After a long, and I mean LONG (16 hour) drive from Austin to Estes Park, Colorado, for the third time this year, I’m reflecting on when to prioritize visiting Estes again and I simply cannot decide. Each season has its most wonderful perks.
Our summer visit was sprinkled with wildlife sightings, entirely outdoor summer camps, beautiful, warm weather and open cabin windows with fresh pine breezes saturating our space. Fall was absolutely the best time to see wildlife; with elk rut in full swing, some nights we had upwards of four dozen elk outside our door. The weather was still so comfortable but the chance for snow wasn’t out of the question, either. Winter was completely different and new, and our days were filled with ice skating, sledding, playing in the snow, spotting the occasional elk, and exploring frozen wonderlands in Rocky Mountain National Park.
We are a house divided, my kids preferring the snowy, winter wonderland; my husband loving summer road bike rides on warm, high mountain roads; and myself hands down opting for a fall seat on our cabin deck, where I can observe the elk and hope to see a moose. (Although, I’ll admit, having the kids happily in summer camp is a very close second.)
Regardless of the time of year, Estes has more to offer than most can do in one visit, hence our three trips there over the past year. Rocky Mountain National Park alone has so many neat spots for visitors of all ages it could fill many days. So far, our favorite summer spot is Sprague Lake, with winding creek beds and our only moose sighting to date, although after peeking at the Alluvial Fan trail this winter, we will need to check it out next summer to put both of winding creeks to the test.
In the winter, all areas of the park are breathtaking, but Hidden Valley is definitely a sledding win! The ghost ski resort inside RMNP was officially founded in 1955 but, after a slow snow season and larger resort competition, it was forced to close in 1991. Now, Hidden Valley unofficially hosts the best sledding and tubing in Colorado (so they say…and I believe it!)
Not far down the road after you exit the “big park,” you wind through some of the prettiest little mountain roads, laced with holiday-lit pine trees and cottages along the Big Thompson and Fall Rivers. Make your way into downtown Estes to explore and play, our favorite area being Lake Estes Park.
Lake Estes Park has a little bit of everything. The gorgeous lake, which sometimes features elk grazing along its shores, includes a 3.75-mile trail, kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing, boat rentals, camping and, across the street, the Stanley Park pump track and skate park, community center, playground, huge natural boulders and, my kids’ favorite, a massive zip line.
If you have any energy left, a popular tourist destination awaits just north of downtown that’s cool to see: The Stanley Hotel. The hotel was the inspiration behind the 1980 Jack Nicholson film “The Shining.”
In pandemic times we’ve opted to keep activities outdoors, so we haven’t done any dining out or large attractions, although there is plenty of that as well, including minigolf, water parks, scenic gondola rides and delicious food, I’m sure. A fourth visit is in our future and we are eager to uncover lots of new things.
All in all, there’s just something really magical about Estes that has us spellbound. I imagine it’s a common reaction. We may be a house divided on what season is most ideal, but we are also a house united in our love for this little mountain town.