I grew up in Colorado in a family that had called the state home for 5 generations by the time I came along. Throughout my childhood, I don’t think there was a single summer without at least one visit to Estes Park. My grandparents loved the town so much that they retired there, and my 70-year-old grandfather built their house with his own hands.
After that, the town became a year-round destination for our family. Years later, my aunt and uncle moved there, where they reside to this day.
So, it's safe to say that I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Estes Park over the years. It’s a truly charming mountain town in Northern Colorado resting at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Despite its popularity with humans, the area is also home to a lot of wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see a herd of elk on the golf course or walking through town, holding up traffic like they own the place. Which, of course, they do.
The town is also central to Rocky Mountain National Park and Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest and less than 90 minutes outside the Denver metro area making it a popular destination for Colorado residents and out-of-state visitors alike.
Estes Park has always been a popular place to visit, especially in the summer, but over the years its popularity has grown substantially. The town has less than 6,000 residents, but Rocky Mountain National Park draws over 4 million visitors every year. Since the National Park’s main entrance is just 4 miles from Estes Park, most Park visitors use Estes as their base.
This is a double-edged sword. Because it’s such a popular tourist destination, you'll find shops, restaurants, adventure parks, equipment rentals, and other fun activities and attractions that wouldn't be there otherwise. But also, as with any popular tourist destination, Estes Park is busy! It’s important to plan ahead, especially if you’re visiting during the town’s busiest months.
There’s so much to do and see in Estes Park and the surrounding areas. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list. But if you've never visited the area, or haven't spent much time there, I hope you'll find plenty of ideas and recommendations to make your next trip to Estes memorable.
- Estes Park Fast Facts
- Things to Do In Estes Park
- Things to Do Near Estes Park
- Scenic Drives Near Estes Park
Estes Park Fast Facts
Estes Park is most often referred to as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. The main entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is located just 4 miles west of downtown Estes Park on Highway 36, which is also one of the town's main roads.
Aside from being a place to pass through on the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a quintessential Colorado mountain town with wildlife, opportunities for outdoor adventure, and the shops, restaurants, and overnight accommodations you’d expect from a popular tourist destination.
July, August, and September are the most popular months to visit Estes Park because that's the time of the year most amenable to warm weather outdoor activities. But the town is a year-round attraction. So, the best time of year to visit really depends on what you like to do.
If hiking, biking, and kayaking are on your list, you’ll want to visit during the summer. If snowshoeing, skiing, ice skating, and whisky drinking are more your style, plan a trip between November and April.
If you only have one day in Estes Park, I’d suggest a visit to the Stanley Hotel for a tour and a cocktail on the historic patio and a walk down the Riverwalk with stops in a few shops, restaurants, and treat shops. Begin or end the day at Lake Estes where you can walk all the way around the lake or get out on the water. Check out the list of restaurant recommendations below for the best places to eat!
Things to Do In Estes Park
First Stop: The Estes Park Visitors Center
The Estes Park Visitors Center is a great place to gather information about restaurants and activities in the area. You'll find the visitor's center in the downtown area on Big Thompson Avenue. It's open year-round and the friendly staff can answer your questions and help with recommendations for everything from guided fly fishing to dog friendly hiking trails.
The Stanley Hotel
Stephen King fans will know the Stanley Hotel from his iconic novel The Shining. King's short stay at the hotel in 1974 provided inspiration for the novel and while the movie wasn’t filmed at The Stanley, the television adaption was.
But The Stanley Hotel has been an important part of Estes Park since it opened in 1909 and is known for more than inspiring a horror story. The 140-room hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes a restaurant, whisky bar, coffee and snack shop, spa, theater and concert venues, and a wide variety of accommodations for overnight guests.
If you visit Estes Park, you won’t be able to miss the hotel. It sits on a hill overlooking the town and is visible from Downtown Estes Park. You do not have to be a guest to visit the hotel. Stop in and have a drink or a bite to eat, book a historic tour, or get tickets for a concert or event. There’s even an underground theater beneath the carriage house!
Estes Park Memorial Observatory
The Estes Park Memorial Observatory was founded by a retired astrophysicist who wanted to share their love of space with other people. Today the Observatory is a non-profit community resource that relies on donations and the generosity of volunteers to offer a host of educational opportunities for all ages.
You’ll find events here year-round and can schedule an observatory and stargazing visit from April through September.
If you come into Estes Park on highway 34 or 36, you’ll drive right by Lake Estes, a man-made lake created in 1949 by the Olympus Dam. The four-mile reservoir is surrounded by walking, biking, and picnic areas and offers several opportunities to get out on the water.
