Colorado, Colorado Destinations, Rocky Mountain National Park

Playing tourist for a day in Estes Park, Colorado

About a year and a half ago, Chelsea and I concocted an idea: spend a day in Estes Park. It’s a town we drive through frequently en route to our hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. But aside from a quick stop for coffee or beer on the way home, neither of us has actually spent substantial amounts of time there. Turns out, there are a handful of neat things to do in town.

Of course, we weren’t going to join the throngs of tourists who descend on the town in the summer months, so we decided this day would need to take place in the offseason. And Estes is almost always windy, so it would need to be a day when the breeze was manageable. On a Saturday in February, a good weather forecast finally aligned with our schedules… so off we went! We didn’t end up having exactly the day we planned – more on that shortly – but we had a good time nonetheless.

We opted to begin our day with the most challenging of our planned activities – a jaunt up Prospect Mountain. Chelsea had actually hiked this trail once before, but it was so windy on the summit that she’d been pretty miserable, so she was looking for some redemption.

We arrived at the trailhead to find it empty and, after pausing to read the signs, headed off up the path. It’s a mixture of dirt and rocks (and snow this time of year) and in places it’s very steep. The entire hike gains about 1000 feet (305 m) in 1.5 miles (2.4 km). As we climbed the wind picked up a little, but the views became progressively better. The clouds were also really neat.

Prospect Mountain Trail

Unfortunately, about 0.7 miles (1.1 km) into the hike we rounded a bend to find ourselves staring at a “Private property, no access beyond this point” sign placed right in the middle of the trail. The sign had not been there when Chelsea hiked this trail previously, nor was the closure mentioned at the trailhead. So that was frustrating.

Back down we go…

Now we know why we were the only ones here. Unless you’re a rock climber, I don’t know why you’d hike this trail. I mean, the views were fine. But you can find similar views on other nearby mountains, and you can actually climb all the way to the top of them, so…


Our next stop was Lake Estes, a long, narrow reservoir formed in the 1940s by construction of a dam on the Big Thompson River. It’s a centerpiece of the town, visible from almost every high point nearby. The highway into town also runs adjacent to the lake, so we’d seen it from the car many times. The plan for today was to walk the 3.8 mile (6.1 km) trail that circumnavigates it.

The Big Thompson River runs alongside the lake

There are many access points to this paved walking and bike path. We parked (for free) at the town visitor center garage and followed the sidewalk for a short distance along the edge of a golf course to the western shore of the lake. From here, signs pointed us in a clockwise direction so we heeded this instruction. The lake was half frozen, which resulted in a unique dichotomy of photos. Despite the fact that it looks like two different seasons – or at least two different days – these were all taken within the same one hour window.

Looking south across the lake
Looking east across the lake
There were some first responders doing water rescue training; it looked pretty cold and miserable

If I were to do this walk again – which I don’t necessarily feel the need to – I would go counterclockwise instead. When walking clockwise, the first half of the walk is much more pleasant while the second half is adjacent to the highway and fairly noisy. Going counterclockwise would get the noisy half out of the way first and end with the more peaceful and scenic portion.

Looking north across the lake
Looking west across the lake

Since it was winter, we’d gotten a later start than usual, so by the time we made it around the lake we were very much overdue for some lunch. It probably would have been more on brand with the whole ‘tourist for a day’ thing to choose a local restaurant, but we weren’t feeling that strongly about any of them (nor had we put any effort into researching them), so we opted for Subway.

Up next on the itinerary was the Knoll-Willow Trailhead for a quick walk out to the remains of the Birch Cabin and Bungalow. Both were built in the early 1900s for Albert Birch, owner of the Denver Post (the local newspaper). Unfortunately, just months after being built, the bungalow burned to the ground in the middle of the night. The cause of the blaze was later determined to be the result of a faulty fireplace. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Construction on the cabin began shortly after and it remained in the Birch family until the 1980s.

Birch Cabin
Birch Cabin, with the outhouse behind it
Remains of the Birch Bungalow

As you can see, the view from the bungalow was quite lovely. We spent a few minutes just standing here staring out at the very familiar mountains of the Continental Divide.

Estes Park and the Continental Divide

Our final stop of the day was the historic Stanley Hotel, known around the country (and possibly the world?) as the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. Although the movie was not filmed here, King was living in the hotel at the time he penned the novel. He was reportedly so displeased by the actual filming location and the script changes that he returned to Estes Park a few years later for the creation of The Shining TV miniseries, which was filmed at the hotel. The movie Dumb and Dumber was also filmed at the Stanley.

