Once in a while, you get that perfect day…the weather is just right, you’re eating some fantastic food, you spend your day with your favorite people doing your favorite activities. Those days are the best! Well, how about three perfect days in a row? And to be perfect, those days just have to be spent in Estes Park, Colorado.
My family spends a week in Estes Park, Colorado every summer, and has enjoyed many perfect days there!
A perfect day for my family in Estes Park means hiking and fishing in the morning for my husband, parents, and me. The kids get to sleep late and spend the morning with the rest of the family. Usually, the kid’s perfect morning includes a visit to the Rock Shop and feeding the ducks in the river. Then everyone returns to the cabin for coffee and a late breakfast while sitting outside surrounded by mountains. The afternoon finds us downtown doing some shopping, and then it’s naptime in the hammocks. The evening means some bbq from Smokin’ Dave’s and then a drive into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to spot some elk and go for a walk around Sprague or Bear Lakes. Yep, perfect!
I’m going to give you three different options for morning, noon, and night on how you can spend three perfect days in Estes Park. You’ll get to experience much of what the area has to offer, and have a few first experiences along the way!
Please note: During the summer and early fall months, reservations are needed to enter Rocky Mountain National Park during the daytime. Visit the National Park Services website here for more info and to book your reservations.
I have only visited Estes Park in the months of June and August and since that’s high tourist season, that’s when these perfect days are planned for. (This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. Read my full disclosure policy here.)
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Three Perfect Mornings in Estes Park
Option 1 – You probably came to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to do some hiking, right? This morning you will climb to the very top of a mountain. Deer Mountain, to be exact. How’s that for a first experience? Deer Mountain’s elevation is 10,013 feet and the hike to the top is about six miles roundtrip.
The best time to start the hike is by 7:30 a.m. You’ll get a good parking spot and will beat a lot of the other hikers. Plus, the earlier you hike, the better chance to see some wildlife. We usually see deer on the lower parts of the trail.
The views are what you’ll be looking at though! You get some never-ending views of Long’s Peak, Moraine Park, Estes Park, and Ypsilon Mountain.
The trail starts out relatively easy in a meadow with a gradual uphill. Once you get up a little higher, you are walking on switchbacks. Most of the switchbacks are long, so the elevation change is mild. Toward the top of the hike, the trail flattens out (even goes downhill a bit!) and you are walking thru some pines. In this section there isn’t much of a mountain view, but this part of the trail is pretty because you get the feeling you’re just out walking in the woods.
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I have to say that the worst part is when you are almost to the very top of Deer Mountain. The last thing you want to see at the end of your hike is steps. But that’s what you get. You have to go up a series of steps to make it all the way up to the mountain top. It’s tough on the legs, but since you’re there so early, there’s no hurry!
Once you’re at the top, there are plenty of rocks to sit down on and take a break. Time for your snacks and lots of water! The views are non-stop and worth the climb! Be sure to snap a photo of your feet with the survey marker that marks the top of the mountain.
This hike isn’t recommended for younger kids because of the distance. Older kids who enjoy hiking should do just fine, just remind them that out of those six miles of hiking, three miles are downhill.
For more information about the hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can stop into any of the visitor centers in the park. If you want to plan ahead of time, National Geographic has some good books about hiking in the park.
After your hike, yes going down the mountain is pretty quick, it’s time for a full breakfast of your choosing. After I climbed Deer Mountain last year, I chose ice cream for my breakfast! I earned it!
Option 2 – There’s a much easier way to take in the amazing views of RMNP, than hiking to the top of a mountain. So, this morning is a little less strenuous. Breakfast comes first this morning, and is cinnamon rolls from Cinnamon’s Bakery. This bakery is only open from 7:30 until 10:00 a.m., or until they run out. So get there early before you miss out! They feature fresh baked cinnamon rolls, caramel rolls, and muffins. You can grab coffee there too. Don’t eat yet, because your family is going to enjoy their rolls in RMNP.
Cinnamon’s is located just west of downtown Estes Park at 920 West Elkhorn Ave. As you drive there from downtown, you’ll probably think you missed it and need to turn around. Just keep going, you’ll see it!
