Are you planning a vacation to Estes Park, Colorado? If so, then congratulations on the great choice! This little town in the Rocky Mountains has a bit of everything, and it certainly has something for everyone to enjoy.
Most people come to this area to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, which you absolutely should do so while you’re here. However, there’s much more to Estes Park, too, like history, adventure, nature, shopping, dining, and lots and lots of fun!
If you’re looking for Estes Park activities, then you came to the right place.
Estes Park, Colorado Things To Do: In Estes Park
Downtown Estes Park is a very happening place no matter the time of year. There’s always a lot to see and do in Estes, and there’s always a whole lot of people doing all of it. If you want to avoid crowds, spring and fall are probably your best bet, but even in those seasons, the sidewalks will be packed on weekends.
Still, despite the fact that Estes Park is always rather busy, it’s a great place to spend some time. There are historic places, restaurants, shops, amusements, and even nature right in the middle of town. You’ll fall in love with Estes Park during your very first exploration of it.
If you’re wondering what to do in Estes Park and what to see in Estes Park, then read on. Here are a few things you shouldn’t miss when checking out downtown Estes Park. You’ll marvel at the variety here.
1. Estes Park Visitors Center
When visiting Estes Park, the Estes Park Visitors Center is the best place to start. It’s located in the center of everything, it’s open year-round, and it serves over 400,000 people each year! The center’s Ambassadors are eager to help answer your questions and are very enthusiastic about their home and the surrounding areas.
There are excellent exhibits on-site to learn about the history and wildlife of Estes Park. There’s also ample parking; free shuttle buses and the downtown trolley depart from the center during the summer months if you’d like to leave your car there while you explore the town of Estes Park further.
2. Estes Park Riverwalk
The Estes Park Riverwalk is another thing that’s great to do as soon as you arrive.
It begins at the Estes Park Vistors Center and continues for one mile along the Big Thompson River. It’s behind the main strip of shops of downtown Estes Park, so it’s a wonderful place to go if you need to get away from the foot and car traffic for a little bit, but you’ll still have access to those businesses if you get hungry, need a drink, or want to check out one of the stores you see.
The Riverwalk ends at the George Hix Riverside Plaza, where you’ll find a stage that hosts free concerts in the summer.
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3. Estes Park Aerial Tramway
If you’d like to get above Estes Park, then the Estes Park Aerial Tramway is a fantastic way to do just that. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Estes Park.
Once you pay your admission fee, you’ll take a quick, five-minute ride to the top of Prospect Mountain. The views of the town from up there are amazing, and you’ll be able to see mountains in all directions. You can stay at the top as long as you’d like before you take the tramway back down to the bottom.
4. Lake Estes
Lake Estes is a reservoir in Estes Park that is created by the Olympus Dam. This is a lovely place to hang out and relax with family and friends. You can take the Estes Lake Trail around the lake; the shoreline is about four miles.
The Lake Estes Trail is fairly flat and easy with only about 200 feet of elevation gain and it will take you about an hour and a half to complete. However, be aware that there’s little shade along the way, so bring some water on hot days.
If you’d rather be on the water than around it, you can rent kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, fishing boats, and pontoon boats by the hour at the Lake Estes Marina. You can also pick up a Colorado fishing license at the marina store if you want to see what you can catch out there. If you’re looking for fun and active activities in Estes Park, there’s plenty to do at Lake Estes.
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5. Mountain Blown Glass
If you’re looking for a beautiful and unique gift for a friend or a memorable Estes Park souvenir for yourself, stop by Mountain Blown Glass. This shop is family owned and operated and has been open for almost twenty years.
Live glassblowing demonstrations are offered several times a day at random times; while you wait for one to begin, you can peruse the amazing hand-blown items for sale in the store.
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6. Red Rose Rock Shop & Dick’s Rock Museum
Another great shopping and learning opportunity in Estes Park is Red Rose Rock Shop & Dick’s Rock Museum which is located right on the bank of the Big Thompson River. In fact, the perfect souvenir from your visit to the Rockies is rocks! Who knew?!
Geologist and lapidary enthusiast Dick Siebenaler purchased this rock shop in 1964 and it was owned and operated by Dick and his family until 2003. Dick’s daughters then sold it to a family friend, Carl Scott, who promised to keep the dream alive.