Stanley Hotel

Today, you can stay at the hotel when you visit Estes Park – if you dare. Apparently, it’s haunted. Even if you’re not an overnight guest, you can pay to take a tour of the hotel. This was our original plan. I checked the night before and there were plenty of tickets still available, so we opted not to purchase in advance so we had more flexibility. By the time we showed up, all tours were sold out for the day. Lesson learned.

Stanley Hotel and statue of F.O. Stanley, for whom the hotel is named

However, you can walk around parts of the hotel on your own, free of charge, so we did that instead. We were able to wander through the first and second floors and around the grounds. We even solved the hedge maze out front. Admittedly, it was not challenging.

This icebox is from 1909, when the hotel was built, and is one of the only remaining original pieces of furniture
View of Estes Park from the hotel
Stanley Hotel, taken from the middle of the hedge maze

And that wraps up our day in Estes Park. It was fun to stop at some of the places that we always just drive right past, and to get to know the town a little better. So now, I will leave you with more of the many (too many) swirly cloud photos that are taking up space on my phone. Until next time!

Swirly clouds and the local elk herd!

29 thoughts on “Playing tourist for a day in Estes Park, Colorado”

  1. I must say this for you, Diana, you are a real trooper when it comes down to exploring. Impressive. Surprised at the no trespassing sign. Usually a long-used trail will have legal standing. As for the hotel, I think I stayed there once at a conference ever so long ago at a conference in the early 70s. I don’t remember being haunted, however. 🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Seems like you had a lovely touristy day there and did many different types of activities! Those clouds look so beautiful and peculiar! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such shapes! I also didn’t know the Stanley hotel was the inspiration for The Shining – nor that there was a Shining mini series! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well that’s a bummer about the Prospect Mountain Trail and how access is now blocked. That definitely would have been nice to know beforehand. At least you had better luck at the other places. And the swirly clouds look pretty cool.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Estes Park looks so beautiful, and I love all the mountains. That is really neat how that hotel was an inspiration for the Shining. All of your photos are wonderful too, and you really capture beautiful landscapes in them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I couldn’t remember why the name Estes was familiar until I read about the Stanley Hotel. My nephew was so excited to visit the site of the Shinning. He probably meant the inspiration for the book. The city looks cute, so thanks for the tourist-eye view! Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually know exactly where that tea shop is but I haven’t been there. Adding it to my list for next time! Some tea would be delicious after a winter hike in the park.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like the view of patches of snow in the foreground and then the pure white snow-capped mountains in the distance. And the same can be said of your beautiful views of the lake too (I’m not so sure I’ll brave the cold water)! Even though your visit may not have worked out quite as you had hoped, at least you were able to take some beautiful cloud photos back home 😉.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. We have often played tourist for a day or even overnight in the large city nearest us. It gives you a better perspective on a place, but is not always without its disappointments, as you found. Love the lake ice shots and the swirly clouds. The Stanley looks like a grand old hotel. Thanks for sharing Diana. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love being a tourist in my town 🙂 Those pictures of the lake really do look like they are taken in different seasons, both beautiful and the clouds are so cool! Scary movies aren’t my thing, but that hotel does look like it’s haunted just from the pics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently the guided tours get to go into some tunnels and passageways as well, so I’m sure that would make it feel even more haunted. Hopefully I can come back one day and take the tour to see for myself.


  9. While it’s understandable why most visitors stop by Estes Park during the summer month, it is just as impressive in the winter—maybe even better. I for one like to visit places off-season when the pace of life in towns slows down, trails and restaurants are less busy, and the fun is just getting started when the snow starts to fly.
    The view from the bungalow is quite lovely, indeed, and I am sorry to hear you didn’t make it to the summit due to the private property sign. It would be a great idea to put up a notice at the beginning of the trail so hikers don’t need to turn around. I love your photos of Lake Estes – does it freeze over during the winter months? Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Aiva, I much prefer to visit in the off season. I’ll take cold over crowds any day. Yes, the lake does freeze in the winter, but it depends on the weather. It had been a little above freezing for a couple days so it was about half melted this time. It never freezes as solidly as the high mountain lakes I sometimes post about, but it does freeze over periodically.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The clouds are definitely interesting. I have heard of the Stephen King connection. The hotel was built by Freelan Stanley one of the inventors of the Stanley Steamer an early steam driven automobile not the carpet cleaners! he even built special “steam wagons to bring people from the railroad head at Lyons to his hotel. The things you learn watching the Smithsonian Channel……

    Liked by 1 person

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