Estes Park right ourside of Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect base for explore this National Park.
Whether you are brrezing through in one day or have a week to exploring, this list of the best Estes Park things to do will help you plan the perfect trip. Below you can see a quick list of the top things to do in Estes Park Colorado, or scroll down for more details.
We visited Estes Park most recently during the summer of 2021 but Dave and I also lived in Boulder for a year and spent lots of time exploring the area. We’ll share our favorite activities and destinations in the park and in the area.
Quick Look at the Best Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park Things to Do
Here is a snapshot of the top best things to do in Estes Park.
- Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
- Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake
- Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge
- Gem Lake Trail
- Chasm Lake
- Deer Mountain
- Bear Lake
- Take a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park and stop at the scenic overlooks
- Visit Lake Estes
- Take the Estes Park Aerial Tramway
- Drive the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
- Go White Water Rafting
- Go Horseback Riding
- Explore downtown Estes Park and do the Riverwalk
- Look for elk and other animals
- Try Rock Climbing
- Go Backpacking
- Visit Boulder and the Flatirons
- Explore one of the hiking trails on snowshoes or skis
What to Know About Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park is located right outside the main entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and many of the best things to do in Estes Park are activities in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are a few important things to know to help you plan the best Estes Park vacation.
- Estes Park is easy to get to from Denver and is just about and hour and 30 minute drive from the airport
- Estes Park is located at an elevation of 7,500 feet and Rocky Mountain National Park is higher than this (depending on where you are). If you are traveling here from sea level, you should drink extra water and give yourself time to acclimate.
- Rocky Mountain National Park uses a timed entry system. You will need to reserve your time in advance. You will need to select either the Bear Lake Cooridor (also good for the rest of the park) or just an entrance to the Park (this doesn’t include the Bear Lake Cooridor). Many of the best hikes are on the Beark Lake so try to get an entry to this part of the park for at least one or two days. You can see more details and get your entry spot book at the National Park Service.
- There are 4 entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park. Beaver Meadows is the most direct entrance from Estes Park. Fall River Entrance is also just outside Estes Park and is a bit quieter. Wild Basin Entrance is about 30 minutes from Estes Park. Grand Lake Entrance is on the western part of the park.
- Rocky Mountain National Park is open year round, but always check to see current conditions and closures.
Best Time to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park
The best time to visit Estes Park is in the late spring through the fall. Winter can also be a beautiful time to visit but take more planning and preparation. Summer is the busiest time to visit Estes Park and the Rocky Mountains. If you have flexibility, try to visit the park in late spring or early fall when the weather is still warm, but there are fewer crowds.
Many parts of the Rocky Mountains are located at high elevations, so you are likely to see snow all year and will likely be hiking in the snow by mid-fall.
Map of the Top Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park Things to Do
What to do in Estes Park: 19 Best Activities
There are so many wonderful things to do near Estes Park, Colorado. Many of the best Estes Park things to do are inside Rocky Mountain National Park and you can find some of the best hiking inside the park. You can also find plenty of amazing things to do in the area just outside the park.
Best Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hiking is easily the best thing to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are 6 of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake
Distance: 3.2 miles (2 hours) Elevation gain: 700 ft Difficulty: moderate
This is a 3.2 miles hike that goes past 3 amazing lakes. You will start in the forest at the very end of Bear Lake Rd, and climb out above tree level to the breathetaking Emerald Lake. This is one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park for good reason. If you don’t feel up to the full hike, you can also just hike to Nymph or Dream Lakes.
The trail ascends steadily and the footing is generally good. See more about hiking to Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake.
Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge
Distance: 9.4 miles Elevation: 1,759 ft Difficulty: Difficult
This is a much longer and more difficult hike to one of the best alpine lakes in Colorado. This hike passes Alberta Falls, the loch, Glass Pond and ends at Sky Pond. Sky Pond is surrounded by stunning mountains and cliffs. Even though this is a very popular hike, it’s so long and open at the top that it never felt too crowded.
The hike itself has a gentle incline for most of the way until you get to the last mile. There is a steep section that includes a scramble up the rocks of the waterfall. From here you continue walking to the right until you get to Sky Pond. Just like the Emerald Lake Trail, there are so many things to see along the way that you can turn around at any point on the hike.
Gem Lake Trail
Distance: 3.1 miles (2 hours) Elevation: 1,000 ft Difficulty: moderate
This trail gains 1,000 feet over a relatively short distance so is relatively steep. There are breathetaking views along much of the trail and finishes at the beautiful Gem Lake. There are several ways to make this into a longer hike. You can take a sidetrail to Twin Owls to some amazing rock features and views of Longs Peak. You can also continue further along the trail once you reach Gem Lake.
Although technically in the park, the trailhead is outside the park making it a great hike close to town.
Distance: 8.8 miles Elevation: 2,500 ft Difficulty: challenging
Another beautiful hike that ends at a stunning alpine lake. Chasm Lake is a challenging hike that start at teh Long’s Peak Trailhead. At about 3 miles you make it above treeline. The trail finishes with a scramble through a boulder field and you can follow some cairns up to the lake. Hiking poles are especially helpful for this section.
Chasm Lake sits at the base of Mount Lady Washington and Long’s Peak.
Distance: 11.3 miles Elevation: 2,000 ft Difficulty: challenging
If you are looking to summit a mountain while you’re in Rocky Mountain National Park but aren’t up for one of the bigger hikes. This is a loop trail and has truly amazing views the entire way but since you are committing to a hard loop, it’s best to start early.
Also note that this hike isn’t on the Beark Lake Rd, so if you aren’t able to get a timed entry to this part of the park this is a great option for your hike.
Distance: 0.7 miles Elevation: 50 ft Difficulty: easy
This easy little trail is a great addition to the Emerald Lake Trail, or can be done as a short walk on it’s own. The trail goes right around Bear Lake so has gorgeous views of the water and the nearby mountains. The trail around the lake is well maintained, wide, and is wheel chair accessible.
Take a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park and stop at the scenic overlooks
Taking a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park is definintely one of the best things you can do near Estes Park. If you can get the timed entry for the Bear Lake Cooridor, you should plan to drive up Bear Lake Rd and then drive up Trail Ridge Rd. Make sure to make some stops for photos at the scenic overlooks including Many Parks Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Fairview Curve.
Visit Lake Estes
Lake Estes is located right outside the town of Estes Park. There is a flat and easy trail that goes right around the lake. The Lake Estes Marina also offers boat rentals if you want to get out on the water. You can rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and motorboats. If you are planning a morning hiking, ending your day with a paddle on the lake is perfect.
Take the Estes Park Aerial Tramway
Starting right in Estes Park, the tramway offers a one of kind view of the town, lake and mountains. Based on the trams in Europe, the tram operates in the summer months and has been operating since 1955. You can see more information on tickets and hours on the Tramways website.
Drive the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Stretching between Estes Park and Central City, this beatiful drive has views of the mountains and front range and is a great day trip or you can drive to Estes Park via this road. We came from Boulder and drive up into the mountains for a few days and took this road up to Estes Park.
As Colorado’s oldest scenic byway, it’s worth the drive!
Go White Water Rafting
There are several nearby places to try out white waer rafting near Fort Collins just north of Estes Park. Many of these companies also offer fishing, kayaking or other water sports. Check out Rocky Mountain Adventures.
Go Horseback Riding
There are several stables nearby that offer horseback riding. At Jackson Stables you can choose from a variety of riding lengths some of which go up into the hills. If you are travelling with kids, there are lots of options for kids rides as well.
