When I’m ready to take the family and get out of Denver, Estes Park is the first destination on my mind. Why? I live in the foothills just off Highway 93, so it’s a quick 90-minute drive – away from that I-70 traffic jam yet still with those Rocky Mountain majestic views my family loves. In fact, Estes Park was the first mountain road trip my (now adult) daughters took when we first moved to Colorado.
Even after more than 30 years as Colorado resident, I’m still in awe of that first view of Estes Park via Lyons and south on Highway 7 – so much so that I always stop at that last pullout just before descending into the town to soak it all in. My family grumbles each time, until we step out into the crisp mountain-fresh air. Once we feast our eyes on the crystal blue waters of Lake Estes, the snow-capped mountain peaks, and the enchanting mountain town, we forget about our destination and enjoy the scenic journey.
Flash forward a few decades, and now my adult children share their childhood Estes Park vacation experiences with their children. And I now get to re-create new Estes Park adventures with my grandchildren.
Like sharing the first glimpse of Longs Peak. Hiking and biking around Lake Estes. Witnessing my toddler granddaughter catch her first fish (albeit a scrawny two-incher). Seeing a “real live moosey” as my grandson called it. Family adventure is fun in Estes Park.
With so much to see and do in and around this area, families could spend days here without experiencing everything. Here are a few of our personal recommendations:
1. Explore Rocky Mountain National Park by Car
As the eastern entrance to one of the most-visited national parks in the United States, Estes Park is synonymous with Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). This was the first Colorado park my two daughters and I explored, and this was also the first one that my oldest daughter chose to take my grandchildren.
Why this national park? Thanks to its 415 square miles, the park is literally your family’s adventure land. Pay your entrance fees and start driving Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in North America. At its peak, it reaches more than 12,000 feet in altitude, traveling through the heart of the park. Do check your calendar and the weather conditions as this road is usually open only Memorial Day through mid-October.
Stop and smell the fresh mountain air at the dozens of turn-offs or scenic areas. Let your eyes feast on the spectacular vistas — I call this “windshield art.” The most difficult part of road tripping through Rocky Mountain National Park? Not stopping to soak in every last spectacular view displayed by Mother Nature.
Noteworthy views: Rainbow Curve and the Alluvial Fan, Horseshoe Park and the Forest Canyon where glaciers cut through the terrain.
2. Estes Park Adventures
The best part of staying in Estes Park is that there is so much to do and see within the town. Get a spectacular birds-eye view of the valley and surrounding mountains aboard the Estes Park Aerial Tram. Wander through the charming downtown, with candy shops, gift stores, art galleries and a classic “Main Street America” ambiance. Visit the Open Air Adventure Park, an aerial experience with rope bridges, swinging logs and moving platforms. Visit a museum featuring regional artists, history, and the land.
3. Old Fall River Road
Other scenic drives near Estes Park include Old Fall River Road, accessed before Trail Ridge, with access to the Alpine Visitor Center. For some this may be a nail-biting, 11-mile, one-way dirt road slowed by multiple switchbacks.
But wait for it – the winding road around Horseshoe Park borders the trees of the montane and subalpine forest so closely, you could almost reach out and touch them – from your car. Elk often graze in this area just before turning into the alpine tundra, 11 miles above the tree line.
TIP: Arrive at Your early morning drive will include a quiet glimpse of wildlife awakening or a sunrise (either in your rearview mirror or in front of you depending on how you get here).
4. A Range of Accommodations Options
Our family loves day trips to Estes, but we prefer to book at least a weekend getaway (or mid-week for budget friendly rates). Rocky Mountain National Park features more than 100 peaks, including the iconic Longs Peak, wildlife at nearly every turn, and more than 300 miles of hiking and biking trails. You can’t do it all in one day or even one weekend, and Estes LOVES families.
When we bring the entire multigenerational family, we choose the YMCA of the Rockies – Estes Park. This is not your local “YMCA” – this is a beautiful 860-acre mountain getaway with a Rocky Mountain National Park address. Here, families are encouraged to unplug and get up-close-and-personal with the natural world. Lodging options range from nine cabins (including larger cabins for our multigenerational family) to nine lodges. Cook in your cabin or dig into the Y’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Explore the park on your own or book a guided excursion onsite. Enjoy activities ranging from yoga, archery, arts and crafts, horseback rides, zipline and more. This is where my three-year-old granddaughter snagged her first fish.
