“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
– John Muir
The best trips to pack for are the ones that necessitate a bunch of outdoor gear and layers of clothing that you can really move in—hiking boots and comfy sneakers, all-weather jackets, hydration systems, protein snacks. And so it goes with an adventure to Estes Park, Colorado. Recently, my seven-year-old son Kai and I left Chicago and set off on a wintery mama-son quest with the goal of experiencing Estes Park’s mountain vivacity. We intended to enjoy life by tasting nature’s elixir and by exploring with fresh eyes, propelled by curiosity and a sense of discovery and gratitude.
Make it Happen: Day One
After a scenic 90-minute drive from Denver, we arrived at the gateway of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). In 2017, Estes Park celebrated its 100th anniversary and it’s easy to see why this town, with oodles of charm and character, is beloved by so many annual visitors and around 6,000 residents. Sitting at 7,522 feet elevation, situated along the Big Thompson River and overlooking Lake Estes, this little town has big snow-capped panoramic mountain views and lung-expanding fresh air.
Our first stop was the Estes Park Visitors Center, an excellent resource for new travelers. We were able to park there and walk along a trail that led us to the lovely river walk. Shoppers will love the downtown area, full of artisan shops and galleries, clothing and jewelry, coffee shops and restaurants. We particularly adored: Macdonald Book Shop, Estes Park Taffy Company (with an old-fashioned taffy pull in the window), The Shabby Moose, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Rocket Fizz Soda Pop & Candy Shop (we purchased a “Mystery Bag” full of sweets here).
With a Little Joy in Our Hearts
After walking up and down the enchanting downtown street and purchasing taffy, buttery popcorn and hot chocolate, we searched for a spot to watch the Catch the Glow Christmas Parade & Celebration, Estes Park’s signature holiday event.
“We have an extra spot to sit on our blanket,” said a woman sitting on the curb with two children in tow.
The friendliness and inclusiveness of the town’s citizens was remarkable. Folks behind us were clapping and yelling “Thank you!” to the Search and Rescue, volunteer Fire Department and veteran floats. Bands played holiday music, dancers in sparkly outfits twirled batons, and strolling animal characters handed out candy canes. The parade was the perfect introduction to north-central Colorado’s amiable culture.
Night one ended at Fawn Valley Inn, seven miles from Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, where the night sky was nearly opaque and full of stars.
Up and at ‘Em: Day Two
Unbelievably, on our way to The Egg & I for breakfast (the avocado toast was so good here, I ordered it two mornings in a row), we saw two bugling bull elks knocking their antlers together along the road. It was exhilarating being so close to wildlife and seeing these majestic creatures firsthand—what a way to start the day!
We drove up to Bunce Trail next to buckle into an ATV with Backbone Adventures. Driving over boulders, winding around icy curves, splashing through gritty mud puddles—this was an extreme adventure that was extremely fun, with my son in the passenger seat next to me.
“Hold on, I’m going to punch it!” I’d holler to my little guy as we approached an incline.
Our jackets and pants were sprinkled with mud and grins were plastered to our faces long after the ride was over.
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the YMCA of the Rockies, which is not like any other YMCA I’ve ever been to before. Nestled next to RMNP, the YMCA offers wildlife viewing, guided hiking tours into the park (RMNP surrounds the YMCA on three sides), horseback riding, fishing and more.
Our first stop was the Craft and Design Center, where kids can make tie-dye shirts, stamp leather bracelets, make colored sand art, or design their own jewelry. Kai chose to paint a ceramic dog (he was thinking of our pup, Six, at home). Next, we went swimming, played in the game room and then attended a bear talk with YMCA staff (other classes included Outdoor Living and Forest Ecology).
“I have so many bear stories,” said the young program leader. “Black bears are smart—don’t forget to lock your cars; they can use the door handles!”
Finally, as the sun set and the sky showed off with brilliant pink and purple hues, we strapped on roller skates and sweated it out to 80’s music in the YMCA Longhouse building.
