40.3772° N, 105.5217° W
So you want to visit the beautiful, adventurous town of Estes Park in Colorado? Great! While many people know the town as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, which in 2018 saw a 3.5% increase in visitors to a grand total of 4.5 million people(!) there is actually a lot more to this scenic mountain town than just t-shirt and taffy shops.
Here is the perfect way to spend 72 hours in Estes Park like a local.
| Day 1
Wake up nice and early and grab your morning coffee at one of the numerous (local) coffee shops in town. Our first choice is Kind Coffee - a great café that focuses on being environmentally conscious, incredibly friendly, and delicious. Stop in for their freshly roasted beans, a yummy bagel or breakfast burrito and then head outside to sit in the sun and listen to the river roar by.
After getting nice and caffeinated head to the trails. While there are obviously a ton of hikes to do in the main area of the national park, we recommend going out to the “satellite” areas. One of our favorites is right off County Road 2312 near Meeker Park.
It is a simple dirt road that winds its way through a couple of older cabins before ending at a marked trailhead. There are only a couple of parking spots, so make sure to get there pretty early (though we have never seen it full). Then grab your hiking boots and head out onto the trail. There are two great options: head towards Horsetooth Rock or you can take a trail towards Sandbeach Lake. We recommend the latter because it takes you through beautiful evergreen and aspen forests and meadows before intersecting the Sandbeach Lake Trail. Note: this is also a prime area to spot moose.
After a nice late morning hike in the mountains head back to town for a filling and delicious lunch.
While Estes Park has a lot of restaurants, many are very much “tourist” traps. So get off the main road and head to a place locals like to eat. A great option is La Mexicana, a Mexican supermarket with an awesome burrito and taco bar in the back. The food is great (and cheap) and is perfect to take away for a quick picnic by the lake.
After lunch take some time to do the river walk through downtown - yes it is touristy, but pretty. And after hiking it is a great way to relax and get a feel for the town. Along the river you can stop in at various shops and explore the Historic Park Theatre and Café.
Once you start to get your appetite back it is time to plan for dinner. An awesome spot is Cafe de Pho Thai, located near the post office and just far enough from the main strip to still be un-touristy. We love their curries, drunken noodles, and stir-fried basil.
Fill your belly and then head outside and watch a beautiful sunset. The Rocky Mountains in general are known for stunningly colorful dusk displays, and a great spot to view sunset is from the shores of Lake Estes.
| Day 2
Have a nice lazy morning before stepping out for some breakfast. Our recommendation is Big Horn Restaurant, a town staple that is the perfect fill-up spot before a big day on the trail (their biscuits and gravy are quite tasty).
Once properly stuffed, head out of town on Highway 7 towards Nederland. About 10 miles from town you will get to Eagle Plume’s - an eclectic roadside stop that is worth checking out. Right past that you will see Big Owl Road on your left.
Wind your way down through some cute cabins before reaching a big mountain meadow (with a few highland cows). The road will continue down through an aspen grove, past a random big fireplace before climbing back up a hill. While this road is beautiful on its own - just wait.
Big Owl Road leads you past two different trails. Both have their merits depending on what kind of trail you want to hike and what you want to see.
The first is Pierson Park, a nice wide trail that goes uphill for a while (though never too steeply). You will pass some creeks and aspen groves, before reaching a T in the trail. Go right (the left leads to private property) then head uphill a bit more until you reach the top. Turn around and be amazed at the awesome views of Mt. Meeker behind you. This trail then keeps going for a long time (eventually leading you back to Estes Park ~13 miles later). If you have the stamina and the gumption, we recommend heading out about 5 miles until you reach a massive landslide on the left side of the mountain. This is a clear remnant of the flood that hit Estes Park back in 2013. While jeeps can no longer pass this section, there are single track trails that make their way across. This trail/forest road is an awesome spot for running, mountain biking, and hiking and is dog friendly (no leash laws even). Note: Pierson Park and Johnny Park below are both relatively popular jeep roads so always stay aware, especially if you have a dog.
Johnny Park Road
Or you can go down the road a bit farther and eventually get to Johnny Park Road - a popular spot for ATVs, but also another awesome spot for hiking and mountain biking. No matter what form of transportation you choose, make sure to bring your camera because this is THE SPOT for awesome wildflowers of every color: yellow, poppy, navy, lavender, white, plum, and even a couple mixes (we found one that was bright blue and purple). The trail itself is also really pretty with great views of nearby Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak (a 14er), aspens, pine trees, and even a good chance of seeing some animals like moose and elk. And like Pierson Park, this is also dog friendly.
Once you get your fill of being out in the woods head back to town for a nice lunch (if you aren’t still full) and maybe a pick me up in the form of caffeine. We recommend Nepal’s because they have a lunch buffet that is super tasty (and for a very affordable meal go for the $5 to-go container and load it up with everything) then stop by next door at Inkwell and Brew, a local coffee shop that specializes in tasty coffee and treats, and some super fun and creative notebooks, cards, pens, and other cartography items.
I know you might have driven a lot already, but this is the best time to head up to Trail Ridge Road - the highest continuous paved road in the United States. The road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet at the top, where there is also a cool visitor center and stunning views of the Continental Divide and nearby mountain ranges. Heading up there in the mid-afternoon is the best because you will likely have fewer people (most people go up there early in the morning) and have a better chance to see animals (who like to come out closer to dusk). Just make sure you have enough time to go up (about a 45-50 minute drive), take some photos and check it out and get back to town before it gets dark. Tip: now if you are planning to visit Estes Park in the fall, we recommend taking Old Fall River Road up, a dirt road that is one-way and has some awesome fall foliage along its sides.
| Day 3
No trip to Estes Park is complete without stopping in and grabbing some delicious donuts? Yes, donuts. On your way out of town, towards Rocky Mountain National Park this time, you will see a DinoMart on your left. While it is a gas station, it is also the new home for Donut Haus, a town staple that people travel all over for (no joke, we once met a lady there that had driven up from Nebraska for the donuts… crazy!).
You cannot go wrong with a generic glazed donut (or two) but also try their raspberry and apple fritters, raspberry-filled donuts, and their original “Pinecone,” a bear-claw type donut in the shape of a pinecone, so mountain-y.
Once sugared up, head into the national park for some sightseeing and maybe a hike or two. We recommend Mill’s Lake, which has some awesome views of the mountains that surround it, the Alluvial Fan, and Andrew’s Glacier (an awesome adventure that will get you away from most of the tourist crowd).
Spend the morning and afternoon exploring the park - it is entirely worth the crowds, cost, and drive. Then head back to town for a late lunch or early dinner at one of the nicer restaurants in town: Bird and Jim or the Dunraven. The first focuses on local specialties and though pricey, is absolutely delicious. The latter is all about pasta, and tasty pasta at that! We recommend the baked ziti or eggplant parmesan. And don’t you dare leave without ordering a homemade cannoli. Note: the Dunraven now sits right on Lake Estes and has some great sunset views from their deck.
Estes Park is definitely a tourist town. Millions of people pass through it regularly, especially during the busy summer season. And while you can partake in the usual touristy things: horseback rides, riding a tram to the top of a mountain, eating handfuls of taffy; in truth, the town itself has so much more to offer if you are willing to get more off-the-beaten-path and instead explore it like a local.