Estes Park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. That, alone, makes this quaint mountain town a hot day trip destination for visitors and residents in Boulder. The national park, one of Colorado’s four, boasts 415 square miles of natural beauty, peaks, trails and wildlife.
But Estes is worth a trip in its own right.
Estes Park boasts a robust craft beer and distillery scene, a historic downtown straight of a postcard, the famous (supposedly haunted) Stanley Hotel and some of Colorado’s coolest annual events, such as the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival and Elkfest.
The town’s visitor center says it sees more than 300,000 visitors annually. That’s huge for a place with a population of around 6,000. If you’re one of those visitors this year, here are some things not to miss in Estes Park.
These are the best things to do in Estes Park, by season.
When It’s Warm
- Fill up at healthy restaurants. A few to try: Latitude 105 Alehouse is a relatively new restaurant that opened in conjunction with The Ridgeline Hotel (formerly Rocky Mountain Park Inn). The alehouse focuses on gourmet burgers and made-from-scratch menu items with Colorado-centric fresh ingredients. Bird & Jim (named after Isabella Bird and Mountain Jim) is another restaurant newer to the scene. It works with local Front Range farms to source most of their ingredients.
- Hit up the Beef Jerky Outlet, which offers more than 100 jerky varieties. Options include exotic meats like kangaroo, alligator, venison and elk, and specialty flavors such as moonshine and Cajun.
- Star-gaze at the Estes Park Memorial Observatory. One of the only observatories in a mountain village setting, the Estes Park Memorial Observatory offers several free programs for travelers to get closer to the cosmos. With light pollution causing dark skies across the globe to dwindle, the warmer months are the ideal time for visitors to enjoy star-gazing outdoors.
- Climb the natural rock wall at Performance Park (next to downtown). Climbing is conducted by one of three local companies (Colorado Mountain School, Estes Park Mountain Shop or Kent Mountain Adventure Center). Climbing sessions can be arranged directly with the individual companies in advance or on site.
- Check out the new Estes Valley Community Center (opened in March 2018). The $26-million center, open to locals and visitors, boasts 70,000 square feet of space that includes a robust schedule of classes, indoor walking and jogging tracks, a natatorium with a lazy river, diverse fitness equipment and even a golf simulator.
- Visit the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. With unprecedented access to Rocky Mountain National Park and hands-on field opportunities, Rocky Mountain Conservancy offers a number of educational programs that will last a lifetime. Classes offered this spring and summer include “North with the Spring: Bird Migration,” “100 Years of Environmental Change in RMNP,” “Hawks in Flight: Birds of Prey” and more.
- Go cliff camping. Kent Mountain Adventure Center offers cliff camping excursions May through September, where visitors learn the basics of climbing and have the option of eating lunch or spend the night (or both) on a sheer rock face hundreds of feet off the ground in Roosevelt National Forest, overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park. Fun fact: They are wifi-enabled for participants to Instagram their view throughout the night.
- Explore the Lake Estes Marina. Open from May to early October, Lake Estes Marina is a one-stop resource for everything to do on and around Lake Estes. The marina store rents kayaks, paddleboards, paddleboats, canoes, pontoon boats, bikes, pedal carts and rods and reels. The store also sells fishing supplies, snacks, souvenirs and fishing licenses.
- Go on a llama backpacking trip. Kirks Flyshop offers llama pack day trips and overnight excursions in Rocky Mountain National Park. The adventure gives guests a backcountry experience with the help of a llama (animals that are native to high mountain terrain) to lighten the load. The guide sets up camp, prepares all meals and provides fly-fishing guidance.
- Attend Estes Park Big Foot Days (April 12-13). Channel your inner child and attend an event with entertainment dedicated to Big Foot lore. The event includes a Big Foot-themed dinner, Q&A with a world-famous Big Foot expert (yes, that’s a Thing), a 5K run, live music and more.
- Get Scandinavian. The annual Scandinavian Midsummer Festival (June 21-23) pays homage to the Scandinavian culture and celebrates the summer solstice with a festival of music, dancing, crafts, food and more.
- Giddy-up at the Rooftop Rodeo (July 8-13). This rodeo features professional cowboys competing in saddle bronco riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, bareback bronco riding, barrel racing and bull-riding events. You’ll find a variety of other family-friendly activities and vendor booth for an authentic western-themed experience.
When It’s Cold
- The Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival kicks off the colder months in Estes Park. This annual celebration of all things Celtic is in September. Pull out your kilt and get ready for bagpipes, Irish dancing, a parade, dogs of the British Isles, pipe band competitions, jousting, Scottish athletics and more. This is the largest festival of its kind in the country.
- Elkfest is a huge deal in Estes Park, typically late September. This time of year, the distinct call of the bull elk fills the air around Estes. It’s the sound of the elk rut and it marks the Elkfest, a free event with all things elk: bugling competitions, exhibits, seminars, arts and crafts and more. There’s also Native American music, dancing and storytelling. Unrelated to elk but oh so Colorado, there’s also a craft beer garden.
- Walk through downtown Estes. When snow covers the historic buildings, the town feels like a fairytale village. It’s lined with holiday lights and has some great shopping for unique gifts.
- Stay at the Stanley Hotel (although it’s fun to stay here year-round). The supposed haunted hotel holds special events around Halloween, including the annual, fancy Shining Ball, inspired by Stephen King’s novel, “The Shining,” which was inspired by the hotel.
- Hit the trails. Yes, even in winter. We love Black Canyon Trail in the winter (wear ice spikes if the weather demands it). You can also go backcountry skiing, splitboarding and snowshoeing in Hidden Valley. Here, you’ll find about 1,200 acres to explore on skis all for free.
- The Rocky Mountain Craft Spirits Festival is held in October, honoring the region’s strong craft spirits scene. Here, you can taste spirits by local distillers, play bar games and listen to live music.