Estes Park offers getaway for city dwellers

ESTES PARK, Colo.— In this quaint town about 60 miles north of Denver lives a lively population of just under 7,000 people. While the small town might seem like it lacks a large quantity of things to do, it is actually full of high quality nostalgic activities and breathtaking views.

While driving from Denver International Airport, take U.S. Route 36 for a scenic drive through farm lands. Along the way, stop for food at Lyons Dairy Bar: an adorable cow-painted shack full of unique ice cream and burger options. Vegetarians can even find a plant-based burger, which is actually quite good.

As you hop back in the car, snacking on the remaining fries (portions are big), continue driving about 20 miles through the lush green trees and rising elevation. This is how Estes Park greets you to confirm your arrival. 

Check in to your motel and relax. Drink plenty of water to acclimate yourself to the 7,500 feet elevation. Nicky’s Resort, for example, offers a cozy cabin feel and has all the amenities one would expect from any motel.

For dinner, drive over to The Dunraven Inn, which offers Italian cuisine in a unique ambiance within its dark pub setting, except the walls are covered in autographed dollar bills. No, you cannot take one with you. However, if you are lucky enough to find an empty spot, sign and paste your bill there to memorialize your time in Estes Park. The simple Italian dishes and a full bar make it a nice place for warm comfort food.

The Dunraven Inn features interesting decor and comfort food (Photos by Brittany Chandani)..

Before day breaks, head up to Rocky Mountain National Park. Yes, the earlier the better. And, yes, it is totally worth it. However, without the sun’s warmth, it gets pretty cold so bring extra layers. Also, be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks. Estes Park’s donut shop, Donut Haus, opens at 6 a.m., so it might be a good quick stop before heading up. Imagine warm donuts accompanying you on a chilly morning adventure. They have a ton of choices, but a glazed classic always seems to hit the spot.

Make your way up to watch the magnificent sunrise (around 6:45 a.m. in late September) over the mountaintops and listen to the beautiful sound of silence. Seeing the sun slowly peek out from behind the mountains and light up everything around you is quite grounding. You might also spot cute wildlife, such as a family of chipmunks scurrying out of nearby rock formations. The higher the elevation, the better for this kind of activity. Take Trail Ridge Road up to Alpine and find a good spot to pull over, sit and take pictures.

After the sun has risen, make your way down the trail and stop at scenic points. There are many plains that beckon you to run through them as if you were Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”

A weekend sunrise peeking out behind the mountains in the park.

For breakfast after your high altitude (12,000 feet) mountain adventure, head to Big Horn Restaurant back in Estes Park. Here, you will find American breakfast classics. Anyone can find something they like on the huge menu. Expect nothing short of large servings and deliciousness. The biscuits and gravy tasted homemade and fresh. The restaurant feels like a big old-time dining room and is very family friendly.

In downtown Estes Park, you will be pleasantly surprised to find a myriad of things to do and items to buy. The small town feel is all too real as shopkeepers and strangers on the street talk to you as if you were their good friend. Streets are packed with tourists and locals, so much so that there are crossing guards who keep their jobs interesting by breaking out lively dance moves as they direct traffic.

Stop by one of many taffy shops to watch employees and machines twist the taffy right before your eyes. It seems as if the whole town smells like candy because of all the taffy shops. It seems like there is one on each corner! Ice cream is also big in Estes Park, as well as old-time candy shops. Take a trip back into your childhood with a mallow cup or or those cigarette-shaped candies clad in parody boxes. As you can see, Estes Park has quite the sweet tooth.

Nostalgic candy stores in Estes Park are packed with sweets from decades before.

The small town also has a winery and a craft brewery. Take a tour through Snowy Peaks Winery and Estes Park Brewery to see how a small town makes unique beverages with local ingredients. A wine tasting will only run you about $8 to try five different wines.

To work off all the sugar and liquor, if climbing mountains was not enough, Estes Park also has a yoga studio. Located in Park Place Mall at the center of town, the studio offers $15 drop-in classes, including a mat and towel. The schedule varies with a good mix of harder vinyasa and easier basic yoga classes. Beautiful lighting floods the indoor studio as there are barely any walls, just windows.

For those who need a break from adventure, or to just get some work done, head over to Inkwell and Brew: a coffee and gift shop with a gorgeous upstairs study area. Grab a home-made lemon poppy pound cake and a coffee creation of your choice, then head upstairs to claim a comfy booth and get work done. Their free wifi, by the way, is superb.

Grab lunch at The Wapiti Colorado Pub. They have a huge menu and an even bigger selection of beers, including local Denver craft beers. For those who enjoy fruity beers or beers with whimsical names, try the local “Princess Raspberry Yum Yum” that is pink in color and full of refreshing flavor. For the more adventurous eaters, try the elk burger. In a town where elk roam the streets and an Elk Festival is held, the revered animal is also a delicacy.

Estes Park also has beautifully curated gift shops. You have to stop by Wildflower Mercantile, a gorgeous wooden cabin full of unique artisanal items. From small-batch candles and soaps to handmade cloth items and curated prints, it is truly difficult to not buy everything in sight.

The owner of this gorgeous shop, Sandra Jill Petrie, is an Estes Park local who opened the store in 2014. She is a sweet woman who is a great conversation starter and will wrap your gifts and offer gift suggestions in any way she can.

“Your credit card is so beautiful!” she remarked. Her energy brought liveliness to her peaceful store.

There are plenty of other gift shops to buy t-shirts, mugs, and even fuzzy bear feet look-alike slippers. One unique store, Once Upon a Hive, features all natural beeswax products. Think candles, lip balms and bath and body products.

Husband and wife team Jason and Monica Coff, who own the store, are often found working just downstairs to the store, carving soaps and candles. Everything smells wonderful and truly draws you in. You can find banana nut bread and pumpkin spice candles, which are made with all natural ingredients. Beeswax candles also are healthier and burn cleaner and longer than regular candles.

If all of those activities were not enough for you, Estes Park often hosts festivals in their green space at the center of town. You will find local artists performing rock ’n’ roll classics on stage, tiny teepee huts, elk jerky booths and Estes Park’s very own pie shop: “you need pie!” is their motto. Many unique vendors sell clothing, accessories and gifts that are reminiscent of the small town’s mountain culture.

The open green space of Bond Park on East Elkhorn Avenue in Estes Park is full of unique vendors during festivals such as this one.

Relax at the end of your day to local live musicians who sing songs everyone loves at The Slab. Think of good Tracy Chapman and Fleetwood Mac song covers as you sit on a concrete patio. The Slab also has board games, but beware, as the town’s windy climate can turn a simple game of jenga into a chaotic tumbling of wooden blocks that spill your beer everywhere. The bartender, amused by the incident, however, will surely pour you another beer free of charge if this were to happen.

Estes Park is full of friendly, neighborly people who love to chat about their lovely town. With an area of less than seven square miles, the town is densely populated with fun activities and eclectic people. It is a must visit during any trip to the Rocky Mountains.


If You Go

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