Estes Park is a magical place to visit any time of year, but late summer and fall is especially amazing. Tucked against the high peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park‘s eastern side, it’s only an hour’s drive from the Front Range, but its small-town feel makes it a mountain paradise. The brief period between the end of summer and the first snows of October offer endless possibilities to see the changing colors of the aspens, to hear the autumn bugling of the park’s massive elk herd or to just enjoy hiking without the constant threat of summer thunderstorms.
So what are you waiting for? This is your guide to a perfect late-summer weekend in Estes Park.
Day 1 – Trail Ridge Road
Since the drive from the Denver Metro area is so short, you won’t mind staying in your car for a while, for one of the prettiest drives in America.
Trail Ridge Road runs 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake, topping out at 12,183 feet. Along the way you’ll pass through all of the life zones of the Rockies, from the pine and aspen forests around Estes Park to the tundra of the Continental Divide. Plan on stopping in Grand Lake for lunch before the return trip. This road usually closes in October until May, so enjoy it when you can.
As dusk nears, you’ll notice cars pulled over all along the wide meadows on the park’s east side. Find a place to park, and you’re apt to see and hear the fall mating ritual of the elk, when the males call to the females in an eerie bugling sound. Just don’t get too close, as the males can be aggressive this time of year.
Return to your campsite in the park—the Moraine Park Campground is a great place to see and hear elk—or your room or cabin in Estes Park. If you’ve never stayed at The Stanley Hotel, the town’s iconic “haunted hotel,” it may be worth a night on your schedule.
Day 2 – Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
Lace up those hiking boots because it’s time to get off the road and see the park’s wilder side.
You could spend weeks or a lifetime exploring the park’s more than 350 miles of trails, but since you only have a weekend, head to the Bear Lake area to get the most bang for your buck. Both the Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge trailheads offer quick access to amazing mountain scenery. You may be required to park at a satellite lot and take a shuttle, so schedule in some extra time.
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For a gentle hike, take the one-mile stroll around level Bear Lake, or a similarly easy walk at Sprague Lake.
If you’re up for more of a challenge, continue above Bear Lake to Dream Lake, one of the most-photographed spots in the park. From here, a loop can be made by heading south to the junction with the Glacier Gorge Trail. On a clear day, Longs Peak looms in the distance. If you’re tired, follow the loop east and north to Alberta Falls, a pretty waterfall surrounded by aspens.
For a true high-country adventure, continue hiking up the Andrews Creek or Glacier Gorge trails, both of which are steep but reward the hiker with stunning lakes surrounded by golden aspens and high, craggy mountains. Glass Lake, The Loch, and Mills Lake all make worthy destinations.
If you’re really looking to test your abilities, get an incredibly early start (we’re talking 3 a.m.) and attempt to climb 14,255-foot Longs Peak. With 14 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation, it’s one of the more strenuous of Colorado’s fourteeners to attempt, but trying it in late summer when the threat of storms has eased may help your chances.
Keep in mind the weather can change in minutes here, so come prepared with layers, rain gear and of course plenty of food and water.
After your hike, head back into Estes Park for a well-deserved meal. For a small town, there’s a surprising variety of food options. Beer and barbeque lovers will enjoy Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Tap House. For pizza, try Antonio’s Real New York Pizza. Ed’s Cantina & Grill is known for quality Mexican cuisine. Or just park and wander around the town’s many shops, boutiques and restaurants until you find something that suits your fancy.
Try to get a seat on the patio or near a window. You won’t be ready to let the views go yet.