the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park

A Weekender’s Guide to the Best Things to Do in Estes Park Colorado

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I’ll never forget the first time I saw Estes Park. We were in Colorado for a house hunting trip and decided to check out this mountain town, knowing it would really be too far for a commute to work every day. As we turned the corner onto the final stretch of Hwy 36, those magnificent, snow-capped Rocky Mountains came into view. I was in awe.

That was almost 2 years ago. Today, we live just about an hour from Estes Park and head over for a family-friendly mountain fix as often as we can.

Our most recent trip was extended to a full weekend of adventure so we could hit all of the best things to do in Estes Park Colorado.

The Best Things to Do in Estes Park

Estes Park is filled with plenty of outdoor adventures and fun ways to spend a weekend getaway. Some things to do in Estes Park require reservations, so plan ahead to get in all the best activities during your stay.

Year Round Things to Do in Estes Park Colorado

1. Stroll Through Downtown Estes Park

Elkhorn Ave is where you’ll find all the activity in Estes Park. The street is lined with many of the best Estes Park shops and restaurants. There is a lot of activity on this main street of town, with plenty of shops and restaurants.

Pick up souvenirs (our favorite thing to shop for in Estes Park is Lazy One pajamas for the family) and stop into one of the three taffy shops along Elkhorn Ave.

downtown estes park colorado
Usually one of the more popular things to do in Estes Park Colorado, Elkhorn Ave was quiet on this early winter morning

2. Take Some Outdoor Adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park is often referred to as the Gateway to the Rockies, as two of the 3 entrances to the park are located in Estes Park. Inside one of the most popular national parks is plenty of hiking, wildlife viewing, and winter activities. Because of its popularity, Rocky Mountain National Park gets busy early, so plan accordingly. Plan to pick up shuttles to one of the many trailheads. In the summer months, drive along the highest paved road in the US: Trail Ridge Road.

3. See a Movie in a Unique Theater

This isn’t just any movie experience. The Historic Park Theater in downtown Estes Park is the oldest movie theater in the US – and is still operating today. Catch a new release for a quiet night after a day of adventure in Estes Park. 2021 update: Make sure to check the website for closures or reduced occupancy at the theater due to COVID-19 precautions.

4. Visit the Historic Stanley Hotel

the Stanley hotel in tops of list of things to do in Estes Park Colorado
The Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining”, tops the list of things to do in Estes Park Colorado

A visit to the Stanley Hotel is one of our top recommendations for any Colorado itinerary. This hotel is loaded with interesting history, including many tales of hauntings. They offer ghost tours on-site, the best pies from the Colorado Cherry Company (though we always prefer a stop at their bigger location on Hwy 36, heading out of Estes Park), and gardens and a maze to stroll through on the grounds of the hotel.

The Stanly Hotel is probably best known as the inspiration behind Stephen King’s The Shining.

5. Take a Scenic Drive

The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is a 3 hour (round trip) drive from Estes Park if you take the full route to Black Hawk Colorado. This is one of the best routes for spectacular Colorado mountain views. Make it a day trip with a few stops along the way. Lily Lake is a short, easy hike that is part of the national park but is easier to access. Saint Malo’s Chapel on the Rock has a beautiful mountain backdrop behind the church that has survived fires and floods. The quaint mountain town of Nederland has great beer, pizza (we love Crosscut Pizza and Backcountry Pizza), and fun history of a frozen dead guy.

If you want a different route on the way back, we recommend the one that takes you through Boulder, Colorado.

6. Stop into the Estes Park Visitor Center

No matter where you’re visiting, a stop in the visitor center is always a great way to learn about the area, get recommendations from the locals, and make a plan for your visit. The Estes Park Visitor Center is a great addition to your top things to do in Estes Park, Colorado.

7. Estes Park Breweries

Coloradans love their local craft beers, and sampling them often falls on many Colorado itineraries. If it’s on your list of things to do in Estes Park too, you’re in luck. Breweries like Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co. and Rock Cut Brewing Company serve up their creations with amazing mountain views. Or go for a variety at The Barrel in downtown Estes Park, where you can order from an assortment of Colorado brewers.

8. Explore Off Road in a Jeep or ATV

Rent a Jeep or ATV from Backbone Adventures in Estes Park and start exploring deep into the wilderness on an off-road adventure. Traveling with your own off-road vehicle? There are plenty of fun trails in the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest.

Get off-road in the snow too – this is also a perfect addition for things to do in Estes Park in the winter!

Things to Do in Estes Park in Summer

9. Take a Hike

Both within Rocky Mountain National Park and around Estes Park, there are many hikes with incredible views. Our favorites are the Gem Lake trail (located behind The Stanley) and the epic views from the summit of Kruger Rock Trail (part of Hermit Park Open Space).

10. Play at Lake Estes

Coming into town, one of the first things you’ll see is a view of Lake Estes. While they don’t allow swimming on the lake, you can bring your kayak or SUP for some fun in the water. Or rent a bike and ride around the lake.

