Estes Park, A Natural Extension Of Rocky Mountain National Park

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The lines between where Rocky Mountain National Park ends and Estes Park starts blur/VisitEstesPark.com

Editor's note: This is a special advertiser-supported article from the Essential Park Guide, Summer 2014.

Strolling, appropriately enough, down Elkhorn Avenue, the small band of elk didn’t notice that Estes Park is not inside Rocky Mountain National Park, and you likely won’t, either.

Nestled between Lake Estes and the park’s forested mountains, this small Colorado town blends seamlessly into the landscape. Lodgepole pine and fluttering aspen fringe town, which the Fall and Big Thompson rivers both flow through. The Fall River Road and Moraine Avenue will lead you into the park in minutes.

It was the prospect of gold that drew Joel Estes to this bucolic valley in 1859. Yet golden sunbeams glinting off the snow-capped Longs Peak in the distance better reflect the richness of this setting. Wherever I walk through town, the mountains are within sight. It’s a sprawling vista that prompted Enos Mills in 1915 to venture that this “splendidly scenic region with its delightful climate appears predestined to become one of the most visited and one of the most enjoyed of all the scenic reservations of the Government.”

A disciple of John Muir in the fledgling national parks movement of the early 20th century, Mills arrived in Estes Park as an ailing 15-year-old and soon conquered both Longs Peak and tuberculosis. Fortunately, he didn’t get over his love for these mountains, forests, rivers, and valleys that he succeeded in seeing woven into the National Park System.

Estes Park is a natural extension of Rocky Mountain National Park along its eastern border, where it has comfortably shouldered the role of base camp for visitors to this idyllic high country for well more than a century. Hospitality here dates to the 1860s, when the first dude ranch appeared, offering not only traditional hunting, riding, and fishing forays but also mountain climbing excursions for its guests. These days you still have dude ranches from which to choose where you’ll end your day. Through the years my visits have been based out of cabins and condos, all virtually within arm’s length of the park and within sound of the babbling Fall River.

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Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park is just minutes from downtown Estes Park/VisitEstesPark.com

Those elk I saw cavorting down Elkhorn Avenue? Their brethren are scattered throughout the park. As I drive up Trail Ridge Road, I constantly pull over to frame elk in my camera’s viewfinder. Horseshoe Park rightly could be called Elk Park, for the animals congregate here in early summer and again in the fall. So, too, do bighorn sheep that clamber down the mountainsides to graze the succulent grasses and take onboard minerals not as readily available in higher elevations.

Not so visible are the black bears, mountain lions, and bobcats that also call the park home. Searching for wildlife can be easy as you drive towards the roof of the park along Trail Ridge Road, or more organized tours can be arranged by enrolling in a Rocky Mountain Nature Association seminar or joining one of the area’s guides for a day.

What you do between sunup and sundown depends on how much you want to exert yourself. You can climb Longs Peak, trail ride a horse into the park, take a Jeep tour, pedal a bike, or simply take a hike. But you don’t need to spend all your time in the park. Around town, you can keep busy with a visit to the MacGregor Ranch Museum to better understand the ranching history of the area, or treat your youngsters to fire engine tours at the Stanley Hotel (while adults learn about the haunting that goes on in the hotel). A bit south of town you’ll find 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.

Early fall is a great time to visit Estes Park, where you can thank Enos Mills for his belief that these rumpled mountains and their jagged peaks were national park worthy. And, this year you can help kick off Rocky Mountain’s centennial celebration. The year-long party begins on September 4, the park’s 99th birthday. A re-dedication ceremony will bring the celebration to an end on September 4, 2015.

The timing of the kickoff coincides almost perfectly with the Elk Fest that arrives in early October. Set for October 4-5, this event celebrates these animals that are ubiquitous with the park and town. Activities during the festival range from elk viewing tours and bugling contests to Native American music and dancing. Get up early, or stay out late, and you can catch the bulls as they bugle to summon their harems.

No matter how you leave Estes Park for Rocky Mountain National Park, the trip into the park 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.