If you’re visiting Northern Colorado, or if you live there as I do, you can find countless places for a day trip. We have wild animal sanctuaries, wildflowers, outdoor activities, quaint little downtowns, breweries galore, plains to explore and, of course, our marvelous Rocky M
With all the many possibilities around though, my very favorite day trip is to Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP)! I’ll let you in on a few of my secrets to make your day trip as perfect as mine!
Estes Park and RMNP
We LOVE the outdoors here in Colorado. Coloradans hike, bike, raft, climb, and more. We love our mountains towns too and each one has a little different vibe. Coloradans also love watching and photographing our gorgeous scenery and the mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, (I could go on and on) in the wild. Getting to view our wildlife is tricky. But if you come from mid-September through mid-October, your chances of seeing LOTS of wildlife get a whole lot better! You’re sure to see wildlife, even within the city limits of Estes Park, but especially in RMNP.
Estes Park, Colorado is known as the “Gateway to the Rocky Mountains.” That’s because if you enter RMNP from the east, you have to either go through Estes Park or bypass around most of it to get into the NP.
Estes Park has the “cute mountain town” down pat! A river runs through it – no kidding. It actually rushes through the town and down to Estes Lake. From
There are tons of quaint little shops and lots of restaurants with almost any type of food you desire. You just have to stop and buy a T-Shirt to prove you’ve been to Estes Park. I think it’s the law…JUST KIDDING! But there ARE lots of activities such as mini-golf, art galleries, horseback riding, river rafting, and more!
Estes Park, like most mountain towns, has a number of festivals. My favorite festival in Estes Park is the Elk Fest in late September. The elk, or wapiti, as the Native Americans call them, have a very distinctive mating call. It is referred to as “bugling.” The Elk Fest comes at the perfect time to see and hear the elk. Click here for more information.
You’ll find ALL kinds of native and other planted flowers in Estes Park making for beautiful photo-ops. And speaking of photo-ops. You just CANNOT miss the Stanley Hotel on the north side of town.
The Stanley is a grand old hotel built by F.O. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile. There’s actually one in the lobby! The hotel opened in 1909 when people were beginning to come to the high-altitude mountains for their health (respiratory diseases, TB, etc.) or just to see the sights. These folks who came to see the sights were
The Stanley Hotel has a reputation for having ghosts in residence. They even have a ghost tour at night. And if you’ve ever been scared to death watching “The Shining”, a movie based on the book by Stephen King, you can thank The Stanley Hotel.
Stephen King just happened to stay there once and after just one night in the hotel, in a room above an area where a tragedy took place during the last century, the inspiration for the book was born. Yes, you CAN request that room… if you’re brave enough! You can take a tour during the day of the Stanley and the amazing grounds. Just click the link here for all the information on the Stanley and its tours.
Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’ve never been to the RMNP, you’re in for a treat! Many people don’t take the time to really explore the park, especially if only there for a day trip. There are so many different areas of the park, and each area is different.
If you simply want to get out of town and take a beautiful drive, there are two roads you can use to do this, Trail Ridge Road and Fall River Road.
Trail Ridge Road is a paved road that goes all the way through the park and ends up in Grand Lake, Colorado on the western part of the park. This road will take you up to the alpine tundra and back down to the deeply forested wilderness. The Alpine Visitor Center is at over 11,000 feet and Trail Ridge Road will lead you right up there. From the visitor center, you can either head back to Estes Park the same way you came, or you can drive all the way through to Grand Lake on the “Wild West” side. But, I’ll talk about Grand Lake in another post.
My absolute FAVORITE way to get to the Alpine Visitor Center is by Fall River Road. It is mostly gravel, one-way only, and you take it slow and easy. If you’re in a hurry, forget taking this road. The speed limit is 15 mph! But if you want a slow, peaceful, drive through deep forest, with waterfalls, wildflowers, and birds singing all along the way; climbing all the way up to the tundra and the Alpine Visitor Center, THIS is your road! Since it’s one-way only, you have to take Trail Ridge Road back down. So, you get two trips in one!
There are also two different entrances on the east side of the park. Beaver Meadows Entrance has several booths where you pay to enter the park. Booths are operated by NP personnel and you can get a map and other information there. It also has a lane strictly for visitors who have already purchased a pass, such as the Senior (Lifetime) Pass for those ages 62 and older, or an Annual Pass. You just drive up, insert your pass card into the receptor and drive straight through. Couldn’t be easier!
