Photo Courtesy of Visit Estes Park
Sure, there are plenty of tourists here, but Tommy Caldwell’s home town is also a prime location for high adventure. Follow our guide to do Estes Park right.
It’s hard to believe that the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park is just a 90 minute drive from downtown Denver. With its postcard-perfect scenery, small-town vibe and enough outdoor thrills to last a lifetime, Estes Park feels like a different world (just stay away from the kitsch and crowds on the main drag). Though the 2013 floods took their toll on the town and the park itself, both are nearing a full recovery. There’s another big reason to get up here soon, too. Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. So load up the vehicle and make a quick drive to big adventure. Here are our ideas for how to best spend your time:
Hit the Trail
What better way to celebrate 100 years of protection, than getting out on the 300 miles of trails that crisscross RMNP . Embrace the numbers: The park counts 450 square miles of mountains and meadows, 150 lakes, miles of river and streams and a wide variety of ecosystems that support moose, bighorn sheep, bears, mountain lions and iconic elk in its catalog of wonders. For an easy, but beautiful stroll, take the scenic and flower-full Bluebird Lake Trail, which follows St. Vrain Creek to reach stunning sites that include Calypso Cascades, Ouzel Falls, Ouzel Lake and, ultimately, the shores of Bluebird Lake itself. If you’re looking for a full or multi-day adventure, set out to climb one of the park’s 77 peaks that top out over 12,000 feet. Got your heart set on a Fourteener? Ascend 14,423-foot Longs Peak, but for a quieter, equally challenging climb, hit nearby Mt. Meeker (13,991 feet) or try easy-to-access Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet) or Hallet Peak (12,713 feet) for equally stunning, but less lung-busting endeavors. To avoid crowds altogether, hike Twin Sisters Peaks, a duo of 11,400-foot mountains on the east side of the park. On this 7.4 mile round-trip endeavor, you’ll wander through stands of aspens and be rewarded with unfettered views of Longs, Meeker, the Estes Cone, the Divide and the Mills Glacier (headwaters of the Roaring Fork River).
If you don’t have to stand atop a summit, some of our other favorite trails include Glacier Gorge to Black Lake, Longs Peak Trail to Chasm Lake, the oft-overlooked Bridal Veil Falls in the Lumpy Ridge area and the Ute Trail, which wanders through alpine tundra from the Alpine Visitor Center to Milner Pass. For more on hikes and information, visit the RMNP website (nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/hiking.htm) or grab Falcon Guide’s Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park, 10th: Including Indian Peaks Wilderness by Kent Dannen.
Climb Some Rock
There’s a good reason why Tommy Caldwell calls Estes Park home. From the crack climbs of Lumpy Ridge to the gorgeous big-wall granite of Longs Peak’s Diamond Face, the area offers up some of the best climbing in the state. Both new and experienced climbers will have fun with the wide, tough cracks at Twin Owls. Our favorite routes here include the off-width Crack of Fear (5.10d), the easy-but-fun Pin Route (5.4), and the deep three-pitch chimney known as Bowels of the Owls. You can also put your skills to the test on infamous high alpine routes including the classic, lovely nine-pitch North Ridge of Spearhead (5.6) and the famed testpiece multi-pitch Casual Route up the Diamond on Longs Peak (seven pitches, 5.10a, class IV).
Our other favorite climbs in the Estes area include the southeast face of Taylor Peak (seven-pitch, 5.6 alpine rock and 50-60 degree snow), North Ridge Pagoda Peak (six to seven pitches of 5.6 alpine rock), and the South Face of the Petit Grepon (seven to eight pitches of 5.8+). For beta or a guide, contact Colorado Mountain School (coloradomountainschool.com) or pick up Falcon Guides’s Best Climbs Rocky Mountain National Park: Over 100 of the Best Routes on Crags and Peaks by Stewart M. Green.
If you’d rather stay close to the ground, grab a fly rod and cast away into world-class waters full of a variety of trout including brown, brook, rainbow and even native greenback cutthroat (read Kevin Luby’s story on the travails of seeking those beauties on page 44). You can take your pick from countless high alpine lakes including Black Lake, Lake Haiyaha, Mirror Lake or our favorite, Thunder Lake, accessible from the relatively quiet Wild Basin entrance, which is 19-miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. Since it’s a 6.6 mile hike into Thunder Lake, which rests in a stunning bowl below the Continental Divide and Tanima Peak, it’s best to obtain a backcountry camping permit and make a mini-vacation out of your angling adventure.
Or hit the much more accessible Big Thompson River, Fern Lake, the North St. Vrain River and Ouzel Creek, Lawn Lake and Ypsilon Lake and Creek. All provide outstanding scenery and amazing fishing. For conditions, licenses and guided trips hit Kirk’s Fly Shop in Estes (kirksflyshop.com). Or book a guide through Rocky Mountain Anglers in Boulder (rockymountainanglers.com), who will also set you up with a first-class lunch from Dish Gourmet (dishgourmet.com).