When I was a kid, vacations in our house were a big production. With eight kids in our family, it took a while to load up our 12-passenger van and make sure we didn’t forget anyone before setting out on our adventure.
Fortunately, we lived next door to one of America’s largest playgrounds, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, so my parents didn’t have far to drive.
Estes Park, Colorado, quickly became a favorite vacation spot, as it has for many families, and we visited every year. Located just 90 minutes from Denver, this town of 7,000 sits at 7,522 feet in the heart of the Rockies. Its enviable location surrounded by pristine peaks has drawn travelers since 1867, when local Griff Evans saw the region’s potential and built some cabins to accommodate travelers. It quickly became known as the first dude ranch in Estes Park, and the region has been a popular destination ever since.
In 1909, F.O. Stanley, co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer motorcar, built his stately Stanley Hotel (where the film “The Shining” was filmed) near downtown Estes Park, and the region’s fame grew. Today, the Stanley still welcomes guests to its historic lodgings.
Estes, as Coloradans call it, is a different kind of mountain town. It doesn’t revolve around skiing (the nearest ski resort is 47 miles away); instead, the draw is Rocky Mountain National Park, which borders Estes Park at its eastern entrance.
Rocky Mountain National Park
This scenic treasure became a national park in 1915. Its 415 square miles of protected mountain wilds are home to elk, bear, moose, bighorn sheep, and much more. There are more than 300 miles of hiking trails. My favorite hike is around Bear Lake, which you can access year-round.
Our family’s favorite park activity is sledding or tubing in Hidden Valley, a former ski hill located inside the park. It’s the only area where sledding is allowed in Rocky Mountain National Park, and you’ll need to bring your own tubes and sleds. But there’s nothing like whizzing down the hill in a snow-filled winter wonderland. The area is also popular for other winter sports, including snowshoeing, ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and splitboarding.
While most areas of Rocky Mountain National Park are open, things have changed a bit to accommodate social distancing and health regulations. Now, you’ll need to purchase a timed entry permit to visit the park. Reservations are available online at Recreation.gov.
If you aren’t able to get an entry permit for the day you want or if you have dogs along (no dogs are allowed in the park), head to nearby Roosevelt National Forest or Hermit Park Open Space. These lesser-known areas are dog-friendly, uncrowded, and allow camping and hiking.
Summer or Winter
For me, Estes has always had two different sides. In the summer, it’s bustling with visitors enjoying the downtown village and all the nearby attractions. The summer days are warm and the night air cool enough to build a campfire and sit around it to keep the chill away.
In the winter, Estes Park is quiet and uncrowded. The downtown village has a relaxed feel, and everything is unhurried. The mountains take center stage, dressed in their wintery finery below robin-egg blue skies.
This is the Estes that I know best. From my teens until my early 40s, our family vacationed every New Year’s at the YMCA of the Rockies just outside of town. The YMCA has everything a family needs for a memorable vacation—hundreds of cabins and lodge rooms, a roller-skating rink, an indoor pool, ice skating (in the winter), archery, a craft room, a library, mini-golf, basketball courts, and more. Most activities are free for guests, making it a one-stop vacation destination.
My favorite activity, though, was the annual YMCA New Year’s Eve dance. This family-friendly affair often featured a local band. There were free snacks and dance contests. Even my parents, who never danced, joined in on the Chicken Dance.
We would rent a large cabin where we could cook our own meals and have family time. As our family grew, with added grandkids and in-laws, we just rented more cabins. These days, we usually visit Estes in the summer, but those winter vacations are among my favorite family memories.
Estes Park has many other family-friendly places to stay. Tiny Town Cabins located along the beautiful Big Thompson River has 19 Colorado Cabins that blend historic architecture with modern amenities. Fall River Village, just a short walk from downtown Estes Park, has vacation condos and townhomes for those who want the comforts of home, including fully-equipped kitchens and gas fireplaces, with soothing sounds of the river and scenic mountain views.
For its small size, Estes Park has a large variety of restaurants to choose from; many have outdoor patios. One of my favorites is Poppy’s Pizza and Grill since their outdoor patio is right along the river.
When you come to Colorado, you come to play outdoors—and Estes Park has many outfitters that can help you do that. Kirk’s Flyshop is a family-owned pro-line fly shop in town. Along with all the gear you need, they have fly fishing classes, guided fly fishing, float trips, and even popular llama pack trips.
Kent Mountain Adventure Center specializes in rock climbing and mountaineering. They provide guided ascents, and adventures such as cliff camping and a Via Ferrata. They offer adventures for all skill levels. Colorado Mountain School in Estes is Colorado’s largest mountain guide company, and they can teach you new mountaineering skills or provide a guided adventure. Join one of their classic climbs, or hike with them to the top of one of Colorado’s “14ers” (mountains above 14,000 feet)—a feat that ensures bragging rights in Colorado.
Shopping in Estes Park
When we visit, our family always spends one afternoon shopping and exploring the village in downtown Estes. There is the required stop at an ice cream shop, and many souvenir shops to browse.
As kids, my siblings and I would always beg our parents to stop at Dick’s Rock Museum and Shop just outside town. This quirky store was started in 1964 by Dick Siebenaler, a local geologist. He sold every kind of unique rock, gem, and gift you can imagine, and our favorites were the little geodes that you could purchase and crack open to see the crystals inside.
My own kids liked the shop just as much. It’s now called Red Rose Rock Shop and still has Dick’s Rock Museum, now a local landmark, which you can visit free of charge.
The best bet to get around in town is the free, seasonal shuttle system. Just park your car at one of the major hubs and grab a shuttle. There are five shuttle routes in town. In normal times—not 2020—there is a Rocky Mountain National Park hiker shuttle to bring visitors to the national park.
Finally, don’t forget to bring your mask when you come to Colorado. Masks must be worn in public areas, and a recent study found that 90 percent of Coloradans do so.
Fortunately, Estes Park offers plenty of space to be outdoors and social distance. No matter when you visit, you’ll get to enjoy the main attraction, the grand Rocky Mountains themselves.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 55 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.