Estes Park, Colorado, with its dry climate, has always been a resort community. Archaeologists say that 10,000 years ago it drew Ute, Shoshone and Comanche Indian families for summer vacations. Since the early part of this century, however, it’s become one of the country’s most popular destinations for year-round travelers of all kinds.
The small mountain village is set in a high, broad valley sometimes referred to as “the banana belt” of Colorado because of its mild climate. Estes Park, named for an early homesteader and not a “park” at all is, however, the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, whose three million annual visitors make it almost as popular as Yellowstone. The temperate weather and proximity to such natural beauty assures Estes Park plenty of foot and vehicular traffic, particularly in the summer high season.
Rocky Mountain Highs
The 415-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park is only about a 90-minute drive from the bustling Mile High City of Denver, with its shopping malls and skyscrapers. But visitors leaving the city behind find this to be one of the most accessible mountain wilderness areas in the state, because there are no mountain passes to cross (many of these access roads close in winter) and because of Colorado’s generally well-maintained highways.
Now one of 58 national parks, it became the tenth national park in the US back in 1915, yet a surprisingly pristine environment still abounds. The rugged mountain grandeur of this highly scenic area is characterized by open ponderosa stands and Douglas fir trees, cascading waterfalls, and tranquil meadows brightened by thousands of colorful wildflowers. With elevations ranging from 7,000 ft (2154m) to more than 14,000 ft (4308m), the park has a diversity of ecosystems that encompass a wide variety of wildlife viewing. Visitors see bighorn sheep. Elk and deer are plentiful, particularly in cooler months. Marmots, coyote, birds and butterflies of many kinds are also common. Animal watching is good all year round, but other activities depend on the season.
Estes Park Outdoor Options
Families quickly find the town of Estes Park to be a fine base for camping, horseback riding, cultural events, water sports, hiking, golfing, bicycling, various festivals and numerous winter sports.
In wintertime, when it’s mild and snow seldom stays on the ground for more than a few days, visitors enjoy views of snowcapped peaks set against the bright blue Colorado sky. Brisk walks are popular because the average low temperatures are just under freezing. Family outdoor activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice-skating and sledding.
Low humidity makes summer days (an average high in July is about 85 degrees F) seem cool to those from other areas. And cool evenings (it can dip under 50 degrees F) are equally comfortable, making it a perfect season for watersports by day and festivals by night.
In the summer, there are July 4th celebrations with fireworks and brass band concerts and the annual Rooftop Rodeo and Western Heritage Days. Horseback riding and hiking are popular. Other summer activities include days at the nine- and 18-hole golf courses, a marina with boat rentals, miniature golf, bumper cars, and go-carts.
Popular strolling areas for three generations include an easy walk around Sprague or Bear Lake, both of them wheelchair accessible. For those who want a more challenging trek, head into Rocky Mountain National Park where there’s a walk up Emerald Lake at the foot of Hallet Peak. Longs Peak is a very difficult climb that usually begins well before dawn and is best saved for your fit teens.
The fall, a good time to continue summer activities, also brings in the elk coming to lower elevations for their annual mating rituals. Events in the fall include the annual Long Peaks Scottish-Irish Highland Festival in September and the Catch the Glow Christmas Parade the day after Thanksgiving.
Even if you’re not into hiking, daily nature walks and interpretive programs are offered year-round by the National Park Service whose station is close to town. Visitors can also see different views of the park through auto or bus tours or by renting horses from local stables.
Special Family Attractions
Estes Park is particularly popular for families because of the many things parents and children can do together, such as visiting the Estes Park Museum (970/586-6256). There are hands-on areas for children and local memorabilia, including the car made by local entrepreneur F.O. Stanley, on display. Ask for a “History Hiker” activity book for school-age kids to complete during your tour of the museum. Because it is supported by the town, the entry price is always free.
Families can also take in the many horse shows all summer long at Stanley Park Fairgrounds (970/586-6104). A wide variety of breeds are represented and most shows have no admission charge. Another popular activity is nightly cowboy sing-a-longs around a campfire in downtown Bond Park.
Areas of particular historic interest include the fully restored 138-room Stanley Hotel (800/976-1377), designed and constructed by F. O. Stanley, inventor of the photographic process used by Kodak and of the Stanley Steamer automobile. Be sure to look for the photo displays in the elegant lobby, and the informative exhibit that explains how the hotel inspired the Stephen King book, “The Shining,” and was used as a location for the TV series. It’s also an unusual place to stay, with packages including breakfast, a heated outdoor pool and, most importantly, regular ghost tours explaining how some guests never left.
Families can also see the Enos Mills Cabin (970/586-4706), an 1885 museum with memorabilia of the famous naturalist, and the MacGregor Ranch Museum (970/586-3749). Still a working ranch, it is one of the area’s earliest homesteads with equipment, household belongings and clothing dating back to 1860.
Despite Estes Parks’ rural nature, the bustling town hosts more than 150 hotels, motels, lodges, condos, campgrounds and B&Bs, plus countless restaurants and over 300 shops. There’s even an old church housing a dozen distinctive boutiques and galleries. Families have a variety of lodging choices in all price ranges, though one of the best known lodges, the Estes Park Center of the YMCA of the Rockies, is fully booked years in advance due to its extensive recreation and outdoor learning programs.
Another good option is the Aspen Lodge Ranch Resort (800/332-6867, 970/586-8133), an 85-acre ranch with its own fishing lake, a log lodge, cozy cabins and all-season horseback riding. Each summer, they run full-day children’s programs Monday to Friday. The 3 to 5-year-olds meet for the Kids Corral activity program on property. Children age 6-12 can try indoor rock climbing and make local excursions for mini-golf and other fun. Babies are cared for by local babysitters at a moderate fee, freeing parents to hike or try more strenuous recreation.
There are many small local restaurants and myriad places to picnic or barbecue. Many families prefer to cook some of their meals in their own accommodations. One of my kids’ favorites, though, is the Big Horn Restaurant (970/586-2792). I remember its generous portions at family prices, and in particular, its fine home-cooked breakfasts.
The Estes Park Visitors Center is the source of information about events, updated festival calendars, and more, including prices and lodging options at campgrounds and cabin colonies. Their telephone is 800/443-7837. Additional lodging ideas can be found at Estes Park Hotels.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.