The Fall River Entrance only has only the booths operated by park personnel. There’s no pass card lane. That being said, not as many people tend to enter by Fall River Entrance so the lines are generally shorter than lines at the Beaver Meadows Entrance. You can drive up either the Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road taking this entrance or Beaver Meadows.
In order to explore a little more on your own, here’s the link for Rocky Mountain National Park. Just click here to find out all kinds of information about the park, including the history, activities, culture, wildlife, and more!
Best Tips for a Day Trip to Estes Park and RMNP
These are my personal secrets that I’m telling you about. These should make your special day trip easier and better! If you know someone who’ll be making this day trip soon, please share this post with them.
- If at all possible, make your day trip mid-week, especially in the summer months. Weekends in the summer are just way overcrowded. Not only that, but 80% of the visitors to the national park enter via the east entrances. Even in the autumn months, weekends are pretty crowded. I always make it a point to head up to Estes and the NP during the week. Trust me on this!
- Fall is the season when you’ll likely see the most wildlife (especially elk). Take your binoculars because some wildlife will stay far away from the roads, while others (yes elk) may cross the road right in front of you (even inside the city limits of Estes Park)!
- If you want to see Big Horn Sheep, look in the rocky meadows in summer evenings, OR around 3:00-4:00 around Sheep Lakes. I’ve been told that the Bighorn Sheep are pretty skittish and like to come for water while there is still plenty of light.
- If you take CO Hwy. 34 up through Big Thompson Canyon to get to Estes Park, look up among the rocky cliff faces to spot Big Horn Sheep. In the early evening, you may see them up in the cliffs or down closer to the road. This is a photo I took recently on Hwy 34 on the way down the canyon at about 7:30 PM. I call it Serendipity because I had NEVER seen them on the actual road before. I had turned around and gone back to Colorado Cherry Company to purchase a cherry pie and then started back to down catch this marvelous animal walking wherever he pleased. That look of his says it all!
- If you plan to make two or more trips to RMNP within one year, it is definitely worth the money to purchase an Annual Pass. An Annual Pass costs $70, while a day pass for a car costs $25. You can either purchase the Annual Pass online (at least 2-4 weeks before you plan to go) or you can purchase it at the Entrance when you stop to pay.
- If you are 62 years old or older, the Senior or Lifetime Pass is the best buy around if you frequent national parks and national monuments, etc. It costs $80 and lasts for the rest of your life! I bought mine a couple of years ago and it doesn’t cost me another penny even if I go to every NP or monument on a daily basis. AND, I can fill up my vehicle with all of my friends and they pay NOTHING!
- There are two ways to get through Estes Park to RMNP. If you want to go through the Fall River Entrance and you’ve come up the canyon from Loveland, turn right onto Wonderview Ave. just past the Stanley Shopping Center on the right. If you’ve come up Hwy 36 when you get to the crossroads of Elkhorn Ave, Wonderview Ave. and Hwy 36, just go straight through the traffic light onto Wonderview Ave. Wonderview Ave. will take you up to the Hwy 34 By-Pass where you’ll turn left. You’ll miss most of Estes Park this route, but you can hit it on the way home.
- If you plan to use the Beaver Meadows Entrance, take Elkhorn Ave. to Moraine Ave. and turn left. This road will take you past shops and activities on your way to RMNP. You’ll be on Hwy 36.
- If you travel up by Fall River Road, there are pull-outs and even parking areas in several places. You can hike up or down to waterfalls from the parking spots. You WILL want to stop to do this!
- And finally, STOP to look around at the Stanley Hotel. You can have lunch there or dinner or the way back. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a Colorado Cherry Pie downstairs in their little shop. TAKE IT HOME WITH YOU!
Bestsouvenir of your day trip! If the little shop is out of pies, and you’re taking Hwy 34 back down to Loveland and beyond, just stop at their flagship store on the right side of the road. I just love those cherry pies and they are baked fresh daily. It doesn’t get better than that!
Now it’s Time for Your Amazing Day Trip
I’ve told you all about MY favorite day trip in Northern Colorado and all my special secrets about Estes Park and the RMNP. Now it’s time for you to head out on YOUR adventure day trip. Be sure to e-mail me about YOUR special finds!
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