Summer is nearly here and that means it’s time to start making travel plans! Last summer I really wanted to write an Estes Park summer guide but the reality was we were deep in Covid. We’ve lived in the Estes Park area for the last two years and before that we visited here every year for a decade, and I have learned a lot of information during that time.
If you’re familiar with North Colorado or Rocky Mountain National Park odds are you’re familiar or you’ve at least heard of Estes Park. Summertime in Estes is always busy so I thought I would put together a summer guide since COVID to help people with their travel plans. Notice I said the words since COVID. Colorado is cautiously opening up but COVID has still affected some businesses, restaurants, and activities. Things have been rapidly changing here and I’ll give you the most up-to-date information I know of, but it’s probably wise to double check things before you visit.
Below I’ll share with you my favorite things to do, Rocky Mountain National Park updates, favorite restaurants, and a few other helpful tips.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
If you’re coming to Estes Park in the summer then chances are you have plans to visit RMNP at least once while you are here. Whether this is your first time or you’re an experienced visitor, there has been one significant change that you need to be aware of – the timed entry reservation system. This was implemented for the first time last year because of COVID, but had been in the works for several years due to overcrowding in the park. Park visitation has been drastically increasing year after year for the past decade (not counting COVID in 2020), and this is the solution that park officials came up with to alleviate crowded parking lots and roads.
Let me stress this important point, the timed entry reservation system is completely separate from admission fees. You still have to pay a fee or have an annual pass to get in during guard station hours, which I believe are something like 5 am to 6 pm, but I am not sure about that. The reservation system requires that you also have a timed entry reservation during the hours of 9 am to 3 pm. Before or after those hours you don’t need a reservation to enter, but if the guard stations are open then you still have to either pay a fee or have an annual pass.
Now, here is another new change…this year they divided the park into two zones, the uber-popular Bear Lake Corridor, and the rest of the park. When making your timed entry reservation you can choose either zone, but if you don’t have a Bear Lake reservation then you can’t enter that area during reservation hours. On the other hand, if you do have a Bear Lake reservation you can access the main park also. Also please note that the Bear Lake Corridor requires a timed entry reservation all day (from 5 am to 6 pm). One last point to be stressed is that once you have entered the park using your timed entry reservation and paid your admission fee, you are free to enter and exit the park as much as you want the rest of the day. This is different from some other parks where once you’re in you can’t leave and re-enter. At RMNP you can. Go HERE to read about various entry fees and passes and to make your purchase, and go HERE to read more about the timed entry reservation system and to purchase reservations ($2 per daily reservation).
But besides Rocky Mountain National Park, there are many other things to do and see in Estes Park…
THE STANLEY HOTEL
Rich with history, you’ll find The Stanley Hotel with lots of fun stuff to do. This spooky historic hotel is known to be haunted with a few spirits, and after Stephen King stayed a few nights in Room 217 he was inspired to write The Shining (we’ve stayed in that room too!). Outside you’ll even find a Shining inspired hedge maze to walk through. History and ghost tours run daily and you can’t miss Aiden Sinclair’s incredible live shows! If you happen to be hungry there is also a restaurant there (dinner reservations recommended), a bar, and a coffee and ice cream shop in the basement.
SNOWY PEAKS WINERY
Snowy Peaks Winery has award winning Colorado wines with indoor and outdoor seating along with a super friendly and knowledgeable staff. Wine flights (seen above) are just $9 and a fun way to sample the amazing wines! A variety of cheeses, meats, crackers, and chocolates are available for purchase too. Snowy Peaks is open daily from 11-7 and they have live music every Friday on the patio in the summer.
MUSTANG MOUNTAIN COASTER
The Mustang Mountain Coaster is the newest addition to Estes Park. This alpine coaster has gorgeous views and lets you control the speed of your ride, fast or slow! Riders of at least 3 years old can ride with an adult. A single ride is $20 per person and a three pack ride is $35. Go for the three pack ride, it’s a great deal! Video of the experience is available for $10.
LAKE ESTES MARINA
Come to the Lake Estes Marina while you’re here and rent a boat, kayak, or canoe to cruise the lake in comfort and style. You can also bring your own boat and launch here for a small fee. Swimming and power sports are prohibited, but this makes for a more quiet and relaxing time on the water. Plus, we don’t want to scare the fish away! Fishing is available from your boat, the dock, or the shore, but be sure to get a license first. The marina also rents bikes and pedal carts for use on the Lake Estes Trail, and there are picnic tables and a pavilion nearby.
ESTES PARK AERIAL TRAMWAY
From late May to early September the Estes Park Aerial Tramway is open from 9-6. Covid restrictions have now been lifted and this tram is a great experience. You’ll take a 5 minute ride to the top with sweeping views of the mountains and the town, but once your ride ends the fun isn’t over! There is plenty to see and do at the top of the mountain. There is a gift shop, cafe, and plenty of mountain terrain to explore. The gift shop sells peanuts to feed the very friendly and chubby chipmunks that are around. They’ll come right up to you and some may want to eat out of your hand!
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Horseback riding – Sombrero Stables offers rides for those 6 and up. Whether you choose the 30 minute, 1 hour, or 2 hour ride you’ll see gorgeous views from your ride.
Main Street – A visit to Estes Park would not be complete without a walk down the main strip, Elkhorn Avenue. Here you will find many clothing and souvenir shops featuring Estes Park items and gifts, restaurants, candy and ice cream stores, and even a few Christmas stores.
Estes Park Historic Theatre – This historic theatre is the oldest single motion theatre still operating in the United States. Inside you’ll be swept back in time while watching today’s new and classic movies. A cafe is also available for drinks and snacks.
Rapid Transit Rafting – From June to September rafting trips are available from Estes Park for those 7 years and up. Half day trips are available on the Cache la Poudre and full day trips are available on the Colorado River, with lunch included.
Trout Haven Pond – This pond is regularly stocked with rainbow trout and a fun way to test your angling skills. Rods are available for rental and you pay for what you catch. They will also clean and pack what you catch. No license is required.
Coffee on the Rocks – Coffee, wine, beer, and snacks are available at this cute little coffee shop. There is plenty of outdoor seating along the pond with lots of friendly ducks and geese and it’s really fun to feed them! Cups of food are available for $1.
Green Jeep Tours – This tour company has a variety of tours to offer! Safari tours, hiking tours, brewery tours, and Grand Lake tours are available. This is a great way to explore Estes Park and the Rockies all while taking in fresh mountain air.
Estes Park Trolleys – This 3 hour tour is open from May-October and takes you up to some of the most amazing natural wonders in the lower level of Rocky Mountain National Park.
YMCA of the Rockies – Inside the beautiful YMCA camp you’ll find hiking trails, playgrounds, sports, arts and crafts, and even more family friendly activities available. Day passes are available for those staying off-site.
Golfing – Whether you are into mini-golf or the real thing, Estes Park has several courses to meet your needs.
Watch the elk – The Estes Park elk herds are world famous so be sure to take some time to drive around and look for them. In the summertime they tend to move up a little higher in the mountains to stay cool and avoid the crowds, but if you’re looking for them you’ll probably find them.
SHORT DAY TRIPS FROM ESTES PARK
If you’re looking for a quick get-away from Estes Park there are many of great options! Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver are easily doable in a day with plenty to do. But odds are you’re wanting mountain charm. Glen Haven is just a short drive down County Rd 43 switchbacks. There isn’t a lot to do in Glen Haven but the views are incredible and it’s a must to stop at the Glen Haven General Store for their famous cinnamon rolls! The Crosier Mountain trailhead is located near the General Store, depending on your skill level it can be a tough hike but the views are worth it!
