The mountain town of Estes Park is well-known as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), at least if you’re accessing one of the most-most-visited national parks in the country from its east entrance, the closest to Denver. Though the history of these two “parks” is closely tied (RMNP was established in 1915, the town just two years later), don’t think for a minute that location is all Estes Park has going for it. From the numerous kid-focused fun areas to the bull elk that regularly wander through town, there’s plenty for families to do, see, and explore in Estes Park including–and beyond–the national park.
With more than 350 miles of trail, RMNP is the obvious place to take your kids for some time moving their bodies outdoors. (Be sure to make your required reservation ahead of time if you’re visiting between May 26, 2023 and October 22, 2023.) For new hikers, we suggest the 1.2-mile out-and-back trip up to Alberta Falls, which begins from the Glacier Gorge trailhead and gains just 160 feet of elevation as it meanders up to a 30-foot waterfall. A short spin around Lily Lake, 0.8 miles roundtrip, is another approachable option. Littles will love the boardwalk stretch over wetlands, and the multiple picnic tables arranged just off of the lake’s western bank make a great spot for lunch. If your family is up for a more strenuous hike, try the trek from the Lumpy Ridge trailhead up to Gem Lake, which climbs 830 feet over just 1.7 miles, but features stunning views of Longs Peak, RMNP’s only mountain above 14,000 feet.
Once you’ve had your fill of Mother Nature, it’s time to woo-hoo your way through the rest of the day with a visit to one (or many) of Estes Park’s theme parks. Our little tester had a blast on the Mustang Coaster, an alpine roller coaster that zips around curves and hits tummy-dropping bumps. (The adults loved it too!) Fun City is another must-stop play zone complete with bumper boats, mini golf, a giant slide, and more that make this an aptly named entertainment hub. For a mellower brand of adventure, take a scenic ride up the Estes Park Aerial Tramway, which hovers at times up to 200 feet in the air and provides views of some of RMNP’s most iconic peaks, including Longs, Flattop Mountain, and the Twin Owls, as well as Estes Park highlights like The Stanley Hotel and Lake Estes.
The rich history of Estes Park features gold mining, romance, shootouts, and conservation. Explore all of these stories (about Joel Estes, Isabella Bird, Rocky Mountain Jim, and Enos Mills, respectively) at the free Estes Park Museum. The nearly 150-year-old MacGregor Ranch also paints a picture of Estes Park in the days of yore with tours through the historic house and all around the homestead.
Sips, snacks, and yums
With outdoor adventures likely on your docket, you’ll want to start the day with a hearty breakfast. Our choice is Claire’s Restaurant and Bar, which is known for their benedicts (try the Cuban for a yummy pulled pork and pit ham combo) though young tastebuds may be more tickled by the fresh berries and powdered sugar on the Pain Perdu. For a quicker start to the day, swing into Kind Coffee for brioche toast (order the peanut butter and banana combo for Junior), a white chocolate and raspberry Avalanche latte, and some good vibes.
For a lakeside lunch, visit the Dunraven at The Estes Park Resort for one of their signature Italian dishes or perhaps the Rocky Mountain Ruby Red Trout. While you wait for your food to arrive, walk your kids over to the entryway and ask them to guess how many dollar bills are tacked floor-to-ceiling on the walls. (The owners estimate close to $16,000.) If you’re planning a picnic in RMNP, don’t waste time wandering the aisles at Safeway. Instead, pre-order a gourmet, antipasto picnic basket from The Bird’s Nest.
Estes Park has plenty of options for an afternoon treat (most notably the Estes Park Sugar Shack), but be sure to save plenty of room for dinner at Bird & Jim (sister restaurant to The Bird’s Nest), where seasonal ingredients dominate the mountain-inspired cuisine. Since you’re on vacation, go ahead and splurge on one of their craft cocktails, including an alcohol-free CosNOpolitan (seedlip, cranberry, lime, simple syrup) for your youngster.
Families will walk into the Ridgeline Hotel Estes Park’s mountain-meets-modern lobby, past a pair of hanging basket chairs, and make their way up to the welcoming faces at the front desk–that is, if the kids don’t spot the free Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pinball machine on the way. There’s also a large indoor pool area where the hotel plays movies each day around noon on a 180-inch projector screen, a foosball table, and two outdoor fire pits perfect for roasting s’mores. If you need extra space to stretch out–and like a little luxury–book a 1,577 square-foot cabin through Mountain Village at Lake Estes. These two-story mini residences include two primary bedrooms, a stone gas fireplace, and a hot tub.
For the grown-ups
If you’re able to sneak away for an hour or two, head over to The Barrel, a quirky beer garden that’s equal parts Old West Saloon and beer geek heaven. Expect to find more than 60 draught options available, including hard kombuchas, CBD seltzers, wine, and (of course) craft beer.
Don’t leave town without …
Tipping your hat (from a safe distance) to Estes Park’s four-legged residents, the elk herds that mosey around town, especially near Lake Estes and 18-Hole Golf Course. Visiting in the fall? Consider planning a trip around Elk Fest, which coincides with the elk mating season.
Did you know …
The iconic Stanley Hotel–known for its while exterior, red roof, and role in inspiring Stephen King’s bestselling novel, The Shining–was originally painted yellow, a color reminiscent of luxurious East Coast resorts.