If you haven't been to Colorado, or more specifically, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, you absolutely must!
I know, I know, there are SO many places to explore on your list, but make this a priority. The drive alone to park entrances is worth the trip. I was headed out that way to capture some media and do some social media takeovers for a big travel company, so I had one day to try to see it all. Possible? No. But I got ALOT in!
So, let's start from Sunrise and get you from the Denver area to the park and back!
1. WHAT TO BRING
NOTE: YOU WILL BE AT ALTITUDE! PLEASE PLAN FOR ALTITUDE SICKNESS WITH WATER, FOOD, AND GINGER IF YOU ARE SENSITIVE TO THIS!
- A car!
- Water (yes there are places you can buy food and water along the way but sometimes it's far and few between and there's alot of hiking/walking available)
- Extra camera batteries (unless you have more chargers/batteries)
- Waterproof/rain shell (weather is variable at the peaks)
- Comfy walking/running shoes
- A love for beer
2. THE DRIVE THERE - Which way is the best?
There are a few different ways you can go from the Denver area. I personally was staying in Lakewood, just a few minutes west of Denver and basically had two options: The scenic drive or the "more" scenic drive. You can go North through Boulder on the 93 to the 36, which was incredibly beautiful at sunrise. Mountains, fields, small highways...a very easy drive. The other way is considered the historic scenic route where you go 70 West to the 119/72/7 North to the park entrance. Also scenic and beautiful, but no one has claimed this is significantly better than the first way and it's a little longer BUT has a few more historic sites and stops if time isn't an issue for you.
3. ESTES PARK
Wow. I mean....wow. This gateway park to RMNP has it all. Wildlife, an adorable historic town center, shopping, beer, food, views, hikes... I could go on and on. You will likely start and end your day here, so hang tight for dinner and beer later.
I was lucky enough to get hooked up with the Colorado Mountain School int he morning for some killer rock climbing. I arrived to meet the guide, who got me all the gear and we headed over to some rock faces to start climbing!
I was super excited to get back on the ropes, as it had been a few years, but the guide was SO amazing and fun that we had a great time just making the lines harder and harder as I got more comfortable. He taught me alot and told me stories and made me tie my own knots which was awesome. After a few hours of climbing, he offered to take me up to a gorgeous overlook to see some views and the eclipse that was at 95% totality in the park (there are SO many little mini hikes you can do everywhere here!). Seriously, who does that on their day off? These guys go above and beyond.
We had SUCH a great time and I am so hooked on this company and will absolutely recommend them to anyone interested in ice or rock climbing, mountaineering, and so much more. They are incredibly accommodating, generous with their time, fun, professional, and challenged me at the same time. I considered this leg and arm day.
After that, I packed up and made my way to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is minutes from the Colorado Mountain School and downtown.
3. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
**HUGE NOTE!!! MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PLENTY OF GAS BEFORE ENTERING THE PARK! THERE ARE NO GAS STATIONS AND LOTS OF MOUNTAIN CLIMBING AND THE DRIVE IN AND OUT IS LONG! i ALMOST RAN OUT IN MY LITTLE COMPACT CAR ON THE WAY OUT OF THE PARK (<--SCARY!)!**
When you enter the park, it will cost $20 per car unless you have the annual pass or are on foot or bike. There will be a couple places you can stock up on water and snacks if needed at this point, but do, because the only places IN the park will be ranger stations and they're aren't close together. Start with a FULL tank of gas!
Start your drive along the TRAIL RIDGE ROAD and just keep driving straight on this road almost all day! There will so many stops and overlooks along the way. You can deviate from this and take a few other awesome hikes and drives that are slightly more off the beaten path, but with one day, you have to keep your hikes short and there's plenty of driving to do.
Along the way, you will drive along stunning mountain roads that overlook incredible valleys. You will weave upward through different environments as the altitude rises until you are at the barren tundra above the treeline where the views are to die for. Along the way, you will see some of these highlights that are worth stopping at or doing the short hikes to see:
- Hidden Valley (bathrooms & water here!)
- Rainbow Curve (beautiful view!)
- Mushroom Rocks (Highly recommend! They're unique and the hike is short, the views are beautiful (think expansive Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings-like mountain landscapes!)
- Rock Cut
- Lava Cliffs (really cool lava cliffs - surprise - with glacier on them!)
- Milner Pass & Lake Irene (The Continental Divide! Stop here for a short hike and gorgeous views by the lake!)
- Holzworth Historic Site
You will essentially be headed to the south entrance of the park after this if you don't turn around and it's a good drive, so leave enough gas in the car! There are plenty of overlooks, views, and little trailheads along the way so stop as much or little as you like!
If you make it all the way to the South end Kawuneeche Visitor Center, you've gone really far and I'd recommend turning around if you want to make it back to Estes as a reasonable hour and not run out of gas.
4. BACK TO ESTES
After a long day, you will want some dinner and beer. Seriously, do NOT skip the local beer! there are some awesome varieties and I had to stop at one because i had a 90-ish minute drive back to Lakewood to do.
If you want some of the BEST food in town, head to the very-popular Rock Inn Tavern. It's a super cool popular place with locals and tourists alike. They have live music, generous portions, great drinks, and amazing service! The manager even gifted me a homemade dessert on the house even though I couldn't even finish the amazing dinner! It's low-key and casual, but still a happenin' place. Perfect for a relaxing, big dinner in a gorgeous location after an exhausting day!
The Estes Park tourism board is made up of the most helpful, amazing people in Colorado and will bend over backwards to help make your trip the best it can be if you need help. All of their recommendations were dead on and I was glad to get to meet people and try to new places to eat that I may have missed.
Other than that, DO prepare for weather and altitude and fill up the car with gas, I can't stress this enough. have a fantastic road trip, take tons of pictures, and tell me how it goes or how it was when you went!