11. Ride the Estes Park Aerial Tramway

Catch perfect views from Prospect Mountain after an ascent of more than 1,000 feet in less than 5 minutes on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. The tram generally runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and tickets cost about $50 for a family of four to ride.

This popular Estes Park attraction doesn’t take reservations, so plan to arrive early and prepare for a wait for a ride on the tram. Update 2021: the Estes Park Aerial Tramway is closed due to COVID-19 until further notice. There are tentative plans to reopen Memorial Day 2021.

12. Play Golf with Mountain Backdrop

Options include a 9-hole course, an 18-hole course, and even a disc golf course. Play a round while surrounded by mountain views all around. Find more information at the Estes Valley Recreation and Park District website.

13. Explore the Rockies on Horseback

In addition to enjoying mountain views from scenic drives and hiking trails, why not get these views from horseback too? Just outside of town, the family-run Elkhorn Stables offers guided horseback tours. The tours cater to both beginner and advanced riders.

14. Trout Fishing

Most people know that Colorado is famous for hiking, camping, climbing, and skiing, but you don’t usually hear as much about another favorite outdoor activity: fishing! Estes Park is situated right next to the Big Thompson River, a popular spot for fly fishing. Schedule a guided fly fishing tour with Doc at Fly Fishing in the Rocky Mountains or with Kirks Flyshop.

There are more casual options in Estes Park too. The Trout Haven Fishing Pond at Trout Haven Resorts is a great, inexpensive option for the kids.

15. Experience the Life of a Pioneer

Beyond The Stanley Hotel, nestled in the mountains, is the well-preserved, historic MacGregor Ranch. Explore the grounds on a guided tour and spend some time at the museum to learn all about the life of a pioneer family. The ranch is nearly 150 years old and is a unique look into Colorado history. Not only is the ranch a slice of history, but grass-fed beef is still produced on the historic homestead.

Estes Park Winter Activities

Winter months bring fun in the snow, and Estes Park winter activities bring on some epic outdoor adventures. Stop by Estes Park Mountain Shop to rent any gear you need – from clothing to equipment.  Head out for a day of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or sledding in the Rocky Mountains.

16. Sledding in RMNP

What was once a downhill skiing spot in the national park is now a great place for sledding in Estes Park. Hidden Valley closed for skiing in the 1990s, but the bunny hill is now a fun sledding area. The Warming Hut provides a place to escape the cold for a bit and has restrooms. Tubes and sleds are not provided but are available for rent from the Estes Park Mountain Shop.

17. Snowshoe Adventures in Estes Park

Snowshoes make it possible to get out on the trails no matter what time of year it is. We love it because the trails are less trafficked and there is a quiet and calmness that you don’t find in the busy summer months.

snowshoeing in rocky mountain national park, is our pick for things to do in estes park colorado in the winter
Try out one of the many Estes Park winter activities, like snowshoeing

18. Snow Cat Tours

Want truly unique Estes Park winter activities? Check out a mountain tour on a snowcat! Get more information and schedule your tour with Estes Park Outfitters.

Things to Do in Estes Park with Kids

Most activities on our list of things to do in Estes Park Colorado are kid-friendly, but there are some that are especially fun for the kids.

19. Open Air Adventure Park

One of the most exciting things to do in Estes Park with kids is hanging out up in the air. This adventure park has an aerial course that is fun for both kids and adults, with amazing mountain views from the top. Make reservations online here.

20. Search for Pikas

At the Estes Park Visitor Center, pick up a map of where to find little statues of pikas hidden around downtown. Kids will love to explore the River Walk while searching for the little critters. It might even get them excited enough to want to hike up to find real pikas!

21. Star Gazing at the Observatory

The Estes Park Memorial Observatory is a unique place for stargazing in the Rockies. Schedule a free tour for an opportunity to see stars and planets through powerful telescopes.

Update 2021: The Observatory is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check their website for updates on re-opening.

The Best Restaurants in Estes Park

Like many towns with great food, one of our favorite things to do in Estes Park Colorado is eat. These are just a few of our favorite places to eat when we’re in town.

Bird & Jim

This newer restaurant popped up on our radar shortly before our weekend in Estes Park. When it was recommended while checking in at our hotel, we knew we had to try it. Bird & Jim specializes in locally sourced food and a curated wine and cocktail list. They also have local craft beers on tap. We went for happy hour, which gave us the opportunity to see the sunset over the Rocky Mountains over drinks and a light dinner.


Oh, how I love Mexican food.  We stopped here because we were starving and it was too early to get dinner. And a giant smothered burrito sounded like the perfect snack. Served with a side of rice and beans, the burritos here are easily enough for two.

burrito from peppers in estes park
The smothered burrito is big enough to share

Wapiti Colorado Pub

Soups, salads, sandwiches, and plenty of other dishes are on the menu at Wapiti Colorado Pub, conveniently located among many other shops and restaurants on Elkhorn Ave.

You Need Pie

Pie. Since we’ve moved here, it seems that Coloradans really love their pie. And You Need Pie is a great place to stop for a slice – and lunch. Mostly diner fare, this is a great place to grab lunch away from the crowds on Elkhorn Ave.