The lake is stocked with trout for fishing and throughout the summer you can take kayaks and paddle boards out on the water. Visit Lake Estes Marina to rent a pontoon boat, fishing boat, paddle boat, canoe, kayak, stand-up paddle board, pedal cart, or bicycle. The marina is also where you can pick up a boating or parking permit, fishing license, or rent a picnic shelter.
If you choose to walk or bike the 3.73-mile Lake Estes Trail, you’ll see views of Pikes Peak and might encounter local wildlife from elk to bighorn sheep or even bears.
The Estes Park Riverwalk
The Riverwalk is a paved trail that runs along the banks of the Big Thompson River. The Riverwalk is parallel to Elkhorn Avenue which is the main street that runs through downtown Estes Park. The trail is generally less crowded than Elkhorn Avenue but it still offers easy access to the shops and restaurants of downtown Estes.
The trail begins at the Estes Park Visitors Center. Along the way, you’ll find plant-filled plazas, bronze sculptures, and water features. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings throughout the summer, you'll find a cowboy sing-along with local celebrity Cowboy Brad.
Popular shops and restaurants along the riverwalk include:
- Thirty Below Leather: a variety of leather goods that are all priced below $30
- The Wild Horse Gift Shop: a truly eclectic assortment of souvenirs
- Kind Coffee and Inkwell and Brew are popular coffee shops and worth the stop
- Poppy's Pizza and Grill: outdoor, riverside seating
- Mama Rose's Restaurant: Italian food with a river-side patio
- Casa Grande: Mexican Food and Margaritas with a river-side patio
- Stop in at The Spruce House and The Christmas Shop, two popular Christmas shops in Estes Park that are open year-round
- Three Blessed Gems is a small family-run jewelry store owned and operated by a mom and her two daughters.
Fun City and Open Air Adventure Park
Fun City, open from late May to September, was established in 1969 and is an Estes Park landmark. I have many memories of going down the colorful giant rainbow slide as a child. So fun! You’ll also find mini golf, a bungee trampoline, bumper boats, bumper cars, and go-carts. Young kids will have fun panning for gemstones, and older kids can walk on water inside giant water walking balls. You’ll also find carnival games, an arcade, and plenty of prizes.
Open Air Adventure Park, open from late May through September, is an aerial adventure park where you can swing, climb, and maneuver through 32 aerial challenges. After completing the course and coming back down to earth, continue the fun with ax throwing and a kayak tour.
Head over to YMCA of the Rockies Livery/ Estes Park Center to find Jackson Stables where you can tour Rocky Mountain National Park on horseback. You’ll find hour-long rides and full-day adventures plus pony rides for the kids and horse-drawn hayrides in the fall.
Jackson Stables is authorized by the National Park Service to offer trail rides in Rocky Mountain National Park. All of the horseback rides are guided trail rides on YMCA property and into RMNP but you will not need a YMCA membership to participate.
Kent Mountain Adventure Center
Kent Mountain Adventure Center is a rock climbing and mountaineering school that offers educational programs and a wide variety of climbing and hiking instructions and tours for all skill levels. The center is open year round, providing opportunities for backpacking, canyoneering, ice climbing, skiing, split boarding, ski mountaineering, and snow shoeing.
Go jeeping through Estes Park or Rocky Mountain National Park with guided tours from Green Jeep Tours or Wild Side 4x4 tours. Or, rent a jeep or ATV at Backbone Adventures or Estes Park ATV Rentals and take off on your own for the day.
Where to Eat and Drink in Estes Park
Breakfast: At The Eggs of Estes you'll find a huge menu with options ranging from a garden frittata and avocado toast to stacks of pancakes and french toast. Mountain Home Cafe is family owned and operated and includes a menu full of home cooked breakfast classics.
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern has delicious food, a fun, laid-back atmosphere, and live music every night. Smokin' Dave's BBQ and Brew has locations in both Estes Park and Lyons (scroll down for more about this must-visit town just 20 miles from Estes) and they are both worth a visit!
At Mama Rose's you'll find great Italian food and a warm, inviting atmosphere. The restaurant is located on the Riverwalk with outdoor seating. If you're in the mood for Mexican food, check out Ed's Cantina and El Mex-Kal.
Hunters Chophouse is a casual but classy place to get a great steak and enjoy a drink or two from their whisky and wine bar. And for delicious vegan and vegetarian options, check out Himalayan Curry and Kebob.
Sweets and treats: There is no shortage of sweets and treats in Estes Park! When I was a child, no visit to Estes was complete without at least one giant caramel apple, and a bag of saltwater taffy and some chocolate fudge to take home. While you're there, stop by The Munchin House for ice cream, fudge and chocolates, and Laura's Fine Candy for caramel corn, toffee, and a huge variety of other chocolates and candies.
