Small-town Charm Meets Outdoor Adventures: A Local’s Guide to Estes Park

An autumn afternoon at Downtown Estes Park, Colorado/Shutterstock

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If you’re looking for the perfect home base when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, I recommend Estes Park, Colorado. As an avid outdoor adventurer and Colorado native, there’s something about the town’s rustic charm surrounded by the towering Rockies that continues to draw me there whenever I have some free time. Not only does the town have unique attractions, such as the haunted Stanley Hotel, but I love exploring the town’s quirky shops and grabbing some local grub.  

Whether you’re looking to spend the day or the whole weekend, here are my recommendations for things to do while visiting Estes Park.

Let’s get this adventure started!

Getting to Estes Park, Colorado

If you’re flying into Colorado, Denver International Airport is the closest airport to Estes Park. From there, head towards Loveland, where you’ll hop on Highway 34 to Estes. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Denver, but the views of the Rocky Mountains and the deep canyon formed by the Big Thompson River provide optimal photo opportunities.

The Colorado Cherry Company in Loveland, Colorado. Photo courtesy of notnyt.

Along the way, a stop at the Colorado Cherry Company is a must. The handmade pies, jams, and jellies are made fresh daily, but their gourmet popcorn flavors make the visit worth it for me,  from aspen gold toffee to cherry cordial and jalapeno cheddar.

Dining, Shopping and Entertainment

After a long drive, I first find something to eat when I get to town. I highly recommend hitting up La Cocina De Mama for delicious Mexican cuisine. They serve breakfast burritos stuffed with potatoes, bacon, and eggs all day. I always get mine smothered in green chili.

Next up, shopping. One of my favorite places is The Old Fashion Candy Store on the main strip, Elkhorn Ave. This store is like stepping back in time, with hundreds of bins of every type of candy you can imagine, from old-fashioned favorites to unique flavors like pickle-flavored cotton candy (it’s an acquired taste). Of course, I always stop in for a bag of fresh honey-roasted or chocolate-covered peanuts.  

A view of Downtown Estes Park, Colorado.

Downtown Estes Park is home to antique stores, rock shops, art galleries and outdoor outfitters. I can sometimes spend hours just window shopping. One of my favorite stores is CABINtique. It’s filled with vintage cabin décor, accessories, camping gear and more, from old black-and-white photographs to nature guides.

If you’re looking for quality entertainment, Estes Park delivers. When I have family over in the summer, Fun City is an absolute must. This large entertainment complex has been a go-to for locals since 1969 and is home to mini-golf, bumper boats, a bungee trampoline, and a massive rainbow slide. Nothing beats playing a round of mini-golf with my nieces and nephews before cooling off with some ice cream.

More adventures await at Estes Park’s Time Emporium Escape Rooms, an adrenaline-pumping, mind-bending experience with two thrilling themes. The Time Warp is my personal favorite. It revolves around travelers arriving in Estes Park for the ultimate summer vacation only to find it deserted. Despite the impending threat, your team refuses to retreat and commits to uncovering what happened.

Another Estes Park must-visit is the haunted Stanley Hotel. The Stanley Hotel made its mark on the world when Stephen King wrote “The Shining” back in 1974. Built in 1909, the hotel is said to be haunted by the spirits of the original owners.

The Stanley Hotel outside of Estes Park, Colorado in Lumpy Ridge.

One of my favorite experiences here is the nighttime ghost tour. This one-hour guided tour takes you on a mysterious journey through the hotel’s supernatural history and unexplained phenomena. From eerie sights to strange noises, this tour is perfect for anyone looking for a thrill. Keep an ear out—you might hear children laughing or a piano playing in the dark halls.

Explore the Great Outdoors

As someone who loves to hike, bike and explore Colorado’s natural beauty, I keep Estes Park at the top of my list thanks to its location at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. With more than 200 miles of trails providing opportunities for all abilities, I find no better way to connect with nature than hiking. Plus, there’s a chance to encounter diverse wildlife, including moose, elk, mule deer, and even bighorn sheep.

The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

You can easily access Rocky Mountain National Park via Highway 34. Stop by the visitor’s center for a map and to inquire about the trails and camping areas (if you want to spend the night). There are multiple campgrounds, such as Moraine Park (open during the winter),  Aspenglen, Glacier Basin and Timber Creek.

One of my favorite hikes in the park is to Sky Pond, which offers views of the gorgeous alpine lake and thundering waterfalls along the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The hike is a 9.4-mile roundtrip, so expect to spend at least five hours on the trail. In the winter, this is a popular route for snowshoers. Next, check out the Gem Lake Trail for a more leisurely hike. It’s roughly a 2-hour excursion and provides breathtaking views of Gem Lake. I usually spend an afternoon with friends hiking this trail. If you time it right, it is a great place to watch the sunset.

The Sky Pond glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

If you’re looking for rock climbing thrills, the park has been a popular spot since the 1800s. Climbers will find a multitude of rock formations to conquer, from Lumpy Ridge to Longs Peak. The region is also perfect for bouldering and ice climbing.

Beyond hiking and rock climbing, the region is also great for fly fishing. Fishing enthusiasts flock to the Big Thompson River and surrounding bodies of water to cast a line for trout. Just be sure to apply for a valid Colorado fishing license and pay attention to the catch and release rules. Visitors can acquire one-day, 5-day or annual licenses online.

While these are only my recommendations, I strongly encourage visiting Estes Park if you’re traveling to Colorado. From the charming boutiques and activities to the incredible outdoor excursions, it’s the perfect getaway if you’re seeking a more laid-back vacation away from the hustle and bustle of Denver.

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