Since you are near the Fall River Visitor Center, that’s the entrance you’ll want to use to enter RMNP. There are a lot of picnic areas in the park, and the best ones closest to this entrance are Hidden Valley, Endovalley, and Alluvial Fan.
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Enjoy your cinnamon rolls, watch for wildlife, and take a short hike after breakfast. The Hidden Valley and Alluvial Fan areas are great for a quick hike.
On your way back out of the park, stop at the Fall River Visitor Center and the Rocky Mountain Gateway shop. The Fall River Visitor Center is a beautiful building and has a large wildlife display inside. The Rocky Mountain Gateway Shop has any kind of souvenir imaginable.
Option 3 – Morning three takes you downtown for breakfast and some shopping. You can start your morning with coffee and breakfast at Kind Coffee. Kind Coffee is on the edge of downtown located at 470 East Elkhorn Avenue. The coffee is strong and they have some unique coffee drinks on their menu. There is always a bag of their whole bean coffee coming home in my suitcase.
Enjoy your breakfast outdoors behind the coffee shop, overlooking the Big Thompson River. I have to say it was the first time I enjoyed my morning coffee while watching an elk and her calf walking on the hillside.
If you want a heartier start to your day, go across the street from Kind Coffee and eat at The Egg and I restaurant. This is a diner style restaurant and is also a chain. It’s very good, and a popular breakfast spot in Estes Park.
After breakfast, it’s time for a walk. If it’s before the shops on Elkhorn Avenue are open, you’ll want to walk over to Lake Estes or the Estes Park Visitor’s Center (opens at 9:00). Lake Estes is a nice walk and if you go around the whole lake you’ll have walked an easy 3.8 miles. In the early morning, you may spot some elk out on the golf course that borders one end of the lake.
Most of the shops on Elkhorn Ave. open at 10:00. This is the best time of the day to hit the shops because there are fewer people and it can get pretty hot outside in the afternoons.
Wander up and down Elkhorn Avenue and window shop, people watch, or shop until you drop. The can’t be missed shops are Brownfield’s for quality t-shirts and sweatshirts, Rocket Fizz for old-time candy and some pretty outrageous soda pop (check out the unusual flavors that are available here), Cabin Fever for the jewelry lovers, and any of the numerous saltwater taffy shops that line the street.
If it’s Thursday, you’re in luck because the farmer’s market is open. It’s located on Elkhorn Avenue in Bond Park. You can’t miss it. The hours are 8:00 am thru 1:00 pm and it’s open June through September. You’ll find plenty of produce (fresh roasted hatch chiles), homemade goodies, breads, cheeses, and more!
Three Perfect Afternoons in Estes Park
Option 1 – If the weather forecast is hot, it’s time to head to an even higher elevation (Estes Park is at 7,522 feet). Your family will want to make the trip to the Alpine Visitor Center via Trail Ridge Road or if you’re more adventurous, up Old Fall River Road.
By traveling on Trail Ridge Road, this will be your first time on the highest continuous paved road in the United States. The highest point is at 12,183 feet. If you are visiting in late spring or early summer, you’ll want to check the road conditions first. The road may be closed due to snow, a lot of snow.
Plan for at least a few hours if making the trip via Trail Ridge Road. You’ll be stopping along the route at the various scenic overlooks, and there is also a lot to see at the Alpine Visitor Center.
Plan for another hour or so if you are traveling up Old Fall River Road. This is a one-way road (only going up) that has a lot of sharp switchbacks and steep drop offs. You will only be driving 10-15 mph for the 9 miles of this road. The scenery will be amazing if you dare look. Take your time and you’ll have a very memorable drive up to the Alpine Visitor Center.
Option 2 – This afternoon will be all about camp. If you aren’t staying at the YMCA of the Rockies (otherwise known as the Y camp), you’ll want to spend some time there. The location is about a 10 minute drive southwest of downtown and you’ll usually spot an elk or deer along the way. Here’s an appropriate tune to listen to during the short trip!
If you’re not a guest, a day pass is available for $20 for adults and $10 for kids ages 6-12. There are numerous activities throughout the day, so you’ll need to read the activity guide on their website ahead of time to make your plan or any reservations. A sampling of classes and activities includes yoga, archery, watercolor painting, fishing, hiking, horseback rides, swimming, ropes course and much more. I’m sure your family can find a first experience among all of those choices!
