A Perfect Day in Estes Park
Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park
Ideally, you'll wake up in a tent in RMNP and the sun will shine all weekend. But...as the fourth-most-visited National Park in America, its not always that easy to snag a campsite. Not to mention the fact that these mountains are notorious for their afternoon thunderstorms. Moral of the story: flexibility is key to enjoying your time in Estes.
My first piece of advice to anyone planning a trip to Estes is to plan on going into the park on your first day. If the weather's bad or you don't see any wildlife or basically anything goes awry, you have another day or two to try again.
6:00 am - Catch the sunrise in the park
I am particularly fond of doing this at Bear Lake because the alpenglow on Longs is stunning. Sprague Lake is a great one, or you can hike in to Dream Lake. The best parts of sunrise are before the time the sun comes up, be sure to get there 20-30 minutes before the time of the sunrise. But, alpenglow tends to happen after the fact, so stick around even if the clouds weren't super colorful.
7:30 am - Go for a hike
One of the best parts of arriving early enough for sunrise is that you'll beat a lot of the crowds and you'll more than likely get a good parking spot at your trailhead. I like to hang out in the Bear Lake / Glacier Gorge area for simplicities sake. There's trails ranging from the short and sweet Emerald Lake (an added bonus if you hiked up to Dream for the sunrise), to the the 12,713' summit of Hallet Peak, to long hikes like Sky Pond. Be sure to bring snacks or breakfast and more water than you think you'll need. And, if you end up at a different trailhead than you started, take advantage of the free shuttle bus to get a ride back to your car!
11:30 am - Head into town
Beat the midday sun and the biggest portion of the crowds by heading into Estes after your hike. The animals aren't as active at this time of day, so chances are you won't miss much. Claire's has a fantastic brunch menu, but I love the elk and yak burgers at Grubsteak. I've also gotten a few great pizzas from Bob and Tony's. There are two breweries in town, too, if that's more your style. After you eat, pop into one of the many ice cream stores for a sweet treat while you shop.
1:00 pm - Explore downtown Estes
There are more shops downtown than you could imagine! I always make sure to stop by McDonald Book Shop, but I also feel like I always find something new. For a special treat, stop in the Estes Valley Library and look their used book sale or duck into the oldest operating movie theater in the United States! Estes Park is also home to the Stanley Hotel, so if you're a fan of Stephen King and The Shining, it's worth the quick drive over.
3:00 pm - Go back into the park
The crowds should start thinning out and the animals will be waking up from their afternoon naps. I'd suggest going through a different entrance this time: Fall River will sometimes have elk hanging out right at the entrance! Head up to Trail Ridge Road, stopping at the pull outs along the way (unless there's a herd of elk there, skip the Forest Canyon Overlook for now). Work your way to the Alpine Visitor's Center - one of my personal favorite places in the park. Explore the buildings first just in case they close, and then take a walk up the stairs along the Alpine Ridge Trail to 12,005' above sea level.
6:00 pm - Picnic dinner
Either stop at one of the overlooks and enjoy your meal out of the back of your car, or head back down Trail Ridge and find a picnic table. Just be sure that you pick up and throw away everything that you brought with you and that you do not feed any animals (even the birds and chipmunks) that will inevitably come begging for food. If you listen carefully, you might be able to hear elk bugling in the distance, or the high-pitched chirp of the pika.
7:30 pm - Watch the sunset
Earlier I told you to skip the Forest Canyon Overlook, and that was because it is a perfect place to watch the sunset. Get there early, because it's a popular place, but no matter where you're standing, you will be blown away by the view. If you aren't exhausted yet, stick around after the sun goes down and look up at millions on millions of stars. I've seen shooting stars every night that I've been in RMNP, so keep your eyes peeled for those!
Things to remember:
- There will be snow on the trails until mid June or later, if you're going early in the summer, be sure to bring appropriate footwear and clothing. Check the trail conditions before you go.
- Trail Ridge Road has a short operating season, the park tries to get it open by Memorial Day (at least for limited hours), but that isn't a guarantee. Check the Park's website or social media feeds to see the road's status.
- Estes Park has festivals all the time! These are tons of fun and showcase some amazing local artists...but can make parking downtown difficult. There's a new parking garage, and while you may have to walk a bit, it will save you the hassle of trying to find a spot.