Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park: The ultimate weekend travel guide
How to get to Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver
It's a short 1.5-hour drive from Denver to Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park making it the perfect weekend road trip, whether you live in Denver or are flying into Denver. We rented a 4-wheel drive (recommended for winter) online in advance which we picked up via shuttle bus to the car rentals near Denver Airport.
We recommend leaving early and making a day of the road trip, stopping in the town of Boulder along the way. Have breakfast along the main street, Pearl Street and don't miss a visit to-Chautauqua Park, which has amazing views over the mountains.
On your way into Estes Park, be sure to stop for a photo at the 'Welcome to Estes Park' sign overlooking stunning roadside views f the Rocky Mountains.
For a movie-worthy bucket list experience - The Stanley Hotel
The hotel is perched high on a hill offering full views over the city and mountains. The hotel was built in the early 1900s by the inventor of the Stanley automobiles, it is today most famous for inspiring Stephen King' The Shining' and was also a filming location for the movie Dumb and Dumber. Rumour has it the hotel is haunted, and you can see for yourself with an after-dark ghost tour.
Cheap, cheerful and dog-friendly - Murphys River Lodge
If you're looking for an affordable, simple, clean and cosy stay we recommend Murphys River Lodge. This cosy motel is within walking distance to all of the shops and restaurants along the main street of Estes Park and backs onto the beautiful river, with outdoor seating to relax with a view. It is dog friendly and offers many great extras including free parking, free continental breakfast, free popcorn, hot chocolate and board game rentals from the hotel reception.
If you're looking for any other hotel options we recommend checking booking.com
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Other places to stay in Estes Park
The top things to see and do on a weekend in Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park:
Friday night: Visit the Whiskey Bar and Cascade Restaurant at the Stanley Hotel
Start your weekend with a visit to the Whiskey Bar of the Stanley Hotel, the Lady Lucy cocktail is one of the best we've had in the USA and can highly recommend it. Next have dinner at their Cascade restaurant, also connected to the Whiskey Bar. We recommend the pork belly, pear and burrata salad and ocean trout.
Saturday Morning: Visit the Rocky Mountain National Park from Beaver Meadows Entrance
We recommend planning your visits to the Rocky Mountain National Park early in the morning. You can buy your National Park Pass upon entry to the park at the drive-through windows. If you're visiting for only one day you can get a day pass, otherwise, a weekly pass is the best value. Our recommendation would be to arrive no later than 9 am, as once car park gets full they close roads and no longer allow drivers to reach the hiking areas.
Bear Lake to Nymph Lake to Dream Lake to Emerald Lake Hike:
We recommend heading to Bear Lake as early in the morning as possible. Roads here are still open in winter, and in summer it's extremely popular, so roads can close when the car park gets full. If you don't come early enough and you made need to take the park and ride the tourist shuttle.
To start any hike from Bear lake (including Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake) it's best to park at the Bear Lake car park. The best entrance to the National Park take to get here is the Beaver Meadows entrance, which is around a 20-minute drive.
Once reaching the car park, you'll arrive directly at Bear Lake, the full trail circles 0.8 miles around the lake and is a flat easy trail. In winter the lake is often full frozen over giving the option to walk directly across the lake. From Bear Lake, it's an additional 0.8 miles uphill to Nymph Lake, which takes around 30 minutes. The full hike to Emerald and Dream lake can take around 3 hours. If you plan to do this in winter we recommend wearing hiking boots with spikes (you can find these for around $25 on Amazon). If you don't have these it is still possible to do Bear and Nymph lake but it can get slippery.
Sprague Lake Hike
After visiting Bear Lake, next head to Sprague Lake, around 10 minutes away (also closest to the Beaver Meadows Park entrance) it's another easy and flat 0.9-mile trail around the lake, offering amazing views of the lake and surrounding mountains. This is doable within a day including Bear Lake on the itinerary and roads are open in winter. It's also doable without spikes on your boots in winter but it can get slippery so we would recommend them.
Saturday Lunch: Penelope's World Famous Burger and Fries, Estes Park
Once you've finished your morning of hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park head back to the main street of Estes Park and fuel up at Penelope's World Famous Burgers and Fries. Here you can try some of the local meats, including Elk and Bison Burgers, however, they also offer vegetarian options including Impossible Burgers and of course the standard beef burgers.
Saturday afternoon: Take a sunset walk around Lake Estes to look out for Elk
Sunrise and sunset is the best time to spot wildlife in Estes Park, Elk can be often found near the Estes Park visitor centre or Golf Course which both back onto Lake Estes. It's the perfect spot for an afternoon sunset walk.
Saturday Dinner: The Post Chicken and Beer, the Stanley Hotel
Head back to the Stanley Hotel for dinner and check out the Post for their delicious fried chicken and beers. This was one of our favourite meals of the trip.
Sunday Morning: Rocky Mountain National Park from Fall River Entrance
Sheep's Lake Station
Just a 1.8-mile drive from the Fall River entrance of the Rocky Mountain National Park is Sheep Lake Station. Pull in here for a photo with the beautiful lake, meadows and some potential elk sightings.
Walk the Alluvial Fan Trail
If you're looking for another quick and short hike at the 0.5-mile Alluvial fan trail, it is mostly paved, but can be a little slippery in winter (though still doable). It offers views of a nice small waterfall.
Visit the Many Peaks Overlook
For some of the best panoramic views over the Rocky Mountain National Park drive up to the Many Peaks Overlook. The road to the viewing platforms is still open in winter, though it is closed from this point onward.
Sunday Lunch: Inkwell & Brew for snacks, Coffee and Board games
For a coffee and snack head to Inkwell and Brew, this cosy space includes a cute gift store of local cards, notebooks and souvenirs and upstairs has comfy couches where you can sit and play a few board games for the afternoon.
Sunday afternoon: Visit Knoll Willows park to look out for Elk
Once you've finished your coffee take a walk around Knoll Willows Park, another great spot for a potential Elk or wildlife sighting. We saw multiple elk in this location.
We hope you enjoyed our weekend guide to Estes Park & the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. To see more of our other USA destination guides click here.
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