it hits the mark with delicious mainstays like New York strip steak, pan-seared trout and delish imports such as Norwegian salmon. rockinnestes.com
Imbibe: The iconic Stanley Hotel’s renovated Whiskey Bar has the largest selection of scotch, whiskey and bourbon in Colorado, with a current tally of 800 labels that will grow to 1,000. Appreciate and learn about the styles and nuances with custom whisky flights poured by the hotel’s knowledgeable “libation engineers.” stanleyhotel.com