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Estes Park, Colorado

If you’ve never been to Estes Park, Colorado, you’re truly missing out. A place my family visited often when I was a little kid has now become a place my husband & I also enjoy. We’re usually the type of travelers who like to see new places instead of repeating destinations, but Estes Park is one spot we just seem to keep coming back to.

In this post I outline Nick & I's quick trip to the mountains with details on the trials we hiked this time around, as well as some favorite places to eat and things to do around the town of Estes Park.

Day 1:

We started out with an early 7a flight out of Kansas City to Denver. With everything going on, I was honestly pretty nervous to fly. I had a couple masks, hand sanitizer, and a pack of wipes, but still felt very unsure if we made the right choice in flying. We flew Southwest, and they as well as MCI did a great job at keeping everyone well-spaced and made everything as contactless as possible. The airport was also eerily empty, which made me feel much better.

We landed at the Denver airport at 7:45a, grabbed our rental car and headed to Estes Park. The drive from the airport to Estes is only about an hour and a half, and is such a pretty drive that it goes quickly.

Once we arrived in Estes, we took our obligatory photo in front of the big stone sign, and headed into town. Mask wearing in any public space was mandatory in Colorado at the time of our visit, and the town of Estes Park was taking it very seriously, which we appreciated. Even walking out on the street, people were wearing masks, and if you didn’t wear one when you went inside a business, they would ask you to leave. We arrived too early to check into our cabin, so we grabbed an early lunch at Lonigans Saloon. It was the first time we’ve eaten at this place, and although it wasn’t stellar, it did the trick.

After lunch, we were able to get an early check-in at our cabin at Idlewilde by the River. We were able to get the exact same cabin we had when we had our first official vacation together as a couple 9 years ago, so walking in was a fun trip down memory lane. These cabins are in a great spot right along the Big Thompson River and just minutes from an entrance to Rocky Mountain Natl. Park. These cabins are pretty rustic, but are clean and have all the necessities. We never spend much time inside when we come to Estes Park, so it fit our needs perfectly.

After we got checked in and settled, we headed to RMNP for a quick hike before dinner. We decided to head to Eugenia Mine since it was only around 3mi roundtrip and rated “easy”. The starting elevation is about 9400ft, so even though it’s rated as “easy”, after we got going I'd probably rate it as 'moderate' for people coming from no elevation areas like Kansas :P

The start of the trail wanders through a pine forest with occasional views of mountain peaks through the trees. The climb is steady, and gets pretty steep in some areas but the trail is well marked and easy to navigate. After crossing the footbridge over Inn Brook, roughly 1.4 miles from the trailhead, you reach the site of the mine along the eastern slopes of Battle Mountain. At the site are the remnants of an old homestead, a ten-foot vertical steam boiler left standing beside the creek bed, as well as mine tailings just upstream from the trail. The mine was opened in 1905, and was worked seasonally by Carl Norwell and Dan Slaughter until around 1912. The miners tunneled at least 1500 feet, and installed cart tracks to haul copper sulphide and gold ore out of the mountain. Although the Longmont Ledger proclaimed that "an enormous body of ore has been uncovered," there's no evidence that the men ever made a profit from the venture. Eventually the entrance collapsed, and in the 1960s the national park sealed the mine shaft.

It probably took us about two hours to complete the hike, and that included us wandering around the mine site for a while. While it was a nice hike to get us acclimated to the altitude, the destination point was a little anticlimactic as there wasn’t really much to see. The stream was pretty and the sign marking the mine site made me laugh, I don’t think I’d highly recommend it.

After our hike, we stopped in town to get groceries so we could make our own breakfast & lunches, then grabbed dinner at Bird & Jim, which was just up the road form our cabin. We then spent the evening sitting riverside listening to the water and watching the hummingbirds zip around, then headed to bed early so we could get an early start hiking the next morning.

Day 2:

Day two we got up early and made breakfast at the cabin, then headed to RMNP. I always have to do a waterfall hike, so this day’s trip took us to Fern Falls, which ended up being my favorite hike of the trip. The falls is roughly 5 miles round-trip, and ranked as moderate (I felt it was fairly easy though). You can continue past the falls all the way to Fern Lake, or branch off and go around to Cub Lake, but we just went out & back to the falls.

The trail follows the Big Thompson River all the way to The Pool, and alternates between forest and a few open areas that provide some pretty good views of the Big Thompson Valley. Roughly 1.2 miles from the trailhead you pass through Arch Rocks, a couple of house-sized rocks that presumably landed on this spot when a large boulder fell from the cliffs above and split apart. At 1.7 miles you'll reach the Cub Lake Trail junction. This also marks the spot where Fern Creek meets the Big Thompson River & forms the turbulent waters known as The Pool. Roughly two-tenths of a mile beyond The Pool is the side trail that leads to the Old Forest Inn Backcountry Campsite. Just past the campsite the trail begins a climb of almost 400 feet over the next seven-tenths of a mile to reach the base of Fern Falls, a 60-foot waterfall. I felt the switchbacks leading up to the falls was the only "moderate" part of the trail, the rest of the hike was easy walking along a well defined and pretty smooth trial. The views were great and there were lots of places to stop for breaks while taking it all in.