Explore Downtown Estes Park and do the Riverwalk
If you are spending time in Estes Park, make sure you set aside some time to explore the town. With plenty of shops and places to eat, you can easily spend an afternon exploring. We also walked the Riverwalk one afternoon and loved finding our way along the water. We even came back one night to grab some food by the water.
While there are many excellent hiking trails in the park, the Riverwalk trail is one of the top hikes in Estes Park.
Look for Elk and other Animals
With it’s own Elk Herd, Estes Park is a great place to see these fun animals. The best places to look for Elk include Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, or Upper Beaver Meadows, particularly in Sept. You can also be on the lookout for bighorn sheep, bear, rabbits, pika, and more.
Try Rock Climbing
If you’re up for some extreme sports, one of the best Estes Park things to do is to try out rock climbing. If you are a seasoned climber, there are many options nearby, but if you are new to the sport, you can check out Kent Mountain Adventure Center. They offer courses and activities for rock climbing and a variety of other extreme sports.
If you are excited to explore the backcountry on more than a hike, you can set up an overnight backpacking trip. Getting a backcountry camping permit in Rocky Mountain National Park is highly competitive and can be done through NPS.
If you are too late or just don’t get a permit, you can still backpack at one of the many sites outside of the National Park.
Visit Boulder and the Flatirons
I might be biased since I lived in Boulder for a year, but this is a great town, and if you are spending time in Estes Park, you should set aside some time to stop at Boulder. There are great places to eat and walk and you can hike right along the base of the flatirons.
Explore One of the Hiking Trails on Snowshoes or Skis
If you are looking for some of the best Estes Park things to do in winter, you should consider tackling some of the hiking trail above on snowshoes or skis. The park remains open in the winter and there are wonderful opporunities to get out in the snow. Be aware that some locations need additional backcountry skills, especially up in the mountains.
How to Get to Estes Park
Estes Park is easy to get to from Denver. If you are coming by car, you will drive about 1.5 hours from the airport. Estes Park is about 1 hour from Boulder and Fort Collins. The best way to get around Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park is by car. There are several shuttles that run around Estes Park and within Rocky Mountain National Park, but it will be difficult to see everything by shuttle.
Best Lodging Near Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park
On our most recent trip to Estes Park, we camped at Hermit Hollow Campground and really enjoyed this campground just a bit outside of town. We also looked at several other options in the area that all have good options and are well rated:
Did I miss any of your favorite Estes Park Things to do? Leave a comment with your favorites.
Common Questions about Estes Park Things to Do
What are the must-visit attractions in Estes Park?
Estes Park offers a variety of attractions for visitors to enjoy. Some of the must-visit places include the stunning Rocky Mountain National Park, the historic Stanley Hotel, and the charming downtown area with its shops and restaurants. Don’t forget to explore the beautiful Estes Park Aerial Tramway for breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
When is the best time to visit Estes Park for outdoor activities?
The best time to visit Estes Park for outdoor activities depends on your preferences. Summer (June to August) is ideal for hiking, wildlife viewing, and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Fall (September to October) offers beautiful foliage and fewer crowds. Winter (December to February) is perfect for winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, while spring (March to May) brings the opportunity to witness wildflowers and enjoy less crowded trails.
What should I know about wildlife encounters in Estes Park?
Answer: Estes Park is known for its abundant wildlife, including elk, deer, bears, and various bird species. To ensure safe and respectful wildlife encounters, follow these guidelines:
- Keep a safe distance: Stay at least 100 yards away from larger animals like elk and bears.
- Use binoculars or a telephoto lens for close-up views.
- Do not feed wildlife; it can harm them and is illegal in national parks.
- Store food securely to avoid attracting wildlife to your campsite.
- Be alert when driving, especially at dawn and dusk, as animals may cross the road.
- Respect park regulations and guidelines for wildlife safety.
We’re on a mission to explore all the US National Parks – if you found this guide on the best Rocky Mountain and Estes Park things to do, follow along with us and see more National Parks Guide on our National Parks Page.