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In the north central part of Colorado sits Estes Park at an elevation of 7,500 feet.
It is well known for being the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and home to the historic (and haunted!) Stanley Hotel.
Besides RMNP right next door, Estes Park is also well known for several other destinations.
This includes Lake Estes, the quaint downtown area, plus the herds and herds of elk that occupy the city during rutting season.
The population of Estes Park is only around 6,000 people. So, it’s easy to feel outnumbered by the hundreds of elk that pass through each year.
And because of its proximity to Colorado’s Front Range, Estes Park is an easy destination to travel to, no matter where you’re coming from!
During our recent trip to this small mountain town, we discovered some local favorites and hidden gems.
Here are our top recommendations for things to do in Estes Park, Colorado.
1. The Birch Ruins
The Birch Ruins sits right in the center of town located atop the (now) Knoll-Willows Open Space.
Initially the Birch Bungalow was built for the editor of the Denver Post, Albert Birch, as a summer home.
But after it burned down in December of 1907 Mr. Birch decided to build a smaller cabin at the bottom of the hill, closer to shops and amenities.
The remnants of both buildings are still there today and can be toured and explored by the public.
You can access the Birch Ruins from MacGregor Avenue or Elkhorn Avenue, the town’s main street.
Free parking is available at many of the local businesses nearby or in the Estes Valley Library parking lot.
Once you reach the top you’ll be able to walk amongst the ruins of the original Bungalow that was built there.
You’ll even see Longs Peak in the distance!
This quick and easy hike rewards you with outstanding views of the city of Estes Park below.
And since the hike up is less than half a mile long, it’s good for most skill levels, although it can get steep towards the top.
During rutting season it’s likely that you will see lots of Elk and maybe even a bear or two.
2. Estes Park Downtown & Riverwalk
The Estes Park Riverwalk cuts through downtown and follows along the Big Thompson River.
It starts at the Estes Park Visitor Center and continues west as it winds through the downtown shops and restaurants.
The rock-paved pathway takes you across several bridges with lots of benches and scenic outlooks.
The Riverwalk is a perfect spot for taking photos and enjoying the sounds of the river.
Many shops and restaurants are located right on the Riverwalk so riverside dining and shopping is common.
Our favorite thing is to grab a cup of coffee, sit on a nearby bench and watch the clear water go by.
Along the Riverwalk you’ll also see bronze animal sculptures and beautiful rock water features.
3. Estes Park Visitor Center
Speaking of the Visitor Center, this is one stop you don’t want to miss on your visit to Estes Park.
Right next to the visitor center is a well-kept golf course and the start of the Lake Estes Trail.
The unique thing about this golf course is that it’s one of the main meadows that herds of elk like to graze in during rutting season.
If you’ve ever seen a photo of elk in Estes Park, it’s mostly likely from this golf course meadow location!
The Estes Park Visitor Center is open year round and offers a multi-story parking garage with free parking for visitors.
Park and take photos of the elk nearby, or use it as your home base for strolling along the Riverwalk.
The Visitor Center is also the hub for all six seasonal free Town of Estes Park shuttle routes.
To plan your stay in Estes Park, be sure to grab one of the official trip guides and check out the Events calendar.
4. The Stanley Hotel
Located just north of downtown is The Stanley Estate which is home to the famous Stanley Hotel.
Built in 1909 this expansive 100+ year old estate offers gorgeous views of the Colorado mountains and overlooks Rocky Mountain National Park.
On the grounds you’ll find several restaurants, a whiskey bar, and a gorgeous patio. Plus, you can get fresh jams, ciders, and spreads from the Colorado Cherry Company.
Tours are offered daily where you can learn about the history of the estate and original owner, F. O. Stanley.
The family even has their own cemetery lot on the estate.
The tour also includes the history of Stephen King and his haunted tellings of the Stanley that helped him write his book, The Shining.
One of the most popular annual events is the “Shining Ball” Halloween party. It features elaborate costumes, live music, decorations, and delicious food.
Attendees have said it’s like stepping into a real-life horror film!
In less than 2 hours from Denver you can book a memorable vacation, special event, or anniversary trip at the Stanley Hotel.
5. Lake Estes
On the way into Estes Park you will drive over Lake Estes, which only adds to the already gorgeous city landscape.
This man-made lake sits near the center of town and offers 4 miles of shoreline for various water activities.
In the 1940s the Olympus Dam led to the creation of the lake, and today it’s all fed from the Big Thompson River.
Fishing, paddleboarding, kayaking and boating are popular activities on the lake.