We ate our packed lunch when we reached the falls, then headed back down to the trailhead. All in all, it took us around 4 hours to complete this hike. We took our time to take in the sights, so you could probably do this hike much quicker if you had any time constraints.

After the hike, we went back to the cabin and got cleaned up, then took a nice stroll around Lake Estes. There are always elk in this area, and we came across a group of cow elk and their calves running around playing that we watched for a while before heading into town for dinner at The Wild Rose.

After dinner, we stopped for some ice cream at Hayley’s Homemade Ice Cream. If you want a ton of ice cream for your money, this is the place to go! We took our ice cream back to the cabin and enjoyed it by the river, then headed out for an evening drive through RMNP.

The evenings are always a good time to go through the park because a lot of people have left and the wildlife is more active. On this evening’s drive, a storm had rolled in bringing hail, rain, and snow. Despite the rainy weather, the park was still beautiful and the animals were really active. We sat for quite a while just listening to the thunder echo across the valley and watching a heard of bull elk sort out some hierarchy issues.

Day 3:

We woke up on day 3 to a very chilly 34*F and fresh snow up on the mountain peaks. After breakfast, we decided to hike to Bierstadt Lake. Whenever we travel to the mountains, we always bring some cold-weather layers, even in late summer. It’s a good thing we do, because as we discovered when we drove up to the trailhead the overnight storm didn’t pass through, instead it was stuck in the mountains and some snow was still falling.

We layered up, and started our trek to Bierstadt Lake. The hike to the lake is just over 3mi roundtrip, and once you get up the initial climb, really easy. You start off by going up 600 feet along a series of steep but manageable switchbacks to reach the top of the Bierstadt Moraine. Along the way it passes through groups of pines and aspens. As you climb higher you get amazing views of the mountains and valley. Unfortunately, our view was mostly blocked out by blowing snow, but was still really pretty.

Shortly after reaching the top of the moraine, ~1 mile from the trailhead, you reach the Bierstadt Lake Loop Trail junction. You can proceed in either direction, and we chose to follow the loop in a clockwise direction. The flat and easy trail circling the lake passes through a very pleasant forest of spruce, fir and lodgepole pine. You can also reach Bear Lake from this trail, but we didn't take that detour since we've already been around Bear Lake. The lake is named after renowned western landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). He was brought to the area in 1876 by the Earl of Dunraven, a wealthy Irish aristocrat. The Earl commissioned Bierstadt to paint a large landscape of Estes Park and Longs Peak. Upon completion the Earl sent the painting to Europe to hang on the walls of Dunraven Castle in South Wales. Today the painting is back in Colorado, and is owned by the Denver Public Library.

After the hike, we wanted to go up Trail Ridge Road to take in the views, but they had to close the road at the bottom of the mountain due to ice and snow in the higher elevations. So instead we drove to a pretty overlook, had a quick lunch, and decided where we wanted to go next. On the drive, we got a nice view of a little bull moose!

We were a little over all the wind and snow, so went over to the other side of the park & out of the storm to hike to Gem Lake in the Lumpy Ridge area. It’s funny how much of a difference a few miles makes when you’re in the mountains. Once we got out from under the storm it was sunny and pleasant again! Gem Lake Trail is roughly 3.4mi round trip and rightfully rated as moderate. The trail begins by ascending the southeastern portions of Lumpy Ridge, a massive granite rock outcropping that's been sculpted by wind and erosion. This segment of the trail, all the way up to Gem Lake, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The first half-mile of the Gem Lake Trail travels through a narrow, boulder-strewn canyon. The trail is well marked, but some spots are very rocky and uneven. This stretch also passes through the northeastern corner of the historic MacGregor Ranch. As the trail climbs you'll pass several points that offer awesome views of the town of Estes Park, Longs Peak and the surrounding mountains. We also got some pretty great views of the massive storm we hiked in earlier.

There are lots of massive boulders on this trail and some have really interesting shapes. Roughly 1.4 miles you'll reach a boulder with the name of Paul Bunyan's Boot. The final climb up to the lake is steep, and has quite a few rock steps built into the cliff face to help hikers ascend more safely. Many of the steps are one or two feet in height, which could be a little difficult for some people. At roughly 1.75 miles you'll finally reach Gem Lake. It’s not a huge lake, but is really pretty and would make a really great swimming spot in the summer (if you want to hike in the heat to get to it!). The lake has neither an inlet or outlet stream, instead, it's formed by trapped snowmelt and rainwater that collects in a basin carved out of the base of the granite cliff walls that surround the lake.

