Honestly, all “gateways” to National Parks are the same. The gateway, or the town, situated at the entrance is always bustling with tourists, streaming through the shops, buying souvenirs, polishing off ice cream, and enjoying all the luxuries that are either overpriced or not available in the park. In Rocky Mountain’s case, that town is Estes Park.
The fact that the streets are packed with about 99% tourists and 1% locals isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure, the sidewalks are crowed with people trying to eat their hot fudge sundaes or snapping pictures of a hummingbird, and the road is filled with speeding cars driving precariously close to the pedestrians, but all you have to do is look up and see the proud faces of the Rocky Mountains.
The first thing you need to know about downtown Estes Park is to get off Main Street, that is where the best shops are. Do some window shopping quickly and drop back to the green, an open grass area right along the center of town. Drive behind this and park your car around here. It seems impossible to find a spot in Estes Park, but back here, although a farther walk, you are much more likely to find a spot.
There were a few spots in Estes Park that I found to be very secluded and very nice within the bustling town. The first was the trout pond. Near the green, look for a large brown building with a sign hanging saying “TROUT POND”. Upon entering the plaza, you’ll find a bunch of small stores and a courtyard with an atrium in the middle. There are a few restaurants in here and it is very quiet and secluded. I went there at 3pm, just after everyone was leaving the park, and we had the building practically to ourselves. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere to sit down and eat than along main street.
Another interesting sight in Estes Park is the Stanley Hotel. This was the setting for Steven King’s movie “The Shining” although filming did not actually take place here. The basis of the movie is a family that gets snowed in at this hotel, high on a mountain in Colorado. The only thing relevant between this and the movie however, is that it is in Colorado.
On the other side of main street, you’re sure to find a raging river running parallel with the road. Many restaurants face the river, and many beautiful plazas line it. The best of these plazas is located behind the Subway restaurant. With more stores and shops to pick from and more space with plenty of picnic tables and benches, this plaza offers a little breathing room. I highly recommend this as a place to take a break from shopping since it is just off Main Street but offers a view of something other than cars and people.
My favorite find in Estes Park was a short hike to an old building. We parked near the main green, and right nearby was a small field with a rock cliff behind it. An overhang over the field said this was a popular elk destination, and eager to spot some, we followed the path. The path wound around the cliff before returning to the top of it, perched above the field and Estes Park. A stone building, which evidently burned many years ago, still holds it structural support, but now merely looks out over the town. This is by far the best way to take it in. Directly below you is the hustle of the city and above them is the skyscraping Rockies.
Estes Park may seem like a turn-off at first, but you really just need to find the quiet spots which truly make the town more interesting. By simply heading away from the main road you can find many diversions, such as the rock cliff, trout pond, or a beautiful plaza in front of a river. But no matter how you look at it, Estes Park is always the same, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And if you ever feel in doubt, just look up, and take in the beauty that is the Colorado Rockies.