The crown jewel of the Colorado Rockies is the best place to find mountain adventure this fall. Here are a few insider tips to escape the crowds, find the perfect activity for your needs, and stay safe.
Sitting at the entrance to the famed peaks and meadows of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), the town of Estes Park is the epicenter of Colorado’s high country. Close to Denver and full of safe lodgings and campgrounds perfect for an extended stay, Estes Park offers up outdoor adventure for absolutely every experience level. Case in point: You can drive up Trail Ridge Road for a taste of the alpine or attempt multi-pitch big wall climbing lines on Longs Peak. It’s the perfect place to revel in fall colors, har the elk bugle, and connect with the mountains—and there are plenty of options for safe, socially distanced fun up here right now. And while the park itself is a big draw, don’t confine your plans to it. There’s plenty of public land outside its boundaries that provides prime adventure. Dig in to our rundown of the reasons why you need to get to Estes Park this summer.
The Less Visited Park
Yes, the must-see sights and most popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park draw big crowds because they deserve the attention. But the park has many charms beyond the big names. Get a little off the beaten track. The hike up the Twin Sisters Peak (11,427 feet) is indeed popular, but you do not have to drive through any of the park entrances to access it. The 7.5 mile out-and-back gains a stiff 2,500 feet of elevation and rewards you with a smack-in-your face view of Longs Peak and the park. It’s an ideal hike if you want to get acclimated to Colorado elevation or stay below treeline (it’s only exposed at the top). Across Colorado Highway 7, most visitors are heading up to Longs and the stunning Chasm Lake, but the much more modest 6.5-mile Estes Cone hike starts at the same trailhead but ditches the crowds and puts you on top of a small peak with a big view. And while it does not feature the big peaks of other parts of the park, the Lumpy Ridge Loop gives you a true taste of Rocky Mountain isolation in a 11-mile hike with 2,500 feet of elevation gain, plenty of wildflowers, and a visit to charming Gem Lake. If you are looking for a mountain hike outside of the park, head to the slopes of Meadow Mountain outside of Allenspark. This 9.4-mile out-and-back gives you stunning views into RMNP’s Wild Basin area. Those seeking an epic adventure in the park can try the Mummy Traverse, an 18-mile scramble across the high country that covers 6,246 vertical feet. Remember that even though these areas of the park are less visited, you still need an entrance pass to access any part of RMNP and you will need a timed-entry permit if you are starting your visit between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. (see below).
Estes offers up world-class options for every level of fly angler. The park is home to native greenback cutthroat trout, Colorado’s state fish. Greenback can be found in the park’s lakes and streams, especially near inlets or outlets and are an ideal species for Tenkara-style fishing or 3-weight fly rods—but capture catch and release since the greenback is listed as threatened on the endangered species list. The Big Thompson River is coveted water for classic Rocky Mountain trout fishing—from its rugged headwaters in the park through Estes and all the way down the canyon to Loveland. Those who can’t walk or ride far will find easy access just outside town below Lake Estes and Olympus Dam, though it can get crowded in this spot. Check in at Kirk’s Flyshop or Estes Angler in town. Remember, a license is required for all resident and non-residents to fish in Colorado. You can choose the correct option for you and purchase here.
Mountain Biking and Gravel Grinding
All too often Estes gets left out of the conversation when it comes to backcountry biking. Good news, because that means you will deal with fewer riders on the trails. Built for and by mountain bikers, the trails at Hermit Park Open Space cater to all ability levels, with loop options that can keep you coming back to explore. The ride up to Homestead Meadows is an ideal gravel bike climb and can connect into the Hermit Park system for an extended adventure on mountain bikes. In general, gravel riders will find a big network of dirt roads and OHV routes in the Roosevelt National Forest surrounding Estes. Start in the Fish Creek Road and Pierson Park area. You can obtain maps, mobile phone maps, and more information at the forest’s website.
With so much varied adventure all around, it’s no surprise that Estes Park is home to some of Colorado’s most dedicated outdoor athletes. Top among them is The Dawn Wall hero, the climber and conservationist Tommy Caldwell, who trains with laps on Longs Peak’s sheer East Face, but also gets out and plays with his kids in this place that’s so close to his heart. Visit Estes Park has launched a video series called “Estes Inspired,” which celebrates local heroes. You can see the first episode featuring Tommy Caldwell here.
Even better, Estes Park encourages adventurers to spend some time in the area through the AiR (Athlete in Residence) program, the first of its kind in the country, through which these guests explore this special spot and report on how they found their joy here. Recent participants have included ski mountaineer and activist Caroline Gleich, ultrarunner Anton Krupicka, and pro mountain biker and filmmaker Joey Schusler. Learn more here.
Be Safe, Be Responsible
Estes Park is a safe destination during these uncertain times as long as you follow protocol to help keep yourself and the community healthy. Remember that small mountain communities are especially vulnerable to outbreaks of the coronavirus—they also rely on tourism and want you to visit. There are currently restrictions on entering Rocky Mountain National Park: You must obtain a reservation to enter and some areas and facilities in the park remain closed. Get the latest updates. Follow social distancing guidelines and check current protocols to keep everyone safe. On July 16, Gov. Jared Polis issued a mask mandate for the state of Colorado: You must wear a mask if you are indoors in public. You should also wear a face covering on the trail when you pass other hikers or bikers. Also be aware that the Estes Valley Fire Protection District has declared a Level 1 Restriction on fires—no open fires, fireworks, or smoking in the open or on trails (the park always has some fire restrictions). See the latest fire restrictions here. These mountain landscapes and communities are extremely vulnerable to wildfires so please help keep everyone safe.