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Long before the first settlers arrived in the Estes Valley, the Arapaho and Ute tribes would ascend from the plains to spend their summers in the more moderate temperatures in the valley. Many of the surrounding landmarks still bear the names they ascribed to them. When the town was founded in 1917—yes it’s the centennial anniversary this year—travellers from across the country came calling, drawn by the iconic Stanley Hotel that had opened eight years earlier in 1909, and Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), which had been created only two years earlier in 1915.
They knew what you know, that every good adventurer needs a base camp, somewhere to launch the next adventure from. Cradled by RMNP, the town of Estes Park offers access to a dizzying array of opportunities rarely located in one single location and summer is when it shines. Looking to climb a mountain? There are over sixty topping out over 12,000 feet inside RMNP. Love to fish? The Big Thompson River, running through town, is loaded with trout. Want to bomb the trails on your mountain bike or ATV? Roosevelt National Forest (RNF) is interlaced with trails.
Roosevelt National Forest
Many visitors to Estes Park are inevitably drawn by the allure of RMNP—that’s understandable, because it’s one of the country’s crown jewels—but they miss out on the myriad of offerings awaiting them in the nearby Roosevelt National Forest. At three times the size of RMNP, it’s packed full of fun, with unique offerings found only inside its boundaries. Jump into a 4 x 4 (either a jeep, or a more adventurous rock crawler) and head deep into the woods on one of the numerous trails that offer access into the wilderness just outside of town. The twisted web of trails will take you through ridiculous rock gardens, stream fords, and mountainside overlooks that extend for miles. Best of all you can rent any vehicle you like in town (head here for details: visitestespark.com/things-to-do/outdoor-adventures/off-road), and many of the operators offer tours.
If fat tire action is more your forte, then head to the Roosevelt N.F. (RMNP does not allow mountain biking on its trails.) Hundreds of miles of forest service roads and trails are just waiting for you to explore. At just 4.5 roundtrip, Pole Hill Trail will challenge even the most experienced rider, climbing a whopping 1,158 feet, before topping out at treeline with vista views that will take what little breath you have left away.
Perhaps the best thing that the forest offers is the chance to go exploring with your favorite furry friend for a day, or two. Unlike RMNP, dogs are allowed on trails inside the national forest. Homestead Meadows Trail starts at Hermit Park, and leads you through homesteads that were established between 1889 and 1923. At almost seven miles long it is just challenging enough for you and the hound, but safe enough to avoid worrying.
The waters of Lake Estes offer the perfect place to rest and relax, the cool temperatures of the lake are a respite from the warm alpine sun shining down on the valley all afternoon long. Better yet head over to the Lake Estes Marina to rent a kayak, stand-up paddle board, or pontoon boat, to head out on the water. If you are looking for something to get the adrenaline pumping, some of the best Whitewater Rafting in the state is just outside of town on the Poudre, and Colorado Rivers. There are numerous experienced guide services in town offering full, or half-day outings on the rivers, including transportation to and from the river (head to visitestespark.com/things-to-do/outdoor-adventures/whitewater-rafting/).
Maybe hitting the links is more your style. Estes Park has you covered there, too. The two golf courses in town offer challenging layouts, stunning views and one of the most unique hazards in the world—herds of elk contentedly munching the fairway, mostly oblivious to the little white balls zipping about.
With numerous restaurants, shops, galleries, and other businesses, downtown Estes Park is the perfect place to spend an afternoon between outings. One of the newest additions about to open is Latitude 105 Alehouse, featuring gourmet burgers and a wide variety of local craft beverages. It’s located inside The Ridgeline Hotel just steps from downtown. If you’re looking for more places to eat and stay, check out visitestespark.com for a comprehensive up-to-date list of everything in town.
Maybe one of the best parts about this magnificent mountain village is the abundance of wildlife. Since public lands surround the town, the valley acts like a magnet for wildlife of all sizes. Engage in your own photo safari and see if you can bag the Big Five (elk, bighorn sheep, black bear, moose and mule deer) that all call Estes Park home. Besides the larger mammals, there are over three-hundred different species of birds that either live there full time, or stop by during migrations.
All summer long the town will be hosting different festivals and events. If you are a lover of bucking broncs make sure you come to the highly praised 91st annual Rooftop Rodeo July 5-10. For five nights, cowboys and cowgirls will be competing in a variety of events. Maybe something a bit more strenuous is your style? On June 18 the Estes Park Marathon, Half, 10K, 5K, and Kids Fun Run offer you a chance to run in one of the highest road races in America. Or, you could just come for the Estes Park Wine Festival on August 12-13, featuring over 20 Colorado wineries, fresh food and live music. Whatever your taste, Estes Park has you covered this summer.
Rocky Mountain National Park
What could we say about RMNP that you have not already heard? Arguably one of the finest units in the park system it offers 265,461 acres of glorious beauty capped off by majestic Longs Peak. If you are looking to climb to the top of Longs make sure you come prepared—the easiest route is a challenging scramble that tests even the most seasoned of climbers. But Longs is not your only option. There are numerous other great hikes that are much less traveled. Estes Cone and Chasm Lake trails both take you above treeline and wind through numerous mountain meadows, cascading creeks, and high-country heaven.