Estes Park is undeniably one of the most stunning towns in both the US and the world.
At the heart of this town lies Lake Estes, a picturesque body of water that offers countless opportunities for enjoyment.
Whether you prefer a serene walk to witness the grandeur of elk and bald eagles, or if fishing and kayaking are more your style, this place has something truly exceptional to make your trip unforgettable.
If you’re headed to Estes Park and wanting to enjoy the lake in the best way possible, this guide is for you.
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What is Lake Estes?
Lake Estes is a reservoir located in Estes Park, Colorado, that is a popular tourist destination due to its scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.
Completed in 1948, Lake Estes was created as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, (C-BT), which is a large-scale water diversion and storage project in Colorado developed to address water supply needs, irrigation demands, and hydroelectric power generation in the region.
The issue with Colorado is that the majority of the population resides on the eastern side of the mountains, while the bulk of precipitation (usually snow) occurs on the western side. Consequently, the continental divide directs most of the water away from the populated areas.
So in the 1930s they started to construct diversion tunnels, canals, reservoirs, pumping plants, and power generation facilities to transfer water to places beyond the western and eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Among the 12 reservoirs such as Lake Granby, one of the visually remarkable ones constructed is the breathtaking Lake Estes. It encompasses 185 surface acres, boasts 5 miles of shoreline, and reaches a maximum depth of 45 feet. Additionally, it serves as an afterbay for the Estes Power Plant.
How to get to Lake Estes
Lake Estes has several areas you can park at but it’s a little bit confusing.
If you want 100% free parking without any risk of getting a ticket, you can park at the “Fishermans Nook” located on the north side of the lake which is where we always parked whenever we explored the lake.
Another option would be to use the free visitor parking garage (691 N St Vrain Ave) which also has a little lot as well as EV parking spots adjacent to do it. This is also a great place to park if you plan on exploring the Estes Park River Walk because it marks the beginning of the Riverwalk.
There is also parking at the Marina and the Cherokee Draw Day-Use Area on the south side of the lake which has access to the shore and some facilities like bathrooms. I talked with some locals and they said that the paid parking in these fee areas is not really enforced so that’s something to consider but as always you have to proceed at your own risk.
I also had a conversation with someone at the Estes Park Mountain Shop and they said that you could park in their lot, which is on the east side of the lake. They were extremely helpful with some of the questions I had so if you need anything outdoors related I’d highly recommend you check them out!
Lake Estes Activities and Recreation
Lake Estes Trail
One of the major attractions of Lake Estes is the Lake Estes Trail that goes around the entire perimeter. In total, it’s 3.7 miles (some say 4.0 miles) with about 200 feet in elevation, which would definitely put it in the “easy” category in terms of hikes.
The elevation gain comes mostly from the trail segments around the dam so if you simply stay on the path directly on the perimeter of the lake and don’t venture towards the dam, it’s mostly flat terrain.
This trail is frequented by hikers, walkers, joggers, and cyclists alike. It is equipped with a designated lane marker to ensure proper traffic flow, and its ample width allows for smooth passing without much difficulty.
You can find some shade along the path at certain times of the day, but for the most part, you’ll be in the sun (if it’s out).
It’s an extremely relaxing trail to take a stroll on with tremendous views of the surrounding Front Range peaks including Long’s Peak, its snow-capped summit often glistening in the sunlight.
Catching the lake on a perfectly calm and serene day, when the surface of the water resembles a flawless mirror reflecting the surrounding beauty, is an absolutely breathtaking sight to behold.
Not having had much exposure to lakes during my upbringing, I am always captivated when I come across a perfect reflection on the surface of a lake, especially with mountains as its backdrop.
During your stroll around the lake, you’ll come across various notable attractions. One such feature is a striking rock outcropping that beckons you to scramble atop and enjoy the panoramic views.
Along the path, you’ll also discover comfortable benches where you can pause and soak in the surroundings, as well as inviting picnic areas where you can indulge in a delightful outdoor meal.
And for families with children, a lively playground awaits near the marina, providing a playful space for little ones to enjoy.
They also installed these neat little workout stations offering a range of invigorating exercises utilizing your own body weight. It’s reminiscent of the outdoor fitness culture found in Venice Beach but nestled amidst the breathtaking Rockies.
A particularly interesting section of the trail lies on the northwest side, where the mighty Big Thompson River converges with the lake.
As you traverse this segment, you’ll experience a unique sensation — on one side, the tranquil expanse of the lake stretches out before you, while on the other, the rushing waters of the river create an exhilarating atmosphere. It’s an interesting stretch of the trail that offers a perfect blend of serene beauty and the dynamic energy of nature.
Another cool thing about the lake is that it takes one different personalities based on the weather, which can be pretty dynamic.
On cloudy days, when low-lying clouds drift across the majestic mountains, the lake takes on an air of mystery and intrigue. Conversely, on sunny, crisp days with clear blue skies, the lake radiates with vibrant energy.
The Lake Estes Trail was our preferred spot to walk our corgi, but keep in mind that the signs request you to keep your pets on a leash. Not everyone we encountered adhered to that guideline.
Personally, we made sure to keep our furry companion leashed throughout our visit, as numerous individuals had shared cautionary tales about the potential clashes between dogs and elk.
Occasionally a section of the trail may be closed due to aggressive elk sightings in the vicinity. You’ll come across signs along the trail stating that the area is closed when this happens. It doesn’t seem like these are official closure signs though because many people disregard them. As always, you have to be prepared to proceed at your own risk.
It’s quite fascinating to complete the entire loop around the trail since you also have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Olympus Dam, which is responsible for forming the reservoir. Standing at 70 feet tall, it boasts a base width of 49.5 feet and a crest length of 320 feet.
During our stay we saw lots of elk in the vicinity of the lake, as well as a few deer.
As dusk settled, we would drive down to the shoreline in front of the Estes Valley Fire Protection District and simply observe numerous elk gracefully making their way into the water, some even swimming across to the opposite side.
The echoing resonance of their calls, emanating from the distant corners of the lake, caught me off guard, as I had never before heard their unique, piercing cries.
When you are observing elk, you need to have a good situational awareness, especially during the spring and fall.
During the fall, typically September and October, elk enter their mating season, known as the rut. Male elk, called bulls, become more aggressive as they compete for mates. Beyond the bugling bulls may charge or engage in physical confrontations so be sure to keep your distance.
In the spring, usually May and June, elk give birth to their calves. Mother elk, known as cows, are protective of their young and may exhibit aggressive behavior if they perceive a threat. Getting too close to a cow elk and her calf can trigger defensive responses, such as charging, kicking, or even goring with their antlers.
A good rule of thumb is to keep a distance so that you can always hide the elk behind your thumb whenever your arm is fully extended. And don’t get so close that you alter their behavior.
Tip: Often, you can easily observe from the safety of your vehicle.
During our visit, our eyes were blessed with the occasional sighting of bald eagles, though they hid in plain sight. Like sentinels of the skies, they sit perched atop the power lines, a bit camouflaged amidst the metallic lattice but easy to spot if you know where to look.
If the water is really clear you might even witness the breathtaking spectacle of an eagle swooping down, its wings spread wide in pursuit of its coveted feast.
You’ll also find a lot of ducks, including the captivating mallards, known for their vibrant plumage and an ability to navigate both water and air.
Canada geese like to hang out around the lake as well often times trailed by their goslings. Once again, you want to use some awareness when observing geese.
During the nesting season, which typically occurs in the spring, geese can become more aggressive and may perceive people or other animals as threats.
They may hiss, flap their wings, or charge at perceived intruders, including humans, to defend their nesting areas. Geese are especially protective of their goslings and will aggressively defend them if they feel threatened. Remember, these birds mate for life sometimes lasting as long as 25 years, so the family ties run deep!
Other large birds to look out for include osprey and huge turkey vultures.
If you have a sharp eye, there is a wide range of other stunning birds to appreciate, particularly around the Matthews-Reeser Sanctuary where you can spot Red-naped Sapsucker, Grace’s Warbler, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Wilson’s Warbler.
Another great way to experience the lake is to actually get out on the water. On a beautiful weekend day in the summer, you’ll see a healthy blend of kayakers, paddle boarders, and paddle boats gracefully navigating the shimmering lake waters.
The Estes Lake Marina offers a variety of boat rentals (keep in mind it’s a wake-less boating lake).
Here’s a look at the pricing for various types of rentals. Just keep in mind that this was the pricing when we visited and you can check here for the latest prices.
|Boat Rentals||Guest Limits||Hourly Rate|
|Pontoon Boat||10 guests or 1500 lbs.||$100|
|9 guests or 1200 lbs.||$90|
|7 guests or 1000 lbs.||$70|
|Fishing Boat||4 guests or 600 lbs.||$60|
|Paddle Boat||4 guests or 955 lbs.||$35|
|Canoe||3 guests or 680 lbs.||$30|
|Single Kayak||1 guest max. 275 lbs.||$25|
|Tandem Kayak||2 guests max. 450 lbs.||$30|
|Stand-Up Paddleboard||1 guest||$25|
You can rent bikes at the Estes Park Mountain Shop and the Estes Lake Marina also has special pedal carts and bicycles that you can take around.
|Bike Rentals||Guest Limits||Hourly Rate|
|Pedal Cart||3 guests or 750 lbs.||$25|
The biggest thing to think about when cycling around is the speed limit on the trail, which will be indicated by speed limit signs. Also, be mindful of the elk. They have a knack for surprising cyclists by seemingly materializing out of thin air.
Fishing is extremely popular on Lake Estes and the lake offers a few different fish species, including rainbow and brown trout providing anglers with an enticing opportunity to reel in a variety of prized catches. (Just make sure you pay attention to the daily limits).
Every time we visited, we saw several people fishing from all different sides of the lake, including those fishing via boat and others fly fishing near the river.
If you want to fish here make sure that you have a license and that you follow all of the regulations. Be aware that Lake Estes Marina sells fishing licenses and you can also purchase bait, including worms, salmon eggs, or power bait.
How does a round of golf at a nine-hole course in a picturesque mountain town, where elegant elk leisurely stroll amidst the fairways sound?
Well, if you’d like you can enjoy this what type of unique golfing experience at the Lake Estes 9-Hole Golf Course, located on the west side of the lake at 690 Big Thompson Ave. Estes Park, CO 80517.
Disc golf is also available at the Lake Estes 9-Hole Golf Course, allowing players to keep a watchful eye for majestic elk and casting their flying discs towards strategically placed targets.
For those looking to go on a swim in Lake Estes, I have bad news. It’s not allowed. Well, unless you’re an elk, that is. If you just want to get into the water a little bit you are allowed to wade in the waters, along the sandy beach located near the marina on the north side of the lake.
If you’re in the mood to satisfy your appetite, there is a restaurant located right on the lake called, Dunraven at The Estes Park Resort.
If you’re on the north side of the lake you’re also pretty close to smother nice eating establishments including Hunters Chop House and my favorite pizza place in Estes Park, Antonio’s Real New York Pizza.
On the south side of the lake, you’re very close to the Estes Park Museum which is free to visit, and the Estes Park Dog Park.
If you find yourself in Estes Park, I strongly urge you to set aside some time to venture to Lake Estes.
At the bare minimum, taking a leisurely walk around its perimeter will grant you the opportunity to witness the diverse wildlife that may cross your path, while also treating yourself to breathtaking vistas of the encircling mountains. Moreover, it serves as an ideal location for engaging in invigorating exercise or indulging in moments of serenity on the tranquil waters.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.