Today, you can check out Dick’s massive gem, mineral, and fossil collection that features amazing things from all over the world, and you can pick up something special to bring home with you in the shop. The shop’s specialty is rose quartz, which is mined from Carl Scott’s own mine in Custer, South Dakota. There’s something for everyone here.
7. Estes Park Ride-A-Kart & Cascade Creek Mini-Golf
Are you looking for family fun that everyone in your group will enjoy? Then Estes Park Ride-A-Kart and Cascade Creek Minigolf should be high on your list. This small, family-owned amusement park has been entertaining visitors since 1959.
In addition to go-karts and mini-golf on the river, your little ones can ride on the miniature railroad and everyone can try their hand at the bumper boats. There are also batting cages, a bungee trampoline, bumper cars, an arcade, and more.
Set aside a lot of time at this attraction because you’ll want to do everything! A visit to Estes Park Ride-A-Kart & Cascade Creek Mini-Golf is one of the most fun things to do in Estes Park.
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8. Estes Park Memorial Observatory
The Estes Park Memorial Observatory operates with a clear goal in mind: it aims to interest K-12 students in math, physics, and science, by helping them observe the cosmos. As you might imagine, the night sky is quite dark in the mountains of Colorado, and this presents opportunities for optimal night sky viewing.
The observatory is rather small so you’ll have to make reservations in advance, but if you manage to get one, the enthusiastic volunteers there will welcome you into their space, will give your family a chance to use their high-powered equipment, and will tell you all about the out-of-this-world things that you see.
People who have visited the Estes Park Memorial Observatory say that it’s one of the coolest and most unique things to do in Estes Park, Colorado. As a ‘rado girl, I agree, it’s undeniably cool.
9. Estes Park Museum
The Estes Park Museum is a free museum that will teach you and your companions about the interesting history of this area. It opened in 1966 in a small building that was built by local volunteers; since then, it has expanded in size four times, and today has a gift shop and meeting rooms as well.
Over the years, several local historic buildings have been moved to the site, including the circa 1900 Cobb-Macdonald Cabin and the original 1915 Rocky Mountain National Park headquarters building.
For a side quest, book and enjoy the Rocky Mountain National Park Tour.
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10. Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church
Even if you’re not religious at all, Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church is worth a quick stop simply because it is so unique. This log cabin-style church is different from any other church that you’ve likely ever seen, but it looks right at home in the mountains of Colorado. The stained glass windows, when viewed from the inside near sunset, are absolutely breathtaking.
11. The Historic Stanley Hotel
Even if you don’t think you’ve ever heard of the historic Stanley Hotel before, you likely have – you just might not realize it. This hotel is famous for a number of different reasons.
First of all, it’s beautiful; its main building is an excellent example of Colonial Revival style and its facade is striking to view from any angle. It was built from 1907 to 1910 by Freelan Oscar Stanley, the inventor of the Yankee steam-powered train car, and his partners. The hotel was quite famous even before it opened, and it was ahead of its time in many ways.
If none of that rings a bell, though, then this might – the Stanley Hotel was the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. Although this hotel looks nothing like The Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s famous film adaptation of the book, it was during a night at this hotel that King got the idea to write a tale about a hotel that was closed for the winter, its caretaker, and the beings that haunted it.
As a result, paranormal enthusiasts come from all over the world to spend a night at the Stanley Hotel, and many creepy things have happened there over the years. Of course, King’s story was a made-up one, but the reputation he gave it has stuck, and in recent years the Stanley has appeared in shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, and ghost tours are often offered as well.
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12. Open Air Adventure Park
If you’re looking for some active thrills not far from downtown Estes Park, then you should plan a visit to Open Air Adventure Park!
This high ropes course offers thirty-two unique climbing challenges at eleven and twenty-one feet above the ground. You’ll be strapped in, of course, but there’s something for every ability and level of bravery here. There’s no direction or route, so you can try the obstacles you want to try and you can skip the rest. There’s also an ax-throwing range on-site if you want to give that a try, too.
Estes Park Things To Do: Near Estes Park
Estes Park is surrounded by beauty. It’s both easy and wise to get out of town a bit during your visit. There are dozens of excellent hiking trails for all levels of hikers nearby, and there are scenic drives to do if hiking isn’t your thing. Most travelers come to Estes Park to explore Rocky Mountain National Park, but the excellence of this area doesn’t start or stop at the park boundaries.
