Two of Colorado’s most charming mountain towns are located on the east and west entrances of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 48 miles between Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Only open in the summer, Trail Ridge Road has been called the “highway to the sky,” and only a trip down this iconic road will reveal why.
These two towns border the same national park, and at first glance, they may seem similar and yet they are vastly different. Grand Lake retains a bit of gritty, western appeal, and during the summer, it’s not unusual to see a horse tied up in front of a bar in downtown. On the other hand, The Stanley Hotel stands like a sentinel over Estes Park, giving the town an air of refinement that comes from its historical roots as a playground for America’s nouveau riche.
While both Estes Park and Grand Lake are popular with tourists, they each have distinctive characteristics. Grand Lake, for instance, is a lake town, offering all the water activities associated with lakeside living. Estes Park, on the other hand, is larger, features three microbreweries, a world-renowned hotel, art galleries and lots of shopping.
Both towns hold a certain appeal for the traveler, whether one is visiting from near or afar. Here’s a loose plan for a memorable vacation that incorporates a stay in Estes Park, a drive over Trail Ridge Road and then an overnight in Grand Lake. The return trip could include another pass through the park or the alternative route through Winter Park to Interstate 70. Whether it’s a two-day excursion or a week, this is surely an itinerary for fun.
Play in Estes Park
While it may be a tourist hotspot with crowded downtown sidewalks during the summer, Estes Park has a lot to offer a regional visitor.
This town is now home to three breweries, a spirit tasting room and a distillery. Berthoud-based Dancing Pines Distilleries opened a tasting room in Estes Park in 2014. On July 4, 2016, Elkins Distilling, specializing in whiskey, became the town’s first distillery.
Rock Cut Brewing, Lumpy Ridge Brewing Co. and Estes Park Brewing round out the town’s active brewery scene. Those looking for variety should check out The Barrel, a family-friendly craft beer, wine and spirits garden in the heart of Estes Park.
YMCA of the Rockies is a wonderful spot for families while in Estes Park. There’s horseback riding for all ages, a craft and design center, miniature golf and more, and it’s just 11 minutes from downtown.
The Estes Park 18-Hole Golf Course is celebrating its 100th season, and specials and promotions will be happening all summer to commemorate this milestone. The course boasts breathtaking views and a high likelihood of encountering elk and deer on the greens.
Stay in Estes Park
The Stanley Hotel is known the world over for inspiring Stephen King’s “The Shining,” and it’s worth splurging on a stay here. However, Estes Park has lots of other lodging options including the dog-friendly The Rustic Acre. This historic property, less than a mile from downtown, is located in a quiet neighborhood and offers suites, lofts and lodges of various sizes. Depending on the time of year, it’s not uncommon to wake up to find a herd of elk moseying through the homestead or deer breakfasting on the flower beds.
Eat in Estes Park
In Estes Park, it’s all about pizza. Poppy’s Pizza & Grill is loved by locals and visitors; returning patrons don’t only come for the delicious food—they come for the beer. Poppy’s owner, Rob Pieper, takes great care in curating his beer list which always features delicious Colorado brews. Pieper is always in-house and will help diners pick the perfect craft beer to pair with their meal.
Newer, but already much-loved, Antonio’s Real New York Pizza offers dine-in or carry-out from their small pizzeria on the West Elkhorn Avenue. For the real deal, order a hand tossed New York Pie cooked to perfection in Antonio’s brick pizza oven. To pick up a pizza or just a slice, check out their drive-thru location at 865 Moraine Avenue.
Trail Ridge Road to Grand Lake
During midsummer, Trail Ridge Road offers astounding views as well as a landscape covered in a riot of colorful wildflowers. This is a highly traveled road, but travelers can avoid the crowds by getting an early start.
While it’s just 48 miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake, it’s wise to plan approximately two hours of drive time because stopping to take in the views is part of the Trail Ridge Road experience. There are numerous overlooks and lots of hiking trails along the route.
At its highest point, the road is above treeline, giving the area at the top of Trail Ridge Road an almost otherworldly milieu. The Alpine Visitor Center is located at the high point and is a nice place to stretch and take a restroom break.
Wildlife abounds in Rocky Mountain National Park and it’s possible to see everything from herds of elk to a coyote on Trail Ridge Road, so drivers should keep their eyes sharp throughout this drive. A trip through Rocky Mountain National Park requires a park pass; this summer, a one-day vehicle park pass is $20, and a seven-day pass is $30. Passes can be purchased in advance online at www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/fees.htm.
Play in Grand Lake
Grand Lake oozes charm; from its wooden planked sidewalk to sparkling blue, natural lake, it’s a summer wonderland. Getting out on the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado is highly recommended and there are a variety of ways to make this happen.
In the morning, rent a standup paddleboard and take a paddle on the crystal waters before the speedboats come out to play in the afternoon. Canoes are also available for rent as are pedal boats and speedboats.
For those who’d rather have someone else do the work, take a tour of Grand Lake with Headwaters Marina. These one-hour tours via pontoon boat are a fun and entertaining way to learn the history and the modern-day narrative of Grand Lake.
Just a five-minute drive out of town, the Adams Falls trail is less than a mile and offers gorgeous waterfall views and the occasional moose. It’s rocky and there’s about a 100-foot elevation gain but it’s a trail that’s easy enough for nearly everyone in the family. Back in town, stop at one of Grand Lake’s lovely little ice cream shops for a cone.
Unsurprisingly, fishing is a beloved pastime in this town and there’s no better way to experience the sport than by booking an outing with Rocky Mountain Outfitters. There are varying excursions to choose from including an evening cruise that’s a relaxing catch and release outing. Whether their clients have been fishing their entire lives or have never held a pole, Rocky Mountain Outfitters will plan the perfect trip.
Stay in Grand Lake
Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging & Events offers an array of property types at every budget level, and all of their properties are located in the heart of downtown Grand Lake. Their brand-new Penthouse on Grand offers three master bedrooms and is ideal for couples who are traveling together or families with older children. In addition, there’s the Lake House and Tree House, also great for family vacations or a weekend with friends. Their 16-room renovated lakeside motel and collection of lakeside and courtyard cabins round out Western Riviera’s lodging options.
Eat in Grand Lake
No visit to Grand Lake is complete without breakfast at Fat Cat Cafe. Its home-cooked food is served buffet-style and there’s lots of it—no one goes hungry here.
Lunch has to be a sandwich from Cy’s Deli. This place serves up some of the best sandwiches in Colorado and their patio is delightful during the summer months. For dependably good food and endless peanuts in a family-friendly environment, eat dinner at Sagebrush. There’s often live music here on the weekends and they host excellent bands.
A fine dining favorite in Grand Lake is Rapids Lodge & Restaurant. This historic establishment is glorious during the warm months when guests can enjoy their meal and drinks al fresco while being serenaded by the Tonahutu River. Dinner entrees include items such as filet mignon and Colorado lamb.
Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer covers festivals and travels across the west. She’s the founder of HeidiTown.com and author of The Heidi Guide for Mountain Living. To comment on this article, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.