Visiting the town of Estes Park, Colorado is a fun and adventurous experience - no matter your age. With so much to do, hiking, biking, elk-watching, it is easy to understand why the cute mountain town is high on many people’s summer bucket list. And while you can see quite a bit on your own two feet; including, the downtown River Walk and hundreds of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, maybe one of the best ways to get a good feel of the area is behind the wheel of your car.
If you are looking to get a different perspective of the beautiful mountain area, maybe consider checking out these 5 stunning mountain drives. Each full of cool places to explore and amazing scenery to be seen.
Old Fall River Road
First opened in 1920, this beautiful, dirt road earned the distinction of being the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park to offer access to the park's high country (an amazing place in and of itself). Due to its somewhat narrow, dirt style (and lack of guard rails throughout), it is considered more of a “motor nature trail” than an actual road.
*fun fact: the route today follows a trail traveled by Indian hunters, who came to the area because of its abundant game. Also, three miles of the road was built by convicts who only had hand tools to help them with the digging.
If you are daring enough to take it - and have the time (it is slow going, but that is part of the fun) - then we HIGHLY recommend checking it out. To start, go into the Park and head towards the Alluvial Fan and Lawn Lake Trailhead. Keep going down that dirt road until you see a sign for Old Fall River Road on the right (Endovalley, a beautiful picnic area is on the left). The road is one-way, so you don’t have to worry about passing anyone coming the opposite direction.
One of the best things to stop and see is the Chapin Pass Trail, an awesome hike into the high country. While you can go for a while (like 15 miles) you can also just do a quick jaunt up the trail to get some great views. Just remember, if you want to stop anywhere along the road for photos or to just take it all in (which we also highly recommend) be smart - don’t get too close to the edge and watch your footing.
Trail Ridge Road
Billed as a "scenic wonder road of the world” Trail Ridge Road is truly a marvel to behold. Crossing over the Continental Divide, the 48-mile long paved road travels from either side of the Park (Estes Park to the East, Grand Lake to the West). For part of the drive, 11 miles, you are above treeline (11,500 feet) meaning you have expansive views of the mountains all around you.
In fact, Trail Ridge as many call it, is the highest continuously paved road in the whole United States. At its peak, it reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet (the highest point in the park, Longs Peak, sits at a lofty 14,259 feet). Besides views of the stunning, alpine and mountains beyond, travelers on the road often are able to spot animals such as elk, marmot, pika, bighorn sheep, and ptarmigans.
There are lots of pull-offs to check out along the route, but a couple of great ones are Rainbow Curve (popular, but after you see the views of the valley below you will understand why), the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of the road (where it intercepts Old Fall River Road), and the Farview Curve Overlook.
Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
If you have the time, then one of the best roads to venture out on from Estes Park is definitely the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. Measuring just over 60 miles, this awesome mountain road takes you from Estes Park to Black Hawk (and on to I-70 if you’d like). Within that distance, you will pass old mines - with a couple remnants still visible, lots of great hiking trails, quirky towns, and even a ski resort.
While this road is great in the summer, it might hit its peak of beauty late September when the leaves all start to change. This is also when the temperatures are a bit cooler - making those hiking trails look a bit more inviting. A few great places to check out are Twin Sisters (part of Rocky Mountain National Park), the Brainard Lake area near Ward, and the Indian Peaks’ Hessie and 4th of July Trailheads down near Nederland.
Glen Haven Canyon
Also known as Devils Gulch Road, or County Road 43, whatever you call it, this twisty road that snakes through the Glen Haven Canyon is definitely worth checking out. We recommend taking it either on your way up to Estes Park, or when heading back down to the Front Range for it is a great alternative to the usually busy Highway 34.
Two things that stand out on this road, and often live on in people’s minds long after they drive it, are the two very sharp switchbacks that occur near the top of the road. Not only are they sharp turns but they are also STEEP. The second thing that is often remembered is the cute town of Glen Haven. While it is only a couple of buildings big, it might just have the best cinnamon rolls around. Yes, that cute, kitschy General Store churns out delicious, gooey, sugar deliciousness every morning (their cherry cobbler is amazing too).
To get to the road, head out past the Stanley Hotel on MacGregor Avenue, which eventually turns into Devils Gulch Road. Keep going on past a couple of trailheads, including the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead and McGraw Ranch Trailhead, until you get to the top of the road. From here make sure to turn around for one last look of the mountains, this might just be the best view of Longs Peak around.
The farthest scenic drive from Estes Park, though no less beautiful than others on the list, this lesser-known highway is truly in its prime during the fall. This highway connects the towns of Walden in the north with Granby in the south and crosses the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge before getting into the Rabbit Ears Range.
Once the open mountain prairie gives way (make sure to look out for pronghorns), you quickly get into rich pine forests and rocky hills and peaks. This area gives you similar views as Rocky Mountain National Park, just without all the people. A great place to get up close and personal with the scenery is to stop and hike along the Continental Divide Trail, which passes the highway at Willow Creek Pass.
Estes Park has a lot to offer. From hiking to biking, to just ambling along downtown looking at all the taffy shops. There is a lot to do. But if you are looking to maybe get a different view of the area, or just head out of town for a bit, then we definitely recommend venturing out on one of these routes. Adventure, hidden gems, and even awesome cinnamon rolls await you.
Learn more about the best things to do in and around Estes Park here: