We recently spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the small town of Estes Park, Colorado. Showshoers take note: This place is serious winter fun! Estes Park has all the amenities to make it a perfect base for a few days, weeks or months of snowshoeing. In just the few days we were there, I easily compiled a top 10 list.
So, without further ado, here it is … the top 10 reasons to spend winter in Estes Park, Colorado:
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park is the eastern gateway to RMNP’s 355 miles of trails and 416 square miles of mountains, lakes, forests and steep glaciated valleys. Not surprisingly, this dramatic scenery draws crowds of visitors, particularly in the summer months. The good news for snowshoers is that winter is significantly quieter. We met a few other hikers near the trailheads, but they thinned out considerably after a mile or two. A sense of solitude and discovery prevailed as we often negotiated pristine snow en route to high alpine lakes and spectacular views that we didn’t have to share with anyone.
2. The People
Estes Park is a community of people who love playing in the great outdoors. In the weeks leading up to our trip, I obsessively phoned the National Park rangers to check on snow conditions. Rarely have I encountered such patience and enthusiasm. These dedicated people obviously love the landscape they help protect, and relish the opportunity to share it with other like-minded souls. In addition, encounters with other hikers and snowshoers often led to friendly discussions on snow conditions, outdoor gear, and trails.
3. Glacier Gorge Trailhead
A short 10-mile drive from Estes Park, we enjoyed one of our most memorable snowshoe hikes ever from Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The first 3 miles to Mills Lake is well-traveled and scenic, lying in the impressive shadow of Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the park at 14,255 feet. Mills Lake, often considered the prettiest lake in the park, is drop-dead gorgeous. But, the rewards for continuing a further 2 miles to Black Lake are considerable. The terrain becomes more challenging as we wind our way over and around rocky outcrops before finally traversing a meadow that brings us up on a plateau level with Black Lake. This lofty windswept spot is breathtaking and dramatic. We eat our lunch in an enclosed rocky grotto to escape the swirls of blowing snow.
4. The Elk
There are approximately 1000 of them in the park, and they aren’t shy. In the winter, the elk tend to congregate at lower elevations and we often saw large herds of them along the roads near Estes Park. If we stopped the car, turned off the ignition and sat quietly, we could hear the high-pitched sound of mothers calling their calves.
5. The Stanley Hotel
Perched on a hill overlooking the town of Estes Park, the 100-year-old Stanley Hotel oozes history and character. Perhaps it is best known for inspiring Stephen King to write his classic horror novel The Shining. Indeed, as we enjoyed a drink in the hotel lobby after a long day of snowshoeing, we could hear the title of the book on the lips of countless other guests, almost like the walls were whispering the words. On a more worldly note, the Stanley is an outstanding spot to sit in front of a roaring fire, drink in hand, watching the sun set over the mountains.
6. Deer Mountain
Deer Mountain is a relatively easy summit to bag, but the rewards are immense. We started hiking from the Deer Mountain Trailhead on bare ground through ponderosa pines, and then through aspens, which have been scarred black by nibbling elk. We were soon strapping on our snowshoes as snow levels increased and the views started to expand. The summit offers a spectacular 360 degree panorama of Estes Park and the surrounding mountains, including the Continental Divide to the west. With the total round trip distance at just 6 miles, get an early start and you can be back to town in time for lunch at …
7. Notchtop Bakery and Cafe
Located near the Stanley Hotel, the Notchtop Bakery and Cafe serves generous portions of healthy delicious fare, perfect for snowshoers. The burritos are highly recommended, as are the freshly-baked oatmeal buns. When we were there, they also had funky hand-knit scarves for just $20!
8. Fern Falls
If Mother Nature were an artist, some of her best work could arguably be found at Fern Falls in the winter. Water frozen in mid-spray, fresh snow accumulation on fallen logs, moisture captured under thin layers of ice … a photographer’s dream-come-true.
9. Valhalla Resort
Not flashy, but simple and comfortable, the Valhalla Resort suited our needs perfectly. The green carpets and the décor of our cabin were rather 70’s, but the wood-burning fireplace provided a welcome warm-up after a day of snowshoeing. We appreciated the fully equipped kitchen and ample space to hang wet gear, and the Christmas lights provided a festive touch!
10. Rocky Mountain National Park
Did I mention RMNP? We are incredibly lucky to have such a fabulous National Park system in this country. I know it isn’t perfect, and financial support and resources are often lacking. But how incredible that, for the price of $20, we were able to spend 5 days snowshoeing amongst the most beautiful scenery in the country.
Estes Park, Colorado is just 64 miles from Denver.
The town is situated at an elevation of 7500 feet, high enough to give me an altitude headache on my first day there. To combat the effects of altitude, drink plenty of water and practice pressure breathing. I learned this trick while climbing Rainier this past summer and it helps immensely. It simply involves periodic quick exhalations of air – i.e. pretend you are blowing out a candle that is being held at arms length.
RMNP’s website is http://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm. The park rangers will cheerfully provide advice on trail conditions, and can also direct you to businesses that rent snowshoes and other recreational equipment. Information on Valhalla Resort can be found at http://www.valhallaresort.com, and The Stanley Hotel’s website is http://www.stanleyhotel.com. The town of Estes Park maintains a helpful website at http://www.estesnet.com, and the Estes Park Convention and Visitor Center website is http://www.estesparkcvb.com.