Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO, USA
parks, road-trip, local-highlights
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Touring Rocky Mountain National Park via Estes Park.
There are two main entry points to Rocky Mountain National Park: Estes Park (1.5 hours from Denver) and Grand Lake (2 hours from Denver). I’ve been to both and each has a different vibe. After backpacking with my husband out of Grand Lake to do the 25-mile Tonahutu Loop a few years back (amazing, by the way, but not for young kids!), we chose to base ourselves out of Estes Park for a family vacation with our daughters. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Grand Lake - there are great hiking options, plenty of Airbnbs and a lake bustling with activity, but we chose Estes Park this time around with the family for the following reasons: shorter drive from Denver, bigger main street, more town activity, as well as multiple great day hiking options in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).
We opted to rent this Airbnb during Memorial Day weekend (from Thursday to Tuesday), as we find it easier to cook ‘at home’ with kids while on vacation. Ours was very centrally located in the center of town near the Safeway grocery store. Even with such a central location, we were rewarded with visits from several moose in the early mornings right outside our window.
The town itself definitely has an overly touristy vibe, more so than many of the other more authentic feeling Colorado mountain towns. But there are cute candy and ice cream stores, a pleasant sidewalk on most main streets, and there are a few playgrounds in the area (my kids really enjoyed Baldwin Park):
Most of our activities involved hiking in the Park itself (detailed hiking itineraries can be found under Rocky Mountain National Parks activities). We spent our first afternoon taking the Gondola up to get a view of Estes.
The gondola is an older one, but it only costs a view dollars, it doesn’t take much time, and rewards riders with a great view overlooking the area.
The last night we were in Estes, my husband (an avid cinephile) requested we eat at the Stanley Hotel, which is a beautiful, sprawling hotel with a great restaurant, an amazing bar (!), and lovely gardens. Fellow cinephiles will recognize it as the setting for “The Shining”:
Some of our favorite hikes at RMNP
This is one of the more crowded hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, so beware. It's easy, only about 1.6 miles with minimal elevation and great for kids. My family chose to break in our hiking legs and get our lungs ready with this hike, so we did our best with loads of people! We didn't arrive early enough so we parked as far as we could in the park but then had to take the bus to get to the trailhead. Once at the Glacier Gorge Junction trailhead (plenty of bathrooms), we hit the Bear Lake trail about a quarter of a mile in and were rewarded with a good variety - aspens, rocky openings -- and then Alberta Falls, which made a great spot for a picnic.
At the end, we stopped at Bear Lake which is actually a handicap-accessible paved path around a beautiful lake (about a mile long).
Tip: if you don't arrive early, you will have to take the shuttle which can have long lines and take a while
My family and I took the ~6-mile trail clockwise (recommended to ease elevation!) and had a lovely morning of hiking. Kids (ages 2.5 and 4) were on our backs and we were able to complete the hike in about 4.5 hours with stops even with over 700 feet of elevation. I always find loops much better than out and back - and this loop is packed with variety. You start off near the beautiful valley with beautiful wildflowers and a stream, and then about an hour into the hike, you start gaining elevation quickly. We stopped for a snack near Cub Lake, which has some rocks near the water's edge for a nice break (beware of very tame and hungry chipmunks!). The lake isn't the prettiest (lots of vegetation and lilypads look like they are taking over) but it was calm and peaceful and with some views looking backward. Towards the last bit of the hike is a lovely waterfall that was thumping hard with snowmelt (we were there in May) and then there are some interesting and large boulders almost at the very end.
Lowlights: The only challenging thing about this hike is the straight, dusty, and mosquito-filled access road that you must take for about a mile to get back to your car, which really makes the hike 7 miles in total.
Tips: Like most places near Rocky Mountain Park, you must arrive early to get a decent parking spot. We arrived at the trailhead around 7 and easily got a space. Arrive much later and you won't be so lucky.
Directions from Estes Park: Go west on Hwy 36 past the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station Bear Lake Road. Head south (left) to the turnoff for the Cub Lake and Fern Lake Trailheads and Moraine Park. The trailhead is ~2 miles down this road.
The ~3.5-mile hike to Gem Lake is steep on the way up, but well worth it. There are lovely views of Estes Park to stop at and admire (and catch your breath!), but the real highlight is the gorgeous little Gem Lake. We stopped for a while at the lake to have lunch and were rewarded with gorgeous reflections in the clear water, a rocky wall on the far side of the lake, and tons of chipmunks ready to eat our food :) The hike is only about 3 miles, but given the elevation (about 990 feet), it will probably take you ~2 hours. We found coming down to be much easier, even with our children (ages 2.5 and 4). riding on our backs. The parking situation isn't as bad as other places in RMNP and around Estes Park and you don't have to have a day pass or anything (no one checked our RMNP pass, though we had one).
Directions: Go from Estes Park up Devils Gulch Road. Turn on to Lumpy Ridge Road and park in the large lot. Bathrooms are available.
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