Yee-Haw: Day Three
A great way to explore the mountains that surround Estes Park is to hang out with a wrangler and go on a trail ride with Sombrero Stables. Kai and I rode a matching pair of horses—Harry and Lloyd—with our educated guide, Chris. The trail snaked up the side of the mountain, where we could see Lake Estes from above and several high-pitched mountain peaks in the distance, and then we traveled past Boot Hill.
“At the end of the season, there’s a race up the mountain, where guides throw their old boots up in a tree and then race down barefooted,” Chris told us.
We saw an elk femur bone, several types of birds—including magpies and crows—and a variety of trees (including one tree covered in gum!). Overall, the experience was wonderful and ideal for families of all ages—even seven year-old boys.
You’re Stronger Than You Realize
At the end of the trip, when I asked Kai what his favorite part was, he picked the adventure that was challenging and the one that scared him the most. As a parent, I couldn’t be more proud. We met up with the legendary Mike Caldwell at Estes Park Mountain Shop (where you can find rentals, gear, guiding services and an indoor climbing wall) for an afternoon of rock climbing.
A former middle school teacher, body builder, expert climber, fly-fisherman, mountain guide and all-around outdoorsman, Mike is also an extremely proud father. Mike’s son, Tommy Caldwell, is a pro climber—who gained world champion sport climber status at the early age of 16—who free-climbed Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot Dawn Wall in his mid 30’s (you can read Tommy’s memoir, The Push, to learn more).
So, there we were, learning by doing, with a master climber and instructor, at Estes Park’s Performance Park. Mike taught me how to tie a Figure 8 Retraced Knot, and I learned how to use an ATC belay device. I made sure to listen well since I’d be the one clipped in to Kai’s climbing rope!
Kai’s first time up (ever!) was a bit terrifying for him as he tried to hang on the rope and inch his way up the face. When Kai asked to be let down, nearly in panicked tears, Mike was quick to encourage him to try little steps and side-to-side movements to increase his confidence.
“This looks like a good place to place your hand, Kai,” said Mike. “Why don’t you try this spot and see what you think.”
Mike and I took turns going up different sections and, unexpectedly, Kai wanted to try again, this time making it up half way. Mike was patient, yet resolved, and this created a great environment to test bravery and ability.
Wild Wilderness: Day Four
Our last day included a trip to the stunning RMNP, beginning at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. We wanted to learn more about the alpine tundra, wildlife (mule deer, coyotes, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, bears and marmots can be seen) and the hundreds of lakes and streams that make up the wetlands ecosystem.
“There’s so much to do in the park during the winter,” said Kyle Patterson, Public Affairs Officer. “You can see wildlife, go hiking or snowshoeing and even go sledding at a former ski hill off of Trail Ridge Road (Hidden Valley).”
We decided that we would hike around Bear Lake and Sprague Lake, even though the trails were icy and covered in snow in some places. We were rewarded with unobstructed mountain views, wheat-colored grassy hillsides, the sights and sounds of dripping water through icicles and moss and several places to slide around on ice-covered trails. The best part: we only saw a few other hikers, which allowed us to explore nature at our own pace. The howling wind through the pine, spruce, and fir trees was incredible and we were able to see ring-necked ducks, geese, blue jays, and a woodpecker—the park boasts 280 species of birds and 66 species of mammals.
While we didn’t have time to join a ranger-led program, there are several to choose from: snowshoe ecology walks, full moon walks, cross country skiing with a ranger, Junior Ranger programs for kids and more.
Noshes and Nibbles
Estes Park has an abundance of family friendly restaurants and cozy coffee shops, and in addition to the Egg & I, we enjoyed: Claire’s Restaurant (excellent service), Poppy’s Pizza & Grill (Kai’s favorite) and Ed’s Cantina (the fish tacos were unmatched). And for something really unique and a bit more upscale, The Dunraven Inn—there are dollar bills stapled all over the walls and ceiling. For a daily espresso fix, check out Kind Coffee or Inkwell and Brew.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir