Estes Park is one of the most beautiful mountain towns I’ve ever visited.
In addition to the great scenery, there’s a lot of things to do, from enjoying the leisurely strolls along the scenic river walk to getting adventurous in the mountains.
In this article, I’ll break down some of the best things to do when in Estes Park based on our personal experiences.
Table of Contents
Rocky Mountain National Park
For lots of people coming to Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park is the number one attraction. And there are a lot of ways to enjoy the park.
You will need to get familiar with the timed entry system and how it applies to the specific time you’re visiting.
We always just opt to enter the park before the timed entry system begins which means waking up really early but it’s always worth it even though it might be in the 30s (Fº) when you enter the park!
As far as hiking goes, there are endless hiking options and Rocky Mountain National Park is my #1 national park in the US in terms of bang for buck hiking.
Personally, I really like the Bear Lake Corridor even though it is often busy with other hikers and tourists.
If you’re down for something strenuous, consider the hike to Sky Pond which allows you to hit scramble up alongside a waterfall and see some stunning alpine lakes. Chasm Lake is another great strenuous hike.
The hike to Dream Lake and Emerald Lake is more of the moderate category and still offers stunning scenery along the way but it can get quite crowded if you wait too long to begin.
If you just want something easy and team take a stroll around Bear Lake, which is right next to the parking area.
I also recommend looking into the Gem Lake Trail.
This trail is very close to Estes Park proper and gives you a good feel for the mountainous terrain surrounding Estes Park while offering you great views of the nearby peaks and Estes Park itself.
Something else you can do is just take a drive through the park, looking for wildlife. During our travels we spotted insane amounts of elk including some with some magnificent racks. We also found several moose, deer, and marmots.
Estes Park River Walk
The Estes Park Riverwalk is a paved path that runs through the heart of Downtown Estes Park, alongside the Big Thompson and Fall River.
Lots of tourists only see small parts of it when they visit but I would recommend you starting from the very beginning which is near the Estes Park Visitor Center, where you can also find free parking.
From there, you can make your way to Performance Park, covering approximately 1.1 miles one-way.
Along the way there’s a lot to check out. You’ll find outdoor instruments like chimes and xylophones as well as several art installations, monuments, and you may even encounter locals fly fishing.
My favorite part of the River Walk is just enjoying the beautiful forest scenery, with pines, fir trees, and quaking aspens lining the rushing river – it’s incredibly scenic.
Be sure to find a bench to hang out on for a while and enjoy the therapeutic sights and sounds of the river, which many people like to do with a hot cup of coffee or tea in hand.
The Riverwalk takes you behind Elkhorn Avenue which is the main street home to a vast amount of shops, restaurants, and cafes.
If you’ve never been to Estes, you might be overwhelmed by the number of options with an ice cream or fudge shop seemingly every few feet, so be sure to check out our guide on the best places to eat.
When checking out the Riverwalk, I recommend also doing the pika statue scavenger hunt.
You’ll be looking for 12 pint-sized statues which are hidden in various spots and you can use clues to find them along with helping you gain some insight into the people who helped develop the region. Find all of them and you can unlock a special button from the visitor center.
Speaking of the visitor center, it’s a good idea to stop by to pick up maps, recommendations for restaurants and things to do, and the main guidebook which has coupons that can save you several bucks at different restaurants.
Lake Estes is a reservoir located in Estes Park, Colorado, that is a popular tourist destination due to its scenery, wildlife, and recreational opportunities. It encompasses 185 surface acres, boasts 5 miles of shoreline, and reaches a maximum depth of 45 feet.
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.
One of my favorite things to do while in Estes was to take walks with our dog around the lake and just enjoy the scenery of the front range mountains including the iconic Longs Peak.
This is also a great place to encounter local wildlife. Prepare to be awestruck as you witness the majestic elk gracefully wandering around the lake’s shores, with a few daring individuals even taking refreshing swims in the cool waters.
And if luck is on your side, keep your eyes peeled for the extraordinary sight of bald eagles perched on the powerlines
A lot of people like to rent paddle boards, kayaks, and other small boats to enjoy the lake and you can rent these from the Lake Estes Marina.
You can also get a temporary fishing license along with bait at the marina as fishing is one of the most popular things to do in the lake.
Lots of the parking is found in the areas but if you want to secure free parking just had to Fisherman’s Nook, on the north side of the lake.
Also, as a bonus you should check out Mary’s Lake which is just a couple of minutes away from the heart of Estes Park. You’ll find smaller crowds there and there are some cool rocky outcroppings you can climb up to and enjoy the views.
Built in 1909 by F.O. Stanley, this grand landmark was the inspiration for Stephen King’s spine-chilling novel, “The Shining.” After King stayed at the property for only one night, just before it closed down for winter, he reportedly had the entire haunting story created in his head.
The hotel has hosted famous personalities like Theodore Roosevelt and John Lennon and is also well known for its paranormal activity.
You can experience the hotel in a number of ways.
For one, you can just stay at the hotel and maybe even try to get into room 217, known for its supernatural activity.
Some people have only lasted a matter of hours in that room so you may not want to go into booking that without thinking things through first.
Or you can opt for a tour, such as a ghost tour, where you will explore the eerie corners and haunted rooms.
During our stay, we did the Shining Tour which dives deep into the origin of the story and also is effectively a ghost tour since you learn about some of the main hauntings in the property and get to walk down haunted hallways if you’re up for it.
The tour even allows you to catch a glimpse of the axe used in The Shining along with a haunting recreation of the bathroom from room 237 seen in the movie. I highly recommend it!
Historic Park Theatre
Built in 1913, the Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park is one of the oldest operating movie theaters in the country and a renowned cultural landmark nestled in the heart of the town.
In 1922, Ralph Gwynn assumed ownership of the theatre and built the landmark tower known as the “Tower of Love” as a tribute to the love of his life, but it’s not quite as sweet a gesture as you might imagine.
On the day they were meant to unite their lives, the love of Gwynn’s life vanished, leaving him standing alone at the altar. Perhaps seeking a twisted form of closure, Gwynn built the tower to represent the beautiful love of his life: beautiful on the outside and hollow and empty on the inside.
If you are accustomed to the lavish amenities of fully equipped modern theaters, you’ll find that your viewing experience at the Historic Park Theatre in Estes Park offers a departure from those cookie-cutter multiplexes.
But it’s still a great place to embrace the vintage cinematic experience and it’s not so bad. While the seats are a bit stiff, you can find cushions in the back to help you get comfortable. And with your staple concessions items available, it’s not a bad way to catch a movie.
Make sure you go to the one of the rock shops in Estes Park before leaving.
I’d recommend taking a visit to the Red Rose Rock Shop which features all sorts of minerals, gemstones, and fossils.
Personally, I never really spent time in a rock shop before so I did not even realize that you could purchase fossils like the ones found in the shop so I thought that was extremely interesting. You’ll come across things like dinosaur bones, petrified wood, megalodon teeth, trilobites, and many more oddities.
It’s also a great place to find some beautiful gemstones and crystals that would make for great souvenirs which would be much better than the standard boring souvenirs you typically find a gift shop.
Out back, you’ll also find a pond and they give you food if you’d like to feed some of the ducks.
There’s another rock shop located in downtown that’s a little bit more of a premium gift shop where you might find jewelry.
Estes Park Museum
The Estes Park Museum is a free museum where you can explore the origins of the region. Learn about the key players in the development of the town and how it emerged as a tourism mecca.
One of the standout attractions within the museum is the impeccably maintained 1909 model EX Stanley Steamer Runabout, a truly remarkable vehicle with the impressive ability to reach speeds of up to sixty-five miles per hour.
Another must see is the historic cabin from the early 1900s, which you can go inside of. It’s a modest museum but still worth checking out for a little while.
The Birch Ruins are well-preserved remnants of a stone bungalow built in 1907 and owned by Albert ‘Al’ Birch, the editor of the Denver Post.
Starting in 1903, Birch spent his summers in Estes Park and after a few years, he developed a deep affection for the place and commissioned stonemason Carl Piltz to construct a small bungalow on this rocky outcropping, offering a scenic view of the town.
Unfortunately, in 1907, the bungalow was destroyed by fire, leaving behind only the stone ruins, which can still be explored today.
Admission is free to explore the ruins and only a short and easy hike is required to see them. This is a great way to experience a little bit of nature without having to venture away from the downtown area and the views are pretty impressive.
Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Estes Park is located at the beginning (or end) of one of the most popular scenic highways in Colorado.
It’s known as the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway and it’s a great place to go for a scenic drive especially during the color change which would be in late September or early October.
In addition to some really great views along the way, you’ll be able stop and see the famous rock chapel, take a pit stop in Allenspark for one of the famous cinnamon rolls, and check out the historic carousel or dine inside a train car in Nederland.
There are plenty of side routes to ghost towns, beautiful hiking areas, and historical sites. Some of these require some advanced planning so be sure to check out the article linked above.
You’ll finish up in the competing casino towns of Blackhawk and Central before heading back or you can continue on to Interstate 70 if you are heading to Denver or other nearby areas.
It’s a great drive because you can knock it out in about 1.5 hours one way, making it a very reasonable road trip to do.
Stanley Home Museum
The Stanley Home Museum is a new historic house museum in Estes Park, Colorado. Built in 1904 by Freelan Oscar (“F.O.”) Stanley and his wife Flora, it’s a fine example of Colonial Revival architecture and it was used by the Stanley’s as a summer home for decades.
Furnished with period pieces throughout the rooms, the museum takes you back to the early 1900s while allowing you to learn about the remarkable contributions this couple made to the Estes Park area.
As you get taken from room to room, more of the “Stanley story” will begin to come together.
You’ll realize just how far reaching F.O.’s impact was, be it through the iconic Stanley Hotel, the creation of tourism-enhancing roads, the establishment of a power plant that illuminated the town, or even his role in the formation of Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s pretty inspiring to hear about all of the accomplishments. If you have an interest in history, entrepreneurship, or antiques, this tour will be right up your alley.
Historic Power Plant
The Historic Fall River Hydroplant is a former hydroelectric power plant located in Estes Park, Colorado. It was built in 1909 by F.O. Stanley to provide electricity for the Stanley Hotel and ultimately the town of Estes Park.
The plant was damaged in the Lawn Lake Flood of 1982, but was restored and is now open to the public as a museum. It’s a great place to learn about the history of hydroelectric power and the development of Estes Park.
You’ll get a good overview of FL Stanley and get taken through the plant to get it up close look at the turbines and generators used.
For people with a mechanical or engineering background, they will probably love all of the technical inside all over your average person like myself you might get a little bit lost.
Still, it’s interesting to come away with some tidbits of information and two also learn about the catastrophic flood of 1982 and the impact that it had on the community.
The plant is open from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from June through September. The guided tours are offered at 1 PM, 2 PM, and 3 PM and usually last about 45 minutes to an hour.
Here’s your inside tip, though: you don’t necessarily have to arrive right at the beginning of the hour to jump on a tour. We arrived about 20 minutes prior to 3 PM and the volunteers were able to get us started on our own personal tour which was extremely nice of them.
The other great thing about this attraction is that it is 100% free but you can always consider making a donation.
The Estes Park Farmers Market is a weekly event where local farmers and vendors sell fresh produce, baked goods, and other Colorado-made products. It typically begins at the beginning of June and will run until the end of September.
It takes place every Thursday and runs from 8 AM to 1 PM, which is great because it allows the market to remain open for a few hours before those summer thunderstorms roll into the mountains.
We visited this market and really enjoyed engaging with all of the different friendly vendors and supporting the different small businesses.
We walked away with some delicious handcrafted chocolate peanut butter cups in addition to honey infused with whiskey barrel flavor. But you can find everything from tamales to bison sausage here.
I recommend heading here for breakfast as you won’t be disappointed by some of the pastry options.
Estes Park Memorial Observatory
The Estes Park Memorial Observatory is another free activity that’s great for anyone interested in exploring the night sky. It’s home to a 16-inch telescope capable of giving you great views of galaxies, nebulas, and brilliant star clusters.
You’ll need to contact them and request a booking in advance and then hope for clear skies.
Unfortunately for us, the skies did not open up so we are observing night was canceled but I’m hoping to return at some point to do some observing.
If you’re looking for something somewhat bizarre to see check out the “Estes Ark” which is a scaled down version of Noah’s ark.
The ark is filled with thousands of stuffed animals that come in all different varieties along with lots of antiques. It’s one of the stranger things to come across but perfect for those with a love of stuffed animals or a fascination with Noah’s Ark.
Other activities you can enjoy
In addition to hiking, if you want to get out and be active there are a lot of activities you can book like white water rafting, high ropes courses, fly fishing.
You’ll also find a couple of places around town to enjoy things like go karts and miniature golf.
You can head to the visitor center to pick up information on the different vendors available or sometimes you can find their headquarters located along the Riverwalk or Elkhorn Avenue.
There’s obviously a lot that you can do in Estes Park and the good news is that there are quite a few free things you can do. If you enjoy spending time in nature, you will no doubt enjoy your time in Estes Park!
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.