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Fall in Estes Park: Elk Herds, Golden Trees, and Spooky Ghosts

Estes Park, Colorado is another fabulous place to spend your fall season. During this time of year, the elk herds come down into the valleys from the mountains for the annual ruts, the mountain sides turn gold as the aspen trees gain their fall colors, and there is plenty of charm in the small town of Estes Park. The town is located an hour and a half north of Denver, Colorado, making it very accessible to visitors flying into the Denver International Airport. When you first drive into town from the main road, you are initially greeted by a large “Welcome to Estes Park” sign on the road; shortly after the view of the town comes into clear view as you cross a final hill and see Estes Park sprawled out in the valley below. The town itself is a charming site but it is made majestic by the mountains surrounding it. These are the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, the town’s primary attraction.

Like several other towns in the US that are located just outside of a National Park; Estes proactively protects its small-town charm by limiting the number of franchise businesses located within its boundaries. While we did notice the rare small chain here and there; most of the businesses in the town were small local shops that catered to everything from souvenirs to coffee shops. When you first see the town, one building that is sure to catch your eye is the Stanley Hotel that is perched on an elevated hill on one side of the town. This among the oldest hotels in the country and was made famous by one renowned writer. During one stormy night, a writer by the name of Stephen King stayed the night at the Stanley Hotel. While the hotel was long considered to be haunted, King was moved enough by his stay to write one of his highest rated novels, the Shining. We were able to spend the night at this luxurious hotel ourselves. While we personally did not sense any ghosts, the hotel offers a wonderful experience to those who just want a place to relax. The porch of the Stanley offers a gorgeous view of the mountains and is an excellent place to read a book and enjoy some coffee while taking in the fresh mountain air. The Stanley also offers a very nice restaurant where you can enjoy dinner options such as a bison steak or fuel up with their French Toast in the morning before setting off on a day in the park.

Wild game cuisine is one of the hallmarks of dining the Colorado and Estes Park has several restaurants that offer this option. Whether it’s the local salmon or trout fillets at The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern or the bbq bison ribs at Smokey Daves; there are plenty of wild game culinary options in town. Smokey Daves also offers up a variety of traditional BBQ options as well such as brisket, sausage, and pulled pork. That establishment remains one of the best restaurants I have visited for BBQ food during my travels. Another noteworthy place to eat in town is Antonio’s pizza; a New York style pizzeria that offers up some of the best pizza I have found outside of the tri-state area where I grew up. Boutique coffee shops are also prevalent in this town. Two stand out choices we found while in town were Coffee on the Rocks and Kind Coffee. Not only did they each have a terrific selection of coffee flavors; but they both had peaceful sitting outside that was by either a stream or lake where you could soak in nature with your morning brew.

After you fueled up, it’s time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park. This park is often considered one of the premiere National Parks in the country and for good reason. It can cater to a variety of visitors. Whether you want scenic drives, adventurous hikes, or peaceful strolls around lakes; Rocky Mountain National Park can accommodate. While I will be sure to talk about a few of these parks in more detail in a future article; I feel inclined to mention several of the standout options here.

For those who want a short, peaceful stroll around a lake; there are several hikes throughout the pike that circumvent lakes on flat 1–2-mile trails that are well-maintained. Some of the notable examples are Sprague Lake, Bear Lake, and Lily Lake. One of the standout memories for me in my time in this park was walking on the trail around Sprague Lake and being greeted by a rainbow that spanned our entire field of view. There were also rumors of a moose and her calk frequenting this area during our time in the park, although we never personally were able to catch a glimpse. For those who want a more strenuous hike through the Rockies; there are several trails that climb to the peaks of the mountains and offer terrific aerial views of the park. The Mt Ida trail is one of the most popular trails in the park that offers this type of experience while Long’s Peak is a good alternative. For hikes that are a bit shorter but still offer a great experience, then Loch Vale and the Sky Pond are a great option. This 5-mile hike takes you up into the mountains and to a mountain lake surrounded by mountains that offers an amazing location for a picnic. For those who want to go a bit longer, an additional few miles will bring you to the sky pond; a glacial lake fed by snow melt from the mountains that surround this lake. Jump in for a swim if you can stand the cold. Finally, for travelers who prefer to see the scenery from the comfort of their vehicles, then this park can also accommodate you. The Trail Ridge Road takes drivers to the very top of the mountains and offers scenic turnout points where visitors can take in the landscape views of the mountain range. If you prefer views of the valley, then the Old River Road is a great alternative driving option.

Fall is my favorite time of year to visit this park. Seeing the entire mountain side turn to gold as the Aspen reach their peak colors is an event that needs to be experienced. The elk coming down from the valley also provide their own show for visitors this time of year. During drives through the park, you will see valleys filled with herds of elk numbering upwards of 30-40 in certain areas. You might even catch a glimpse of two elk bulls battling it out for supremacy. The elk are not shy and have gotten used to people. It is very common to see elk wandering through the streets in the middle of Estes Park during this time of year.

Fall is in general one of my favorite times of year to travel across the US. Seeing how the leaves change color in different parts of the country is an experience that never gets old for me. There are many more stories I have to share about fall across the country as well as more to share about the beautiful trails of Rocky Mountain National Park but those are tails for another day…


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