Where to Stay in Estes Park

There are a lot of options for places to stay the night in Estes Park. From cozy cabins (complete with hot tubs) to camping under the stars – you’ll find it in Estes Park.

Cabins and Lodges

Cabins and lodges line the stretch of Hwy 34 that leads to the Falls River entrance of the Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve been by many times and frequently see “no vacancy” signs, so be sure to plan ahead to stay here.

Try Rockmount Cottages by the River near the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center, or Fall River Cabins near the Fall River entrance to the park.

Camping Near Estes Park

During camping season, there are more options than a camper could ever ask for. Camping within the National Park, at the KOA located in town, or just a few miles outside of town at Hermit’s Hollow Campground in the Hermit Park Open Space.

In the winter months, Moraine Park Campground is open for camping (but with few amenities available).

The Historic Stanley Hotel

With the grandparents in town and our anniversary quickly approaching we decided to make a weekend of it for just the two of us – and since the kids weren’t joining us on this trip, it was the perfect time to brave a night at the historic Stanley Hotel. If you aren’t familiar with this historic hotel and resort, you can read more about it here.

The inspiration behind Stephen King’s The Shining, there are many accounts of hauntings in the hotel. We should note that The Stanley IS a family-friendly lodging option, but the rooms in the main building seem a bit limited in space. For our first stay at the hotel, we didn’t want to miss staying where all the action is. 

One Last Stop on the Way Home

If you are heading back on Hwy 36, don’t miss a stop at the Colorado Cherry Company on your left (yes, the same one you saw at The Stanley).  We make a stop here nearly every time we visit Estes Park and pick up one of their incredible cherry pies to bring home.

colorado cherry company

What are the top attractions to visit in Estes Park?

Some of the most popular and best spots to visit in Estes Park are The Stanley Hotel (the inspiration behind Stephen King’s The Shining), Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. Downtown Estes Park is also a popular place for visitors.

What are the best outdoor activities in Estes Park?

The mountain location and proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park make Estes Park a great destination for outdoor activities. Visitors enjoy hiking, fishing, off-roading (Jeeps and ATV), and boating on Lake Estes. Estes Park winter activities are plentiful as well. It’s a great place for snowshoeing, sledding, and cross country skiing.

What are the best day trips from Estes Park?

We have 3 favorite destinations for day trips from Estes Park. 1) Take a day trip along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, which brings travelers from Estes Park, through the small mountain town of Nederland, to Black Hawk. 2) Estes Park is about an hour from Boulder, Colorado, which is a perfect day trip for great food, shopping, and more outdoor activities. 3) Drive Trail Ridge Road, through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Grand Lake. On the way, make a stop at the Holzwarth Historic Site.

What are the most popular things to do in Estes Park with kids?

There are plenty of fun activities and things to do in Estes Park with kids. From the Open Air Adventure Center to off-roading, older kids will love the outdoor adventures. Kids of all ages enjoy watching wildlife, like elk, moose, marmots, and pikas. There are some easy nearby hikes for younger kids (Lily Lake and Bear Lake) and more adventurous ones for the older kids (Sky Pond and Gem Lake).

What is there to do in Estes Park in the winter?

There are many Estes Park winter activities for the cold, snowy months of the year. Most are within Rocky Mountain National Park, where you’ll find plenty of options for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. There is a great sledding hill at Hidden Valley in the park. Other things to do in Estes Park in the winter are guided snowmobile and snowcat tours.

Have you been to Estes Park? Let us know your favorite things to do in Estes Park Colorado in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “A Weekender’s Guide to the Best Things to Do in Estes Park Colorado”

    1. It really is! Before we moved here, we always pictured it as just a ton of snow. But we have found it’s just a pretty (if not prettier) in the other seasons!

  1. We LOVE Estes Park!! It’s beautiful in every season. I e never stayed at the Stanley Hotel, but took a tour once and it was amazing!!

    1. I really need to go back for one of the tours! You are right about the seasons – there is always something fun to do in Estes Park and something amazing to see in the Rockies. No wonder we keep going back for more 🙂

  2. I often enjoy reading about new to me, vacation places. Estes Park looks like a place that my family could enjoy, and I am intrigued by the Stanley Hotel. Plus…snow and views. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Estes Park is so family friendly! If you don’t stay at the Stanley, be sure to stop by. There is so much to do there. I still hope to get the courage to go on the ghost tour someday!

  3. I LOVE Estes Park! I first visited a few years ago and have been dying to go back ever since. I can’t remember the restaurant I had dinner at, but it was the best elk burger I’ve ever had. You’re so lucky to live so close!

    1. I’ve seen the elk burgers around town, but haven’t tried one yet – I need to do that! We are so fortunate to live so close. We visit every chance we get, but spending the weekend there was one of the best trips there!

    1. Estes Park is about an hour and a half from Denver, and definitely worth the drive. My father-in-law had mentioned it to us, but we had no idea what we were in for. It’s an amazing place to visit!

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