Every time we drop into Estes Park on CO-66—you know, the point where the entire “park” comes into view, tourists out of their cars snapping pictures—it’s enlivening. Even the busiest weekends of the year don’t dampen the feeling. My wife and I head up to Estes Park every fall knowing it will be chaos. The elk, the aspens turning, the mountains—they are all reasons we say we go.
But it’s also because Estes Park is nothing like Summit County or the Front Range. It’s a piece of Americana, a time warp in some ways. Airstreams come to mind as do dream catchers, airbrushed T-shirts and fanny-packs—plenty of which can be seen downtown. The kitschy gift shops remind me of childhood and vacation with my parents. I can see the Griswolds passing through on their vacation. Estes Park wouldn’t be the same without all this. Nor would it be the same if it was only this.
Because there’s also Rocky Mountain National Park and YMCA of the Rockies. And a handful of restaurants and watering holes that we never miss. Again, these are essential for us, for the experience. I suppose Estes Park is like gestaltism where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So walk downtown. People watch. Wander into shops selling talking bass and wolf art. Then try something else.
Fall is elk mating season. This means randy 700-pound bulls bluster, spar and woo prospective cows into their harem like a bar scene from Jersey Shore. The eerie bugle is their trademark call. Watching the interplay between bowed up bulls is entertaining and for some reason, never gets old.
Keep your eyes and ears open. They’re everywhere—standing in Lake Estes; on the Hotel Stanley’s lawn; on sidewalks. A popular spot is Moraine Park inside RMNP where you can get to within a Kansas Winnebago of a harem. Once while hiking, we stumbled on a bull not more than 15 feet from us eating leaves, oblivious to our presence.
The park is grasslands, tundra, meadows, subalpine and montane forests with 147 lakes, 355 miles of hiking trails and more than 280 bird species. A drive up Trail Ridge Road—the highest paved through-route in the country—is alone worth the price of admission.
Eating and Refreshment
Don’t expect frou-frou atmosphere at the Sweet Basilico. Do expect delicious Italian food at reasonable prices. We’ll crawl out of our campsite to have a meal here. Try the Trist de Pasta Fontasiosa. sweetbasilico.com
Smokin’ Daves BBQ & Taphouse could be missed on the way to RMNP. Look for it. Try the “Pitmaster”—Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket and Texas BBQ sausage on a hoagie. Tipple a draft from its fine selection of Colorado microbrews. smokindavesq.com
The Estes Park Brewery’s interior is worn with walls painted in wildlife motif like an ironic hipster T-shirt. But I like that the place doesn’t seem to care. There’s a deck out back, some tasty beers and bartenders from all over the world. It’s worth a visit, especially after a hike. epbrewery.com
+ Lodging: The YMCA of the Rockies sits in its own little wilderness with cabins and no-frills lodge rooms. If you have a family or small group, rent a cabin. ymcarockies.org
+ Camping: Moraine Park, Glacier Basin and Aspenglen offer basic camp spots with wildlife. Or venture backcountry to one of the park’s 120 sites. nps.gov