Last summer, we did an one hour horseback ride through the Y camp. It was my 11 year old’s first time riding a horse unassisted. We had a great time and enjoyed the scenery. There is a fee for this, but we did not need to purchase the day pass for the ride.
Even if we aren’t spending an afternoon at the Y camp, we like to drive up to their visitors center. It’s beautiful on the inside and the kids like to say hi to Samson the elk. You can also get a taller-than-normal soft-serve ice cream cone and sit on one of the porch chairs overlooking the property.
Option 3 – As you drive through Estes Park, you’re kids will be shouting “Look! Mini golf! A ropes course! Fishing! A tram! Horses!” and so on. There are so many family fun activities in town that you will have a busy afternoon.
The Estes Park Aerial Tramway is always gliding up and down Prospect Mountain. Besides the observation deck at the top, there’s a gift shop, coffee shop, and some hiking trails.
If you’re into horror stories, than you must visit the historic Stanley Hotel. This is the famous setting for Stephen King’s novel “The Shining”. Tours are available for those ages five and up and last 90 minutes.
Three Perfect Evenings in Estes Park
Option 1 – Has your family ever been fly fishing? Or even fishing at all? There is no better place to fly fish for beginners than a shallow lake with a mountain view. Every evening that we walk around Sprague Lake in RMNP, there is a fly fishing lesson going on. The fishermen are in the middle of the lake, yet the water is only up to their knees! It’s an unusual site to see.
There is also Trout Haven Fishing Pond which is appropriate for all ages. You can rent a fishing rod and they provide everything else. You don’t even need a fishing license.
If your family already has the fishing gear and licenses, there are so many streams to fish in. Either in town, on the edge of town, or in RMNP. There are a few fly fishing shops on Elkhorn Avenue that will give you all the insider info you need.
Option 2 – How does dinner and a show sound? One of the best and busiest restaurants in Estes Park is Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ. It’s sooo good! You can expect a wait, even if you get there early. We always order the family meal called Big Kahuna Belly Buster and get it to go. That way, we can avoid the wait and enjoy the meal in our own cabin.
After dinner, it’s time for the show. Most evenings the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center has a ranger led program. The RMNP paper that you are given at the park entrance will have the schedule or visit the website.
The shows vary from photography in the park, talks about wildlife, or artwork by the artist in residence. Last summer, we heard two rangers talk about working on the trails of Long’s Peak. These rangers assist the climbers and maintain the trail on the way to Long’s. They climb the peak a few times a week. Their stories and pictures were unbelievable!
If your kiddo’s are doing the junior ranger program, attending a program is one of the requirements and is a really fun way to learn about the national park.
Option 3 – An evening walk around Bear or Sprague Lakes is the perfect end to a busy day. Both of these lakes are an easy and flat walk for the whole family.
Sprague Lake offers more mountain views, and Hallett Peak is always in sight. We were lucky enough to spot a couple of moose in the lake one evening, and usually have elk wandering around our vehicle in the parking lot.
The walk around Bear Lake is 8/10ths of a mile and the walk around Sprague Lake is 9/10ths of a mile.
Related Post – Best Hikes for Families in Rocky Mountain National Park
After your walk, you will want to take a drive around Moraine Park to look for elk. We’ve seen anywhere from a few elk to large herds of elk. Binoculars come in handy to spot the bull elks with their huge antlers.
Do not get too close to the elk. This isn’t a zoo.
Walking around a scenic mountain lake and spotting some elk will definitely be an awesome first experience in Colorado.
Your family will definitely have the time of their lives on a vacation to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. You may just find yourselves heading back there on an annual basis!
Whether you have three days in Estes Park or seven days, they will all be perfect.
Planning a trip to Colorado? Here’s more info:
- Click here for a list of lodging that is available in Estes Park
- 25 Tips for Your First Visit to Rocky Mountain National Park
- The Best Hikes for Families in Rocky Mountain National Park
- 10 Foods Your Family Must Eat While in Estes Park
- 13 Things You Must Pack for Your Trip to Estes Park
Vicki started That Was a First to inspire families to turn their typical family vacation into a bucket list adventure, by providing in depth information and travel tips for destinations across the country.