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Estes Park is one of our most favorite spots in Colorado.  It’s a great place to go in the summer to escape the heat, hike, and just relax.  Estes Park is known to be a little crowded in the summers and for good reason, at the base of the Rocky Mountain National Park there is a lot to see and do.  So I thought it would be great to write a blog post on stuff to do when it’s not peak season.  In the winter time the crowds leave and several places shut down or restrict their hours, but there is still plenty to see and do!

This was our 5th year to visit Estes Park in the winter and we always love it.  The weather can be a little unpredictable, though.   The town is nestled in a bowl of mountains, and a lot of these mountains will catch the snow, so therefor Estes Park is not an option for skiing and snowboarding, but they still get plenty of snow.  We’ve had years that felt like a blizzard up there and other times like this one not much snow, except for some leftover spots.  Regardless the scenery is peaceful and beautiful.

WHERE TO STAY

There are so many terrific lodging options in Estes Park, especially in peak tourist season.  In the winter there are a few less options, but there are still many amazing ones to pick from!  Below I’ve listed the places I’m most familiar with, either because I’ve visited them many times or I’ve stayed there myself.

The Stanley Hotel

Ok, I haven’t actually spent the night in this hotel, but I’ve taken the tour, eaten at the restaurant, and wandered all the floors and grounds in the winter and summer.  I can say with confidence this looks like an incredible place to stay.  Unfortunately our big family won’t easily fit in the rooms here, but it’s definitely on my future list of places to stay.  I’m thinking a nice couples vacation would be ideal.  I’m on the fence if I should stay in one of the haunted rooms or just a regular one.  Probably a regular room….I’m a lousy sleeper anyway and I’m guessing having a ghost in the room wouldn’t help, lol…or maybe we could stay up and talk when I’m wide awake at 2 am.

This iconic hotel was where Stephen King stayed and the experience inspired him to write The Shining.  Scenes from Dumb and Dumber were also filmed here inside and out.  According to hotel employees, Jim Carey stayed in one of the famous haunted rooms and only lasted a few hours before he ran down stairs screaming he wanted to leave.  He refused to go inside the Stanley Hotel unless he was filming scenes.  In between scenes he would wait outside, and refuses to talk about what happened that night.  He’s been known to even end interviews when asked about the alleged incident.

Below, you can see the stunning view from the Stanley Hotel.  It’s truly a gorgeous hotel with lots of history.

Lazy R Cottages

We’ve stayed many times at the Lazy R Cottages.  When it’s just us we stay in the smaller cabin, when we have extended family join us we stay in this big Mama, cabin 16.

This is our third year to stay in this cabin, it now holds special meaning to us.  Below, you can see the incredible mountain view from the balcony.  When we stay over Christmas we like to bring a little Christmas tree to decorate, and we bake cookies in the kitchen.  It’s a great place.

Colorado Cottages

Colorado Cottages was the place we stayed the first year and we also really enjoyed it!  The location is very convienent  and they’re are several cabin sizes to pick from.  The owners are very helpful and friendly.  When driving by this place during our most recent trip we see it’s had a renovation, new paint, upgrades, and cabin add ons, so I’m excited to check those out sometime too.

WHERE TO EAT

Smokin Dave’s BBQ

Driving from Fort Worth to Estes Park all at once is no easy task.  Once we finally hit Estes Park we’re pretty mental.  It’s become a tradition that the first stop is to eat at Smoking Dave’s BBQ.  As soon as we arrive we open the car doors…with all our water bottles and gas station wrappers flying out of the car.  They always welcome us while we limp inside the doors, and Smoking Dave’s is officially what gets our trip party started.  From here everything improves, we get our drink on, and we have a feast.  Brian always orders the “Manhandler” and I love the pork green chili….it’s also about 60 seconds from the Lazy R Cottages – a total win for tired cranky Texans.

Cascades

One of my favorite restaurants in Estes Park!  We selected this restaurant for Brian’s special birthday dinner this year.   I love the sophisticated interior with rich wood carvings.  This was where the bar scene was filmed in the Dumb and Dumber movie, and they still have the famous “we landed on the moon” newspaper article framed.  Movie aside, the food is really good and the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Some of our dinner favorites we ordered was the butternut squash soup, wild arugula salad, and the wild elk loin.  They also have a great list of wine and cocktails to pick from.  Cocktails….I’m going to go more into that in just a bit.

Penelope’s

We didn’t eat at Penelope’s this time, but we have many times before.  Right on Elkhorn Avenue, the main street downtown, surrounded by little mountain shops, it’s just an easy place to go in and grab a bite.  Penelope’s is kid friendly and a great stop to pick up some burgers and brew.

The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern

This was a new restaurant to try and we all loved it!  Not far from the Rocky Mountain National Park, this building was originally built in 1937 as a dance hall.  Inside is still oozing with mountain charm, from the vaulted wood ceiling to the wood burning fireplace that heats the tavern.  The menu is creative with a nice variety and not to mention yummy.  Everyone left dinner satisfied and happy.

