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As more and more travelers seek post-pandemic escapes in the great outdoors, younger travelers have been rediscovering the quintessential Colorado vacation destination of Estes Park. From kayaking on the lakes with a backdrop of jagged peaks, to horseback riding through forest trails, Estes Park is a dream for outdoor adventures.
Estes Park has been welcoming visitors into a picturesque mountain valley at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park for more than 100 years, and in recent years, it’s become a top destination for eco-minded and environmentally conscious travelers. With this in mind, here are some of the best human-powered ways to explore this natural paradise – and how to leave no trace while doing so.
The best way to see the town is by taking a stroll along the Estes Park Riverwalk, a 1mi (1.6km) paved trail following the paths of the Big Thompson River and Fall River through downtown Estes Park. Start your journey at the Estes Park Visitor Center, where there’s a free parking garage and frequent shuttle buses which you can hop on from here. Take a moment to listen to the gentle sounds of the river as you make your way past local independent shops and restaurants to George Hix Riverside Plaza, where you can often enjoy live bands sitting on a bench in the shade. Finish off the adventure at some of Estes Park’s most popular shops and restaurants lining the Riverwalk, including Ed’s Cantina and Poppy’s Pizza & Grill.
One of the last remaining vintage European-style cable cars operating in the US, the Estes Park Aerial Tramway offers sweeping views across Estes Park and the surrounding Continental Divide from an elevation of around 9,000ft (2,740m). Making its way up the side of Prospect Mountain just a short stroll from downtown Estes Park, the tram gently rises more than 1,000ft (300m) in less than five minutes to deposit visitors at the summit. Take in the view from the observation deck, explore the area’s hiking trails, or stop at the gift shop for coffee and a souvenir. Operating from late May through September, the tram has carried more than 3m visitors to the summit since opening in 1955.
Wait, do elk play golf? You could be forgiven for having such a thought when you visit the Estes Park 18-Hole Golf Course, where it is easy to spot native wildlife like deer and elk throughout the year. Located beneath towering snow-capped mountains in the shadow of the 14,259ft (4,346m) Longs Peak, this public course operated by the Estes Valley Recreation and Park District has been ranked as one of the most beautiful in the nation. Open from mid-April through October, the course also offers golf club rentals, and Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ restaurant is a great spot for the ultimate post-round treat.
No trip to Estes Park is complete without a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, the town’s leading attraction and the fourth most visited national park in the US. It offers a natural wonderland of scenic mountains, lakes, hiking trails, and the highest continuous paved road in America along the iconic Trail Ridge Road. There’s been a surge in visitor numbers in recent years, so park administrators encourage you to take advantage of the free shuttle bus to explore some of the more popular areas such as the Bear Lake Road corridor. The park has also recently implemented a timed entry permit reservation system for the peak summer and fall months, so be sure to plan ahead.
One of Estes Park’s underrated assets is the lake, offering a unique vantage point from which to survey the local mountain landscape atop crystal clear blue waters. With around 4mi (6km) of shoreline across 185 acres (75ha) and only a short distance from downtown, Lake Estes offers environmentally friendly activities such as paddleboats, kayaks, and canoes to rent from the Lake Estes Marina. While it’s hard to beat a cloudless day kayaking its placid waters beneath the Colorado sunshine, trout fishing is another popular option, with fishing licenses available from the marina during the summer season.
Cycling is another excellent way to get a sense of what Estes is all about, especially along the picturesque 3.7mi (6km) Lake Estes Bike Path, which loops around the lake. This popular biking/walking/running trail is smooth and wide, offering a gentle 190ft (58m) of elevation at a mean elevation of around 7,500ft (2,286m). Rent bikes from the Lake Estes Marina and enjoy panoramic views of the lake and Estes Valley as you pedal along this family-friendly path, and be sure to keep the adventure going with additional biking opportunities south of the trail.
If you want to experience Estes Park like the early explorers of the late 1800s, horseback riding is a popular alternative that is also easy on the environment. A number of local outfitters offer scenic horseback riding trips throughout the area including Cowpoke Corner Corral, National Park Gateway Stables, and Jackson Stables. Trips range from one to eight hours, with trail locations including Rocky Mountain National Park, Roosevelt National Forest, and the gorgeous YMCA of the Rockies campus. And yes, there’s even pony rides for the little ones.
One thing visitors to Estes Park will have a hard time missing is wildlife – and you don’t have to be deep in the wilderness to spot some. Elk sightings are extremely common throughout Estes Park and downtown, with “elk jams” occasionally backing up traffic along the town’s main drag of Elkhorn Avenue. They are also big fans of the Estes Park Golf Course, and can best be observed during the fall mating season when their bugling calls are impossible to ignore. Mule deer are another common local resident that can be easily spotted, as are cute little pika and marmots at higher elevations. More elusive black bears also populate the area, while moose and bighorn sheep can often be sighted within Rocky Mountain National Park.
Fancy your own adventure in Estes Park? Head to visitestespark.com to start planning your trip.