At The Taffy Shop you'll find dozens of flavors of saltwater taffy. And most days, you can stop and watch the taffy being made through the window! And don't forget to stop by the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a chocolate lover's paradise!
Best places to grab a beer, glass or wine, or a cocktail: The American Legion in Estes Park is open to the public and the quintessential “neighborhood bar". You'll find friendly service, a great bar food menu, and awesome special events. The Barrell Beer, Wine and Spirits garden, Rock Cut Brewing Company, Elkins Distilling Company, and Snowy Peaks Winery.
If an authentic cowboy meal (smoked brisket, pulled pork, baked potato, baked beans, peach, biscuit and a brownie) followed by a western music show sound like great way to spend an evening, check out The Lazy B Chuckwagon and Show!
And of course, don't let your visit to Estes Park go by without enjoying a drink on the front porch of the Stanley Hotel. The menu is pricy, but the historic luxury of the experience is well worth it.
Annual Estes Park Events
- The Estes Park Wine Festival
- Vikings at Estes Park Midsummer Festival
- Scandinavian Midsummer Festival
- SnoweyGrass Music Festival
- The Fine Arts and Crafts Festival
- Elk Fest
- Labor Day Arts and Crafts Show
- The Estes Park Half Marathon
- The Annual Rooftop Rodeo
- The Annual John Denver Tribute Concert
- Pumpkins and Pilsners
- Long's Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival
- Rails in the Rockies
- Estes Park Whisky Warm Up
For more classes and events, check out the Estes Park events calendar.
Things to Do Near Estes Park
The Forest Canyon Overlook
The Forest Canyon Overlook is a short, easy .3-mile hike with an incredible view. At nearly 12,000 feet, you'll have a great view of the pools of the Gorge Lakes and the towering mountains of the Continental Divide.
Access the trail from Trail Ridge Road (see more about this iconic, must-see drive in the Scenic Drives section below). The walkway is accessible and the trail is easy enough for most ability levels. The overlook also includes plenty of information about the canyon's history if you're interested in learning more about the area's geology.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the country's most popular national parks, drawing nearly 4 million visitors each year. The park encompasses 415 square miles of tall mountain peaks, deep crystal blue lakes, lush meadows, and rushing rivers spread across the Continental Divide.
There are many ways to explore Rocky Mountain National Park. Drive around the park in your vehicle, ATV, or jeep. Book a tour on horseback, sign up for a whitewater rafting adventure, go rock climbing, or choose from over 300 miles of hiking trails. Adventurous spirits should try an impressive whitewater rafting adventure or some nail-biting rock climbing.
Rocky Mountain National Park is open year-round and in the winter you'll find opportunities for show shoeing, sledding, and cross-country and backcountry skiing.
With so much to do and see, I highly recommend that you stop in at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center as your first order of business. It's the busiest visitor center in the park but it's a great place to get oriented to the park, talk to park rangers, and pick up a trail map or guidebook.
To get you started, here are a few of our top recommendations:
- If you don't have much time in the park or are traveling with a group that spans different ages and/or ability levels, check out the Sprague Lake Trail. This easy 0.8-mile loop around Sprague Lake includes awe inspiring mountain views and many opportunities to spot wild life. If you like to fish, the lake is a great place to catch brook trout.
- Fern Lake Trail is a moderately difficult 7.1-mile out-and-back hike that's close to the park's main entrance. It's an especially great trail to hike in the fall when the leaves are changing.
- If you like to fish, check out high alpine lake. On the north side of the lake you'll find fantastic views of Fern Falls, Little Matterhorn, and the Notchtop Mountains. From here, you can hike to the falls. There are also options to backpack to the lake and camp at one of the backcountry campsites around the lake.
Estes Park is called the "gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park" for good reason. The main entrance to the park is located just four miles west of downtown Estes Park. To access the park, follow highway 36 through downtown Estes Park, and make a left turn at the stoplights onto Moraine Avenue.
Important information: If you're visiting Rocky Mountain National Park from May 26th - October 22nd, you'll need a timed entry reservation. Visit the National Park Service website for more information.
If you're traveling to Estes Park or Rocky Mountain National Park from the Denver Metro area, you'll most likely pass through the small, charming town of Lyons. We encourage you to make Lyons a destination on your itinerary rather than just a small town you pass through on the way to Estes!
In 2020, my husband and I sold our house and moved into a 5th-wheel RV. Having lived in Colorado our entire lives, we've continued to spend a lot of time in the state because it's where so many of our family and friends live. Lyons has become our "Colorado home" during those visits.
We generally stay at LaVern M. Johnson Park which is situated in downtown Lyons and within walking distance of so many of the shops and restaurants we've come to love. The RV area is only one small area of this incredible public park. You'll find sports fields, playgrounds, picnic shelter and BBQ grills, tent camping pads, and plenty of places to access the river.
