Editor's note: From time to time, the Traveler will profile gateways to the national parks, charming communities that invite you to base your park vacation in their towns. If you're heading to Rocky Mountain National Park, your base camp most likely will be Estes Park if you plan to spend most of your park visit on the eastern side.
Your ascent to Estes Park, the front door to Rocky Mountain National Park, is anything but smooth. Climbing up through Big Thompson Canyon from Loveland, Colorado, you twist, turn, rise and fall with the road as it crawls through the canyon...and marvel at the cyclists pedaling those beastly 34 miles.
But when you clear the head of the canyon, those miles are immediately forgotten as you gaze out upon what appears to be a far-off realm, a valley cupped by mountains flocked in pines and capped by snow-kissed crags. On the distant horizon jut the peaks of Rocky Mountain, but it's the bucolic valley filled by the town of Estes Park that catches your attention.
Lake Estes spreads across a good portion of that valley, holding back the combined flow from the Big Thompson River and Fall River while slowly funneling it on down the canyon. A horseback riding concession (with steeds saddled and waiting early each morning), a mall with grocery, hardware, and a collection of other stores, stand across from the lake.
You quickly leave that behind once you reach the intersection formed by Big Thompson Avenue, St. Vrain Avenue, and Wonderview Avenue, and are forced with deciding which direction you want to take into the park.
Turn right onto Wonderview and you'll pass the stately, snow-white Stanley Hotel and follow the Fall River past clutches of guest cabins, bed-and-breakfasts, and small lodges. Go straight and Big Thompson Avenue transforms into Moraine Avenue that leads you through the park's Beaver Meadows Entrance. Turn left onto St. Vrain and, if you quickly veer right onto Route 7, you'll head down the shoulder of the national park to the Longs Peak and Wild Basin trailheads.
And, depending on the time of year that you arrive, you just might be greeted by elk crossing some of the streets or catch the bugling of bulls in the air. The bulls are not heralding your arrival, but rather calling together their harems for the fall rut.
Now, since there is no formal lodging inside Rocky Mountain National Park, unless you plan to spend your nights in a tent, Estes Park very likely will be your base camp from which you'll launch daily excursions into the park. And the town, named after a Missouri-born rancher who settled here 1859, is well-suited for the task.
The recreational pursuits to be had in the surrounding mountains were noticed soon after the Civil War, with the first dude ranch taking hold near the end of the 1860s and offering guests guided hunting, fishing, and even climbing. That bent towards hospitality is stronger than ever today, and readily visible in the many "Welcome" and "Vacancy" signs that sprout along the roads that wind through this valley the Arapahoe knew as "the Circle."
Head up Wonderview Avenue, which turns into the Fall River Road, and after passing all those rustic-looking-but-comfortably-outfitted cabins and rooms for rent you'll have the option of taking either the historic Fall River Road to the roof of the park at the Alpine Visitor Center or the main route that runs two miles, passing Horsehoe Park along the way, to the Trail Ridge Road.
Follow Moraine Avenue and you encounter a slightly different side of Estes Park, one of recreational vehicle parks, amusements, and eateries, before entering the Beaver Meadows Entrance that leads to park headquarters and to the highly popular Bear Lake area of the park.
If you turn left onto St. Vrain Avenue and then onto Route 7, you'll find some slightly less visited areas of the park. Oh, in summer and into fall the turnoff to Longs Peak can get crowded with day hikers and climbers tackling the tallest peak in Rocky. But if you head further south you'll come to Wild Basin, which opens up a whole nother network of backcountry trails into the park.
Estes Park puts all this within easy reach, and the town also offers a wide range of accommodations to fit just about any budget. There are chain motels, charming bed and breakfasts, and relatively simple log cabins on up to deluxe cabins and even dude ranches that you can call home during your vacation.
Part Of The Park?
The thing about Estes Park is that it really feels like it's part of Rocky Mountain National Park. Not the Safeway grocery store and its accompanying strip mall, but the sheer layout of the town set amid thickly forested mountains, streams running down hill, and wildlife strolling through at any time of day. From a small city park along Elkhorn Avenue your gaze can't help but wander into the park, as Longs Peak is cleary visible on the horizon (you can even seen it from the Safeway parking lot).
Once upon a time, many decades ago, the national park's headquarters were right downtown along the creek. Today, with headquarters having relocated just inside the park's Beaver Meadows, that downtown location has been turned into a wonderful pedestrian mall complete with flagstone riverwalk along the rippling Fall River, patio settings on which to enjoy your meals on warm summer evenings, and even a shop where you can taste some of Colorado's wonderful wines.
While there are many sides to Estes Park, the one found along Elkhorn Avenue seems most friendly to pedestrians. Perhaps that's because of the riverwalk, a beautiful expanse of pathways, shops, restaurants, leafy vegetation, and cooling and appealing water. Here you'll find that postcard to send your friends, the T-shirts for your kids (at Rocky Mountain Tops or Awesome Shirtworks ), and the artworks or jewelry (perhaps at Earthwood Collections or the Gold Mine) for yourself.
You can sate your appetite with an Italian menu at Mama Rose's, where they make their own pasta daily, or venture for a flavor from the other side of the world via Nepal's Cafe, a store-front Nepalese restaurant where you eat at one of eight or so tables surrounded by photos of Mount Everest, and prayer flags (try the Kothe Momo dumpling appetizers!)
Around town, you can busy yourself for a day or more. The MacGregor Ranch Museum guides you through the ranching history of the area, there are fire engine tours at the Stanley Hotel to delight youngsters (adults can learn about the haunting that goes on in the hotel), and if you head a bit south of town there's the world's largest key collection (reportedly more than 20,000 keys) at the Baldpate Inn, which will give you your own room key to spend a night or two.
And when you're done shopping, or eating, on your walk to your vehicle or back to your room or cabin, the park is beaming down on you.
Ready Access To Rocky
From downtown, the park's Beaver Meadows and Fall River Road entrances are 10 minutes distant. Flip a coin to decide which to enter, as neither disappoints. Through the Fall River Entrance, Horseshoe Park is another five minutes and welcomes you with a large parking area from which you can watch elk cavorting in the meadow or train your binoculars across the mountainside in search of bighorn sheep.
Anglers often head into the "exclosures," fenced-in areas set up to see how the vegetation would fare without heavy browsing by elk, to fish the Fall River. Picnickers and hikers head to the far end of Horseshoe Park and disappear into Endovalley, where there's a nice day area with picnic tables and fire grates along the river and trails that head into the high country.
Anxious to reach the really high country, but not by foot?
Continue up the road past Endovalley and turn left onto Trail Ridge Road, which slowly but steadily pulls you up to 12,000 feet, high above treeline with panoramic views and more hiking options.
Choose the Beaver Meadows Entrance and, if you're like most traffic entering here, you'll soon turn left onto the Bear Lake Road that leads you past expansive Moraine Park and to one of the park's largest and most scenic front-country lakes.
No matter how you leave Estes Park for Rocky Mountain National Park, the trip will be quick and reward you with gorgeous landscapes, tumbling waters, and plenty of wildlife to fill your camera. At day's end, Estes Park will be waiting for you.