Need to be closer to the Estes Park? Book a stay at the just-opened Ridgeline Hotel (formerly the Rocky Mountain Park Inn), just two miles from the park and a 15-minute walk to downtown restaurants, shopping and breweries.
My other favorite place to stay is the Stanley Hotel, which first opened its doors in 1909. Yeah, totally different accommodations as this historic hotel pampers guests with all the amenities expected of a high-end hotel, including luxurious rooms, fine dining and a full bar. Whether you stay here or not, be sure to plan a tour, a favorite with my grandson who is fascinated with all things spooky. The Stanley is also close to downtown Estes Park (20-minute walk or five-minute drive).
5. Visitor Centers
My family goes Mother Nature geeky over Visitor Centers, and RMNP has several with so many educational opportunities (as well as breaks for bathroom, shopping and snacking!). A stop at these centers keeps the kids (and adults) busy browsing topographical maps of the park, watching educational films, getting hands-on with exhibits, and visiting with park rangers. Totally worth the stop. And don’t miss Estes Park’s own Visitor Center (500 Big Thompson Avenue), the perfect place to get your bearings and consult the Estes Park experts.
6. Junior Ranger and Ranger-Led Programs
Free is fun, right? Stop at any visitor center and pick up your Junior Ranger Book. These three age-appropriate activity books geared toward ages from five and under, six-eight, nine and up encourage kids to learn about RMNP. Once completed, the kids earn a badge – and bragging rights.
From your Estes Park home base, it’s just a 20-minute drive discover the Junior Ranger Headquarters (summer only) at Hidden Valley along Trail Ridge Road. This is where most of the free ranger-led programs begin with topics including guided hikes, night sky observation, wildlife and wildflowers walks, geology, kid’s geocaching, and more. Programs last 30 minutes and are offered four times a day, seven days a week.
TIP: When planning your vacation, download a Junior Ranger book so your kids can preview the fun learning experiences ahead of them.
7. Family Friendly Hikes
Another family favorite. Park the car for a hike around Bear Lake, open year-round. Just 14 miles from Estes (30 minute drive) at the Beaver Meadows Entrance. Stop in at the Moraine Park Discovery Center – and be sure to look for elk and other wildlife. Keep driving past Sprague Lake, Glacier Creek, twisting through switchbacks to Bear Lake. The 0.5-mile an easy walk around the lake is easy even on younger hikers, who are still rewarded with a view.
Need a more challenging hike? Start on Bear Lake trail, continuing on to Alberta Falls, still kid-friendly but longer hike. And be sure to bring a lunch to take advantage of the picnic areas.
What kid doesn’t love waterfalls? The perfect spot to catch the impressive falls is the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Leaping 25 feet and crashing into the boulders below, Alberta Falls is the first major falls.
TIP: Best to time to miss the crowds: early morning and late evening. This is also the coolest times of the day, so be sure to bring layers.
8. Guided Tours
Don’t feel like driving? Park the car and take a park shuttle from Estes Park Fair Grounds, Beaver Meadows Visitor Center or the Park and Ride. Step onto a van or motor coach for a drive up Trail Ridge Road with on-board guides detailing the park’s ecosystems, plants and wildlife. Book a guided tour. Sit back, learn and do more from local experts. Choose from wildlife photography safaris, ATVs, guided fly-fishing adventures, wildflower hikes and more.
9. Family Friendly Restaurants in Estes
Downtown Estes Park offers a number of family-friendly dining options. Our favorite is Village Pizza – because what kid doesn’t love pizza? Other fun restaurants include Big Horn Restaurant, a lively local favorite, and Mama Rose’s Restaurant on the Riverwalk, with authentic Italian dishes (and much more).
For the past 25 years, Denver based freelance writer Diana Rowe has written about her Colorado backyard and places beyond for multiple print and online publications. She is an editor at TravelingMom.com, and blogs about her travels at TravelingInHeels.com. She also writes about food, wine, beer and spirits at WineLoversVillage.com.
With her ever-expanding multigenerational, blended family of four adult daughters and one son, two son-in-laws, and seven grandchildren, her favorite moments are travel adventures with her family. Discover more of her Rocky Mountain National Park adventures here and here.