So you want to visit the beautiful, adventurous town of Estes Park? Great! Good choice. Many 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! And we would hazard a guess that almost 75% of those people came through Estes Park. That is a lot of people.
So while the town is a haven for tourists, there is so much more to the city than just t-shirt shops. Take it from us - Estes Park has a lot to offer. Here is the perfect itinerary for three days like a local.
Wake up and make sure to get your coffee on before doing anything else. Our first choice is Kind Coffee - a great shop that focuses on being environmentally conscious, incredibly friendly, and delicious. Stop in for their freshly roasted beans, grab a yummy bagel or breakfast burrito, and sit outside in the sun and listen to the river rush by.
After getting nice and caffeinated get ready to hit the trails. While there are obviously a ton of hikes to do in the main area of the park, we recommend going out to the “satellite” areas. One of our favorites is off County Road 2312 - right near Meeker Park.
It is a simple dirt road that winds its way through a couple of cabins before ending at a marked trailhead. There are only a couple of parking spots (and we have never seen it full). Then grab your hiking boots and head out on 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 forests and meadows before intersecting the Sandbeach Lake Trail (this is also a great spot to see 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 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 in the process.
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 the main strip to still be untouristy. 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 are known for stunningly colorful dusk displays. A great spot to view it is from the shores of Lake Estes.
Have a nice lazy morning before stepping out for some breakfast. Our recommendation for breakfast is Big Horn Restaurant, a town staple that is the perfect fill-up spot before a big day on the trail.
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 you want to see.
The first is Pierson Park, a nice wide trail goes uphill for a while (though never too steeply), past some creeks and aspen groves, before reaching a T. 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). This is an awesome spot for running, mountain biking, and hiking and is dog friendly (no leash laws even).
Or you can go down the road a bit farther and eventually get to Johnny Park Road - a popular spot for jeeps and ATV’s, 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 type of color: yellow, poppy, navy, lavender, white, plum, and even a couple mixes (we found one that was bright blue and purple that was so stunning). The trail itself is also really pretty with great views, aspens, pine trees, and even a good chance of seeing some animals like moose and elk. And like Pierson Park, this is also super 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 time to head up to Trail Ridge Road - the highest continuous paved road in the United States that reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet at the top (where there is a cool visitor center). Heading up there in mid-afternoon is the best because you will likely have less 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 to have enough time to go up, take some photos and check it out and get back to town before it gets dark.
*If you are planning to visit 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.
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 from all over for (no joke, 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, 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.
Both restaurants have great views of the surrounding mountains, perfect for one last Estes Park sunset :)
Estes Park is definitely a tourist town. Millions of people pass through it regularly, especially during the summer season. And while you can partake in the usual touristy things: horseback rides, riding a tram to the top of the mountain, eating handfuls of taffy, the town itself has so much to offer if you are willing to get off the beaten path and live like a local.
Read more about our favorite trails in the area here.
And our list of the best restaurants and coffee shops (and dog-friendly hikes) in and around Estes Park here.