There are lots of great places to explore in this area and when you leave downtown Estes Park and head in the opposite direction of Rocky Mountain National Park, you may find fewer crowds, too. In fact, there are so many places to visit in Estes Park and the surrounding areas, you’ll never run out of stuff to do during your trip.
13. Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
For those who want to get out of town to travel through the mountains, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is an excellent opportunity to do just that. This three-hour drive stretches fifty-five miles from Estes Park to I-70, so it’s a great way to get to town or to depart when it’s time to leave.
There are many stops along the way to get out and stretch and take pictures. It was Colorado’s first scenic byway, and it’s just as impressive today as it was when the road was completed in 1918.
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14. Lily Mountain Trail
The Lily Mountain Trail is a popular trail that begins just off the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway not far from Estes Park. It’s a 3.7-mile out-and-back trail that is rather challenging; you’ll gain 1,246 feet of elevation along the way. The views are worth it though. Your hike on this trail is sure to be one that you’ll never forget.
15. Hermit Park Open Space
Hermit Park Open Space is just outside of Estes Park on Route 36. It’s a popular camping and hiking site for people who wish to avoid the crowds at Rocky Mountain National Park. It covers 1,300 acres and a fee is required for day use. One of the most popular trails in the park is the Kruger Rock Trail.
This out-and-back trail is four miles long with 977 feet of elevation gain, but it’s rated as a moderate hike. Sometimes this trail is closed because of wildlife activity in the area, so do your research before you head to the trailhead.
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16. Colorado Mountain School
If you would like some professional instruction before you dive into Colorado mountain experiences, then the Colorado Mountain School is ready and waiting to help. This educational institution wants to help people feel comfortable when adventuring in the great outdoors.
It offers classes and guides that will help you learn the ropes in rock climbing, mountaineering, ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and more. The instructors are experienced and patient and can help you get started on what may turn out to be the biggest adventure of your life.
Looking for a side trip? Hit the road and enjoy the Self-Guided Audio Driving Tour in Rocky Mountain National Park.
17. MacGregor Ranch Museum
MacGregor Ranch is a working ranch that was first established in 1873 by Alexander and Clara MacGregor. It was passed down for three generations and today it still stands, looking much like it did over a hundred years ago, and is open to curious visitors for pre-booked tours.
The historic homestead is a fine example of an early Colorado ranch and you’ll feel like you stepped back in time as soon as you enter the property. Today, the ranch continues to raise grass-fed cattle, and some Coloradans still buy their beef from MacGregor Ranch each year.
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18. Historic Fall River Hydroplant
This historic hydroelectric plant was built in 1909 by Freelan Oscar Stanley to provide power to his famous Stanley Hotel, and it remained in use until 1982. Today, it’s a historic interpretive site that teaches visitors about early electricity production.
It’s open to the public from Wednesday through Saturday during the summer with public tours offered at 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, and 3:00 pm. If you’d like to visit it at another time, you can arrange a visit by appointment.
Estes Park Things To Do: Rocky Mountain National Park
Most people who visit Estes Park do so because it is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and most visitors will spend at least one or more days in the park while in town. You should, too!
Many national parks enthusiasts consider Rocky Mountain National Park to be one of the crown jewels of the national parks system. It’s one of the most heavily visited parks in the nation with over 4.5 million visitors per year. It can be very busy and crowded at the overlooks and visitor centers. But, the park is vast, and you can get away from it all if you try – there are 355 miles of hiking trails to try inside the park, and the deeper you go, the fewer people you’ll encounter.
Even if you’re not a hiker, this park is amazing, gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking, and worthwhile. You’ll be amazed at the things you see and at how you feel when you’re in the park. There’s nothing like breathing the crisp mountain air and marveling at the many mountains that surprise you, all while surrounded by alpine wildflowers at your feet.
You’re likely to see wildlife during your visit and to be enraptured again and again by incredible skies – you’re much closer to those clouds up here!
Trust me, you’re going to love Rocky Mountain National Park. As soon as you leave, you’ll be counting the days to when you can come back again! Read on to learn more about how to best spend your time in this park on your first visit.
