We recently spent a holiday weekend in the small town of Estes Park, Colorado. Snowshoers take note: This place is serious winter fun! Estes Park has all the amenities to make it a perfect base for a few days, weeks, or months of snowshoeing. In the few days that we were there, I easily compiled a top 10 list.
So, without further ado, here it is. In no particular order, whether winter or summer, here are the top 10 reasons to visit Estes Park, Colorado:
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park is the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park’s 355 miles of trails and 416 square miles of mountains, lakes, forests, and steep glaciated valleys. Not surprisingly, this dramatic scenery draws crowds of visitors, particularly in the summer months.
The good news for snowshoers is that winter is significantly quieter. We met a few other hikers near the trailheads, but they thinned out considerably after a mile or two. A sense of solitude and discovery prevailed as we often negotiated pristine snow en route to high alpine lakes and spectacular views that we didn’t have to share with anyone.
During COVID-19, and until October 13th, vehicle access to RMNP is by online reservation only between the hours of 5 am and 6 pm. Those entering the park by bicycle are exempt from the reservation system.
We are incredibly lucky to have such a fabulous National Park system in this country. I know it isn’t perfect, and financial support and resources are often lacking. But how incredible that, for a fairly low price, we were able to spend 5 days snowshoeing amongst the most beautiful scenery in the country. Learn about some of our favorite trails below as part of the top 10.
2. The People of Estes Park
Outside of RMNP, Estes Park is a community of people who love playing in the great outdoors. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I obsessively phoned the National Park rangers to check on snow conditions. Rarely have I encountered such patience and enthusiasm. These dedicated people obviously love the landscape they help protect and relish the opportunity to share it with other like-minded souls. In addition, encounters with other hikers and snowshoers often led to friendly discussions on snow conditions, outdoor gear, and trails.
3. Glacier Gorge Trailhead
Within Rocky Mountain National Park, we enjoyed one of our most memorable snowshoe hikes ever from the trailhead at Glacier Gorge Junction. The first 3 miles to Mills Lake is well-traveled and scenic, lying in the impressive shadow of Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park at 14,255 feet. Mills Lake, often considered the prettiest lake in the park, is drop-dead gorgeous.
But, the rewards for continuing a further 2 miles to Black Lake are considerable. The terrain becomes more challenging as we wind our way over and around rocky outcrops before finally traversing a meadow that brings us up on a plateau level with Black Lake. This lofty windswept spot is breathtaking and dramatic. We eat our lunch in an enclosed rocky grotto to escape the swirls of blowing snow.
The trail continues past Black Lake to The Loch, Sky Pond, and Andrews Glacier. However, the trail past the Loch is often in avalanche terrain. Make sure that if you continue, you know the warning signs and danger zones and are equipped with appropriate avalanche gear.
4. The Elk
In the park, there are approximately 1,000 of them, and they aren’t shy. In the winter, the elk tend to congregate at lower elevations and we often saw large herds of them along the roads near Estes Park. If we stopped the car, turned off the ignition, and sat quietly, we could hear the high-pitched sound of mothers calling their calves.
You may even see some elk within city limits as they tend to congregate near the lake, golf course, and other natural areas within Estes Park. Just remember that elk are wild animals and you should not approach them by any means!
5. The Stanley Hotel
Perched on a hill overlooking the town of Estes Park, the 100-year-old Stanley Hotel oozes history and character. Perhaps it is best known for inspiring Stephen King to write his classic horror novel The Shining. Indeed, as we enjoyed a drink in the hotel lobby after a long day of snowshoeing, we could hear the title of the book on the lips of countless other guests, almost like the walls were whispering the words. You can even take a day or night tour of the hotel (even if not a guest) and learn more about its unique history.
On a more worldly note, the Stanley Hotel is an outstanding spot to sit in front of a roaring fire, drink in hand, and watching the sun as it set over the mountains.
6. Deer Mountain
Deer Mountain, located in Rocky Mountain National Park, is a relatively easy summit to bag, but the rewards are immense. We started hiking from Deer Ridge Junction Trailhead on some bare ground through ponderosa pines, and then through aspens, which have been scarred black by nibbling elk.
However, we were soon strapping on our snowshoes as snow levels increased and the views started to expand. The summit offers a spectacular 360-degree panorama of Estes Park and the surrounding mountains, including the Continental Divide to the west. With the total round trip distance at just 6 miles, get an early start and you can be back to town in time for lunch at …
7. Notchtop Bakery and Cafe
Located near the Stanley Hotel, the Notchtop Bakery and Cafe serves generous portions of healthy delicious fare, perfect for snowshoers. The burritos are highly recommended, as are the freshly-baked oatmeal buns. When we were there, they also had funky hand-knit scarves for just $20!
8. Fern Falls
If Mother Nature were an artist, some of her best work could arguably be found at Fern Falls in the winter. See frozen water in mid-spray, fresh snow accumulation on fallen logs, moisture captured under thin layers of ice … a photographer’s dream-come-true.
You can access Fern Falls (2.5 miles one way) via the Fern Lake Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park.
9. Valhalla Resort
Not flashy, but simple and comfortable, the Valhalla Resort suited our needs perfectly. The green carpets and the décor of our cabin were rather 70’s, but the wood-burning fireplace provided a welcome warm-up after a day of snowshoeing. We appreciated the fully equipped kitchen and ample space to hang wet gear, and the lights provided a festive touch!
10. Lake Estes Trail
Many of the trails are located in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the almost 4 mile Lake Estes Trail is within city limits. The Lake Estes Trail is a heavily trafficked and paved loop near the Visitor Center in town. Enjoy the Big Thompson River (and maybe elk) near the golf course, along with views of the Rocky Mountains near this scenic lake in the heart of town.
This trail is beautiful in winter or summer and makes for an excellent early morning or easy mid-day walk to your day!
11. Delicious Taffy
Downtown Estes Park is hopping with all of your souvenir needs. You can find some gems commemorating your visit to Estes Park as well as delicious homemade taffy for the road. The taffy machine demo is completely mesmerizing and the flavors always tend to hit that sweet spot.
Practical Information & Helpful Resources
If coming from Denver, Estes Park, Colorado is just 64 miles away.
The town is situated at an elevation of 7,500 feet. For those not used to high altitude, it may be high enough to give an altitude headache on your first few days there. To combat the effects of altitude, drink plenty of water, and practice pressure breathing. I learned this trick while climbing Mt. Rainier and it helps immensely. It simply involves periodic quick exhalations of air – i.e. you can pretend you are blowing out a candle that is being held at arm’s length.
Rocky Mountain National Park: The park rangers will cheerfully provide advice on trail conditions, and can also direct you to businesses that rent snowshoes and other recreational equipment. Review their website for trail options as well.
Would you or have you been to Estes Park, Colorado, or Rocky Mountain National Park? What are your favorite experiences? Share with us in the comments below!
Article updated by Susan Wowk on Sept 8, 2020, to include the addition of Lake Estes Trail, current info, and additional photos
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