The park is very busy during summer months, especially on holidays and weekends, so plan ahead if you want to camp there or rent a picnic shelter. The parking lot for the park is also quite small for the number of people it attracts so plan for the possibility of parking elsewhere and walking in.
Here are a few of the places we recommend visiting in Lyons:
- The Saint Vrain Market. This tiny little market, bakery, and deli is my favorite place to shop in Lyons. It's a 3-minute walk from LaVern M Johnson Park, where we stay when we're there, and I visit the market nearly every day when we're there. You'll find a basic collection of cooking and baking items, fresh produce, a fantastic meat counter, and a delicious collection of homemade bread and pastries baked fresh every single day.
- Spirit Hound Distillery. Choose from a huge variety of cocktails, whisky, and other spirits, and great food in this distillery tasting room.
- Lyons Quilting. If you are into quilting and beautiful fabric, this shop is packed with treasures!
- Lyons Classic Pinball and Video. If you had a love affair with pinball at some point in your life, this is your kind of place. You'll find more than 35 pinball games dating from the 1960's to present day.
- Moxi Mercantile. This is a fantastic coffee shop with homemade bread and pastries and a fabulous collection of gifts, trinkets, and specialty food items.
- Smokin' Daves BBQ and Brew. You'll also find a Smokin' Daves in Estes Park. Stop in to either one (or both!) for some truly delicious BBQ!
- Mojo Taqueria. This Mexican restaurant has a delicious from-scratch menu and fantastic margaritas.
- Oskar Blues. You'll find beer, cider, sours, and other cocktails plus a huge lunch and dinner menu at this fun, casual, eclectic restaurant and brewery.
- The Lyons Dairy Bar. We love this hamburger and ice cream stand in Lyons! The menu includes a lot more than hamburgers, but in our opinion, the hamburgers are the best thing on the menu. We're also partial to their shakes and malts.
- MainStage Brewing. Another one of our favorite places in Lyons! MainStage has fantastic pizza and a great menu of beer, cider, and a handful of cocktails. We love the casual atmosphere, the outdoor seating, and the live music on the weekends.
- The Corridor Trail. This beautifully maintained path meanders through the town of Lyons along the Saint Vrain River. Along the way, you'll find a community botanic garden, Bohn Park, ball fields, a basketball court, playgrounds, a dirt bike skills area, picnic areas, and an off-leash dog park. Take your time and stop to see everything there is to see on this fantastic walking path!
- More Hiking and Biking in Lyons: Check out AllTrails for a great list of the many hiking and biking trails in and around Lyons.
One final mention - The Colorado Cherry Company is located on highway 36 in between Lyons and Estes Park. Stop in for cherry pies, cherry jam, cherry juice, and a huge range of other delicious products at this shop.
The MacGregor Ranch is a historic homestead in Black Canyon Creek that's been in operation since 1873 and continues to use traditional methods of farming and ranching. For example, to this day, the ranch still uses horse-drawn machinery to make their hay. Tours are offered several days a week.
Scenic Drives Near Estes Park
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet above sea level. The road is open seasonally, closed during the winter, and connects Estes Park with the town of Grand Lake. It's a spectacular stretch of road providing miles of incredible views!
The Peak to Peak Highway
Trail Ridge is an incredible drive but can get extremely crowded, especially on the weekends. If you're looking for another gorgeous scenic drive without the crowds, spend an afternoon on the 55-mile Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. This drive is gorgeous throughout the spring and summer but our favorite time to drive it is in the fall when the leaves are changing!
The byway winds through Arapaho National Park and along the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park with Estes Park on one end an and Central City, a historic mining town that's a popular place for casino-loving folks, on the other. But, be sure to allow plenty of time to stop in some of the quirky small towns and epic stops along the drive such as...
- Chapel on the Rocks in Allenspark is a 100-year-old Catholic church built upon a stunning rock foundation.
- Get out and walk around Brainard Lake, which is set in a glacially carved valley surrounded by the high peaks along the Continental Divide
- If you like to gamble, stop in Black Hawk and find some of the slot machines that date back to the Colorado Gold Rush.
- Stop for lunch or a drink in Nederland and ask the locals about frozen dead guy days where the town brings out the cryogenically-frozen body of a dead Norwegian man. The event has become so popular it's been moved to Estes Park, but the locals will tell you everything you need to know about this strange tradition. Also ask them about Fred the Cat, Nederland's first and only duly elected cat mayor. Not even joking here people.
What did we miss?
If there's something else you think we should have included in this post about the many things to do in Estes Park and the surrounding areas, leave a comment below with your suggestion!