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19. Entering Rocky Mountain National Park
Since 2021, the park has instituted a reservation and timed entry system during the summer months to help manage the flow of visitors. It can be challenging to get a reservation through the online system, but if you fail, not all is lost.
If you get to the park entrance before the timed entry begins for the day, you can enter without a reservation (depending on which part of the park you wish to see, those times were 5:00 am and 9:00 am this year – those times could change in the future). People with camping reservations are exempt from the timed entry system.
Further, the timed-entry system runs from the end of May to early October, so if you go between October and May, you don’t have to worry about it. However, RMNP is one national park where the time of year especially matters; a majority of the park roads and therefore accessible-to-humans areas are closed from mid-fall to late spring.
However, with that said, winter is still a good time to visit the park. There are far fewer people and there are many trails and areas that are open, and that look especially striking when covered with fresh snow.
Of course, you’ll have to pay a fee to enter the park at any time of year. That money goes to support our national parks, so please don’t balk at the current $30 one-day fee.
You can get a seven-day pass for just $35. Better yet – buy a system-wide Annual Pass while you’re at the entry booth. It’s $80 and will pay for itself in short order. You can explore the park on a Sunrise Tour of Rocky Mountain National Park.
20. Take a Tour
If you don’t have a car or if you don’t drive, you can take a tour of the park with any of the numerous tour providers in the area, and then you don’t have to worry about the entry timing nor fee! Even if you do have a car of your own, you might take a tour in Rocky Mountain National Park with a guide to help you hone your skills and to get more out of the park than you might on your own.
Here are a few examples of top guided tours;
Also, remember, the hard-working rangers and guides at the park also lead hiking tours every day that depart from the visitor center. They’re free!
21. Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Centers
Rocky Mountain National Park has five visitor centers and they are all worth a visit if you can fit them into your day. Each is different and if you collect national park passport stamps, each has a unique stamp for your book.
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center is one of three visitor centers that are very easy to access from Estes Park, as it’s on the drive from town to the park on Route 36. It’s open year-round and is also the park headquarters.
This visitor’s center was designed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1967 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001. There’s a large gift shop here, rangers on hand to answer your questions, and an impressive relief map of the park. Elk are commonly seen in this area.
Fall River Visitor Center
Another visitor center that’s easy to get to from Estes is the Fall River Visitor Center. This visitor center is also open all year. Fall River is a great visitor center to stop by if you want to learn about the park’s wildlife, as there are life-sized, interactive wildlife displays and exhibits for all ages inside. The mountain views here are great, too.
Moraine Park Discovery Center
The Moraine Park Discovery Center is not far from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and first opened in 1923. Today, this historic building is only open to visitors in the summer and fall.
There are many great exhibits here about the wildlife and geology of the park as well as about climate change and human impact on our natural world. There’s a nature trail and the center offers daily educational programs.
Kawuneeche Visitor Center
You’ll only be able to visit this visitor center if you drive all the way through the park and come out on the other side near Grand Lake. However, we recommend doing just that – see the entry for Drive Train Ridge Road below.
If you do end up doing the drive across the whole park, this visitor center has a gift shop, rangers, ranger-led activities, maps, and more. It’s only open in the summer, but coming from Estes Park, you couldn’t get there in the winter anyway, you’d have to go all the way down to I-70 and around!
Alpine Visitor Center
You won’t be able to reach the Alpine Visitor Center in the winter months either. Trail Ridge Road will be closed. In the summer, though, this visitor center is quite popular. It’s the highest elevation visitor center in the national parks system at 11,796 feet. It’s above the tree line and the views are amazing. Snacks, exhibits, and friendly rangers await you at the top.
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22. Trail Ridge Road
One thing that everyone who visits Rocky Mountain National Park should not miss is a drive on Trail Ridge Road, from end to end. As mentioned above, this road is only open from late spring, around Memorial Day, to late September most years.
The snow comes early and stays late in these high peaks so the accessibility of this road is limited. However, if you are visiting the park during the summer months, this drive is something that you must do. You’ll ascend from the forested, wooded, grassy landscape to the alpine tundra, and the views along the way will stay with you forever.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous road in North America – the highest point is 12,183 feet – so don’t miss the opportunity to drive it!
23. Old Fall River Road
Another great scenic drive in the park that’s worth checking out is Old Fall River Road. It was the first automobile route in the park and it was completed in 1920. This drive, too, is only open in the summer, and that’s a very good thing because it’s unpaved, curvy, and full of drop-offs; it’s not for the faint of heart!