And the Lake Estes Marina offers rentals for kayaks, paddleboards, and pontoon boats.
You can enjoy a stroll around the lake on the aptly-named Lake Estes Trail, which is a nice 3.75 mile loop.
You can also rent a bike from the marina, or bring your own to cycle around the lake.
With Colorado being one of the driest states in the country, finding any amount of water within city limits of any town is a real rarity.
6. ElkFest & elk rutting season
Elk and Estes Park are synonymous with each other. The town even has a festival dedicated to Elk that they put on every year, called ElkFest.
ElkFest always falls during rutting season for the elk, which is usually late September through early October.
The weekend festival features live bands, native american storytelling & dancing, food and a bugling contest.
Even outside of rutting season and ElkFest, it’s not uncommon to see herds of elk gather in the center of town, or in a golf course meadow.
During our recent trip, elk were all over the town day and night. There wasn’t a place you could go in the town without spotting elk.
We could even hear them doing their wailing bugle all night long from our hotel room.
Keep in mind that despite the benign surroundings, these are wild animals that can act unpredictably or become spooked easily.
The bulls are juiced up on testosterone and can get pretty territorial about their herd. So, we suggest giving them room when taking photos!
7. Estes Park Peak to Peak Highway
From Estes Park to I-70 is the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, which is about a 3 hour drive with beautiful stops along the way.
Established in 1918 this is Colorado’s first and oldest scenic byway and makes a great day trip from Estes Park.
There are few gold mines along the way that allow for public gold panning in the creeks, which is a common activity for kids especially.
The route stretches 55 miles, beginning at CO Highway 7 in Estes Park then turns south to Allenspark. Then the drive heads onto Nederland and through Clear Creek Canyon then down to I-70.
It even passes through the towns of Black Hawk and Central City which are both old mining towns turned-casino destinations.
This area has been previously nicknamed “the richest square mile on earth”.
The Peak to Peak Highway is especially lovely to take as a fall drive during autumn. This is when the leaves turn different colors of yellow, gold and red.
8. Estes Park Aerial Tramway
The Estes Park Aerial Tramway was designed and built by Robert Heron and was opened to the public in July 1955.
The unique thing about this specific Tramway is the design.
It does not require any towers to support the wire ropes. And it’s a free span from the bottom to the top stations.
A free span Tramway is a fairly uncommon design in the United States, so this design affords a uniquely smooth ride up Prospect Mountain.
Since opening in 1955 the Estes Park Aerial Tramway has carried more than 3 million people to the summit of Prospect Mountain.
And to this day, the Tramway is owned and operated by the Heron family!
Please note that the Estes Park Aerial Tramway is generally only open for the spring and summer months. It is closed during the winter season.
9. Open Air Adventure Park
The Open Air Adventure Park is one of the top things to do in Estes Park for adrenaline junkies.
And there’s something for every age thanks to more than 30 different challenges and skill abilities.
And at this Adventure Park you control the experience by customizing the challenges you choose.
From tightrope walking, ziplining, and obstacle courses, the Open Air Adventure Park has you covered.
Included with your ticket is expert staff to teach you all the safety measures, with access to extensive safety gear.
Their goal is to make sure you have a fun but safe adventure during your visit to Estes Park.
This too is more of a spring, summer, and fall activity in Estes Park as the Open Air Adventure Park is closed during winter.
10. MacGregor Ranch Museum
Take a step back in time at the MacGregor Ranch Museum located in the beautiful Black Canyon Creek area of Estes Park.
The old west and the cowboy lifestyle have been part of Colorado’s history for decades.
And the MacGregor Ranch Museum offers a glimpse into what life was like for past generations.
Built in 1873, the ranch was started by the MacGregor family and was passed down through three generations.
Guided tours are available to explore the grounds and see what life was like on the Open Range.
The main house where the MacGregor’s lived is now a museum. It houses a unique collection of original furnishings and historic memorabilia.
After Alexander MacGregor, the founder of the ranch, died in 1896 his son Donald took over.
Donald was the one who adopted the horse-drawn machinery to make hay. More than a century later, this is the method still used today at the Ranch.
Estes Park sits in the heart of the Rocky Mountains just 90 miles northwest of Denver.
It offers lots of free and cheap things to do and is home to 300 miles of hiking trails and open spaces.
Not to mention it’s the backdoor to the Rocky Mountain National Park!
Nearly anytime of year you can expect to see an abundance of wildlife with elk wandering the streets of downtown.
Estes Park truly does not disappoint as a mountain town resort area, no matter what time of year you choose to visit.