Bird and Jim

This restaurant wins the award.  The “everything was awesome” award, and it gets the longest write up.  Bird and Jim just opened a few months ago and we found it by accident.  The kids were needing some alone time at the cabin so we headed into town for some shopping first and a bite to eat afterwards.  The only problem was the restaurants we wanted to go to were closed for lunch, and the frustration was definitely building.  At the last minute I found this restaurant in a Google search.  It sounded nice but we weren’t sure, it was a gamble.  So we walked in and…..WOW.

I was immediately blown away by the atmosphere and knew I was in the right place.  Looking at these photos you can probably tell why I love it so much.  Tufted furniture, patterns, cage lighting, and modern art.

Mixing modern and vintage is my jam and this restaurant definitely has the modern mountain chic thing going on!  It was like who ever decorated the place had crawled in my head.  The last time an interior blew me this away was inside the Autograph Hotel in New Orleans on Canal Street, a different look but also a winner.

Ok….you’re thinking what about the food?  This is Estes Park eats not Elle Decor.  Alright, I’ll tell ya about the food, but first one more photo of the interior!  #happiness

The food is coming but first cocktails…hey, it was a few hours from 5 o’clock.  Blame the time difference.  So I mentioned under Cascades restaurant the cocktails, yes that had a purpose.  You see Brian is a true fan of a well made old fashioned.  A few years ago he discovered the most amazing smoked old fashioned at Cascades, I don’t do whiskey but according to him it was the most incredible thing on the planet.  He had been fantasizing about that drink for 2 years.  So we went to Cascades this time only to be told they can no longer make the drink, just a regular old fashioned…..hang in there I promise this has a point!

So as we sit down to order at Bird and Jim we naturally scan the drink menu (remember time zone -haha) Brian is still a little sad not getting his smoked old fashioned and to what do our wandering eyes appear???  Bird and Jim has a smoked old fashioned on the menu!!!

We told the waiter how sad we were when Cascades had discontinued it.  “Well, it’s our chef’s recipe, he works here now so he took it with him” our waiter said.  Apparently there was some drama with lighting alcohol on fire in a very old wooden historic hotel.  So what a happy ending, Brian got his special smoked old fashioned for his birthday, just a day late.  Like I said I don’t do whiskey but it smelled freakin incredible.  It has this incredible rich smokey flavor mixed with orange.  Everyone who tried it loved it.  If you love a good old fashioned it is mandatory you try this!!!

Now for the food, this was a late lunch so we didn’t get a ton of food….which I deeply regret.  After drinks we shared the Bird and Jim Poutine.  OMG it was so good, french fries covered in pork green chili and goat cheese curds.  It tasted 1000 times even better than it sounds.  Next up we each ordered a bowl of the smoked pheasant chowder, complete with fresh herbs and wild rice, Bobby Flay would be jealous.  I am so ashamed we found this restaurant so close to the end of our trip.  Next time we visit Estes Park I’ll probably eat every meal here.  Not kidding either.

The Grubsteak

The Grubsteak is a family owned restaurant and pub and is another easy stop on the main street tucked in between little shops.  It’s a great casual stop to get a quick bite and perfect for families.  Here you can feast on wild game such as elk, buffalo, and yak….those who are scared don’t worry they have plenty of beef.  Bonus – gluten free options are available.

Nicky’s Steak House

Not to start on a negative vibe but our first trip ever to Estes Park in the winter I had a serious fall and spent a good 4 hours in the hospital.  I was so hopped up on pain meds I’m surprised I can even remember this, but afterwards Brian was determined to improve my suffering.  He said he wanted to take me on a nice quiet dinner without the kids and we ended up at Nicky’s Steak House.  I remember it took me at least 10 minutes to get out of the car and make it a few short steps to the door.

The interior of Nicky’s is dark and cozy, we had a quiet, delicious meal and as we left walking out to the car snow started falling all around us and we just stood there.  My back pain was so intense it hurt to breath but this magical moment told me God was with me, I was surrounded by love and that everything would be ok.

So this time after taking some blog photos Brian and I snuck away again to Nicky’s, instead of eating this time we sat in the warm cozy bar that overlooks the creek.  I guess you could say Nicky’s is our little getaway secret spot….haha.  Meanwhile everyone back at the cabin was foaming at the mouth for food….

Antonio’s Real New York Pizza

After asking around we heard if you’re needing some Estes Park pizza it’s all about Antonio’s.  We ordered and picked up several pizzas for the heard back at the cabin.  The guy who brought the pizzas out to our car said “this is heaven in a box” and I don’t think anyone will argue with him!

Due to how long this post ended up being I decided to split it up into two blog posts.  Be sure to check out Things to Do in Estes Park During the Winter.  Happy traveling!