The views are worth your panic, though. To make it slightly less terrifying, traffic is only allowed in one direction – from east to west – and you can take Trail Ridge Road back to make your scenic drive a loop.
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24. Bear Lake
Bear Lake is another very popular destination in Rocky Mountain National Park, primarily because the associated hike is probably the park’s easiest.
You can reach Bear Lake on foot from the parking lot in minutes, and then you can walk around the lake if you choose with almost no elevation gain. Because of this ease, this place is almost always mobbed, but the lake is pretty and photogenic and it’s worth checking out.
25. Holzwarth Historic Site
This Holzwarth Historic Site on the western side of the park near Grand Lake was once a dude ranch operated by the Holzwarth Family from 1919 to 1974. Numerous guest cabins still stand, but they are not in use today. It’s fun to imagine vacationers of years gone by frolicking in this area, which must have been very, very remote in 1919.
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26. Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place to go camping. The park has four reservable campgrounds that are open from Memorial Day weekend to the end of September. All of them fill up fast; you’ll have to reserve a spot quite far in advance.
One of them, Moraine Park Campground, is also open in the winter on a first come, first serve basis. Aspenglen, Moraine Park, and Glacier Basin Campgrounds are all on the Estes Park side of the park. Timber Creek is on the west side near Grand Lake.
There is also one additional campground that is first come, first served the whole time it’s open from July to September – the Longs Peak Campground. It’s tent only, though, and does not have water. Take a Bear Lake Corridor Tour.
There are dozens of epic hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, it’s important to remember that high-elevation hiking might be different from what you’re used to. Be sure to take your time, pace yourself, and drink lots of water. Pick a few hiking trails to try, but don’t be hard on yourself if you end up doing less than you planned.
Sunlight is brighter at high elevations and you can easily get worn out before you even know it. Altitude sickness is a very real thing; give yourself time to adjust before you take on any big adventures, you don’t want to overdo yourself or put the rest of your vacation at risk.
With that said, though, hiking is one of the primary outdoor activities that people come to the Rocky Mountains to do, so get out there and explore this incredible place. There’s a hiking trail for every type of hiker in this park. If you’re looking for something easy, you can walk around one of the lakes; Lily Lake, Sprauge Lake, and Bear Lake all feature loop trails.
More adventurous hikers might like trails like parts of the Continental Divide Trail, or a hike to Ouzel Falls, Cub Lake, or Emerald Lake. Experienced hikers might take on Mount Ida, Twin Sisters Peak, or Hallett Peak, or may choose to dive in and explore some of the park’s deeper backcountry trails.
No matter what you choose, any hike you take in this national park is worth it and will stay with you for the rest of your life. Lace up your hiking boots and get out there!
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28. Horseback Riding
There’s really no better place for horseback riding than in Colorado, where you can pretend you are a pioneer or cowboy or cowgirl exploring the west while looking up at craggy mountain peaks all around you. There are many providers offering trail rides and horseback tours in this area to help you live out your dreams.
Jackson Stables is one guide company that will give you exactly what you need and will take you on adventures on the historic YMCA of the Rockies property and into the national park as well. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time to ensure you get a spot.
How can I get from Denver International Airport to Estes Park?
Unfortunately, without renting a car at the airport, this is a bit of a challenge, no matter what time of year you plan to visit. You can take a bus from Denver to Boulder or Fort Collins, but from there, you’ll have to take a cab or ride share. Your best bet is to rent a car!
Where should I stay in Estes Park?
As we suggested above, camping in Rocky Mountain National Park is fantastic and unforgettable. If you can’t get a site there, you may be able to find one outside the park. On the other hand, if you’re not really a camper, there are lots of nice hotels in the area from which to choose. The Blue Door Inn is an excellent choice for budget travelers. Mid-range travelers might like The Inn on Fall River & Fall River Cabins. And, Boulder Brook on Fall River is a higher-end property right on the river.
Where should I go after I visit Estes Park?
If you have extra time in Colorado after the Estes Park portion of your vacation is complete, you might swing on down to Denver and explore that city, or spend a few days in Boulder. There are so many fun things do to in Colorado that you’ll want to come back every year for more!
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