After our hike, we drove over to The Stanley Hotel to walk around the beautiful hotel (because if you don’t visit the Stanley did you even got to Estes?!), but sadly they were closed due to COVID and using this time to do renovations. If you ever find yourself in Estes Park, I highly recommend taking one of their guided ghost tours. Even if you don’t believe in that kind of stuff, it’s really fun to get a tour of the hotel and grounds and hear about the history.

After leaving The Stanley, we headed to dinner at The Wapiti Pub. We’ve been to this place a few times now and it is always good food. They also have a great outdoor seating area when the weather is nice.

After dinner, we took another evening drive through park and saw more elk and a few deer, and saw that the storm was still stuck up in the mountain peaks.

Day 4:

For our final day of hiking, we started out with a goal to hike 4 Lakes Loop, but due to all the snow couldn't make the trail to the 4th lake, Lake Haiyaha. So instead we back-tracked a little and went up to Emerald Lake, which didn't disappoint!

The hike to Emerald Lake is roughly 3.5mi round trip. Normally I think would be 'easy', but with the snowpack I'd say a low moderate. The hike begins from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Just beyond the trailhead the Bear Lake Loop splits off to the right and the trail to Emerald Lake branches off to the left. From Bear Lake the trail makes a steady climb up to Nymph Lake. This portion of the trail is very popular so much of this section of trail has been paved and is very easy walking.

At just over a 1/2 mile from the trailhead you'll reach the south end of Nymph Lake. If you continue up the trail for a short distance around the lake, you'll get a nice view of Hallett Peak. As you proceed around the lake you'll reach a fairly steep climb for a short section that includes a view of Longs Peak off to the left. Although it’s a steep grade, it’s still paved for much of this section, so it’s not too difficult. At roughly 1.1 miles from the trailhead you'll arrive at the junction for the trail that leads to Lake Haiyaha on the left. We gave it a good try, but the trail was too steep and the snow was too slick to navigate without boot spikes to continue. So, we turned back and backtracked to the trail junction and headed to the right and off to Emerald Lake. A very short distance past the trail junction and over a little footbridge, you’ll reach the foot of Dream Lake. The trail to Emerald Lake continues by going along the north shore of Dream Lake and further into the Tyndall Gorge. Once past Dream Lake, the trail begins climbing a series of steps. On your left Tyndall Creek runs down the gorge and the jagged peak of Flattop Mountain can be seen almost directly in front of you.

At roughly 1.8 miles and an elevation of 10,110 feet, you reach Emerald Lake. 12,713-foot Hallett Peak will be the dominating feature almost directly in front of you, and off towards the right will be 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain. Luckily the storm had broken up by the time we got to the lake and the view was quite stunning, but man was it cold! And the wind coming between the two peaks was brutal. We took in the view only for a little while before heading back down.

We were quite bummed we couldn’t make it all the way out to Lake Haiyaha, but the trial to Emerald Lake was very beautiful and had great views on the way back down. I would highly recommend it, especially if you have a group of hikers who can’t navigate really rough terrain.

After the hike, we had lunch at the Trailhead Restaurant, which is located inside the Rocky Mountain Gateway Giftshop. We have eaten here quite a few times over the years, and it never disappoints!

After lunch, I was somehow able to convince Nick to take a 2-hour tailride through the park. This was SO much fun (for me anyway haha). I’m an avid rider so love to ride anyway, but it was also really nice to be able to sit back and really take in the views while the horse focused on doing the walking for me. The stable we rode out of is called Gateway Stables, and they actually go into RMNP. Be sure to do your research before booking a ride, as not all of the stables in the area actually go into the park. We were lucky that they weren’t busy and got to have a ride with just the two of us and a guide. The mountain views were amazing, and we were able to see some more elk as well.

After the ride and getting cleaned up, we has dinner at The Grubsteak, which I highly recommend! The food was great and they have an awesome outdoor area for the nice weather days. After dinner, we had another stop at Hayley’s Homemade Ice Cream and then headed back into RMNP for our evening drive. They ended up opening Trail Ridge Road up to Rainbow Curve, so we took a drive up there to take in the views one last time. As we were heading back down, we were lucky enough to spot a mama moose and her calf hanging out pretty close to the road. The calf was running around like a little wild thing, and it was absolutely adorable. We probably stood there for 30 minutes or so just watching them until they finally wandered back into the trees. It was the perfect capper to our last night in Estes Park!

Day 5:

Travel day! Leaving Estes Park is always such a bummer. Already wanting to plan our next trip back, and hopefully bring the little guy along with us!



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