Allenspark is a short drive and you’ll see amazing views of Longs Peak on the way. Similar to Glen Haven it’s a very small town, aside from the scenic views you can stop by Saint Catherine’s Chapel on the Rock, which is absolutely stunning and you can pick up a slice of delicious pizza at the Rock Creek Tavern & Pizzeria. The Pizzeria is really charming and fun, however I highly suggest you call or check their Facebook page before heading that direction.
Lyons is a larger town with lots of quirky shops and restaurants, located down Hwy 36. Mojo Taqueria has some of the best tacos I’ve had!
If you take Trail Ridge Road (US 34) through RMNP and over the Continental Divide, the first town you will come to is Grand Lake. There you will find more shops and restaurants as well as more hiking trails and a beautiful lake with a couple of marinas that offer boat rentals. I could probably write an entire blog post just on Grand Lake, which I’ll probably do next! For now, though I at least want to recommend the Grand Lake Lodge for their restaurant and bar, Huntington House Tavern, which has stunning views and delicious food, and another delicious restaurant that we love called The Rapids.
Bird and Jim – Shown above, this gorgeous restaurant is my favorite in Estes Park. The upscale food features lots of locally sourced ingredients. Everything is amazing, from the ahi tuna tacos to the pheasant chowder, it’s all delicious! Sunday brunch is a treat too, be sure and try a bacon bloody Mary! During peak hours this place gets really busy. Reservations are encouraged but walk-ins are welcome.
Dunraven at the Estes Park Resort – This restaurant moved from it’s previous location to beautiful Lake Estes. You’ll get the same delicious Italian food plus sweeping views of the lake. The new location features breakfast and lunch. We love having breakfast and mimosas on the outdoor patio along the lake.
The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern – Quirky, great mountain food and full bar, and live music.
Hunter’s Chophouse – With rustic wooden walls and antler chandeliers, Hunters features old fashioned mountain charm. They have a wide variety of unusual meats to choose from and an extensive wine list. Be sure to try the wild game brats sampler or the smoked elk carpaccio!
Twin Owls Steakhouse – Twin Owls recently moved into a new location too that includes indoor and outdoor dining with gorgeous mountain views. With an extensive menu you’ll find some of the best steaks and seafood around.
Smokin Dave’s BBQ – Definitely the best barbecue in Estes Park! Try my favorite, the pork green chili, or my husband’s favorite burger to tackle, the Manhandler! It’s definitely a popular place, so be prepared for a wait during peak dining hours.
The View – This restaurant is inside the Historic Crags Lodge and has beautiful views of Estes Park and the mountains. They shut down due to COVID but told us they plan to reopen in late June. The food was amazing and it’s the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion. Definitely call to verify they’ve reopened and to check availability, I’ll update as soon as I hear more info!
Ed’s Cantina – Ed’s has a great riverside patio, and the best Mexican food we have found in Estes Park.
Cascades Restaurant & Lounge – Located inside The Stanley Hotel, the Cascades offers fine dining, the menu however is still limited due to COVID. Reservations are available at www.opentable.com.
Antonio’s Real New York Pizza – Hands down the best pizza in the area! They have so many creative pizzas to choose from! If you’re extra hungry try their 26 inch pizza! Dine in or pick up is available.
Burger’s and Gyros – Don’t let the shabby exterior of this building fool you, they have some of the best elk burgers, sides, and gyros! There is a drive-thru and also indoor dining available.
Nicky’s Steakhouse is another great favorite, but unfortunately it is temporarily closed due to a recent fire.
I didn’t review lodging because honestly there are too many incredible places! Whether you’re looking for a romantic place or a rustic cabin Estes Park has it all. If you’re thinking about booking a trip what are you waiting for? Not a summer traveler? Estes Park is also a great place to visit in the off season as well. VisitEstesPark.com has a year-round calendar of festivals and events you can see.
Be sure to check out my blog post on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and my tips on how to beat altitude sickness. Happy trails!