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You don’t have to head too far into the Colorado mountains on any given winter Saturday before you start questioning your decision. Standstill highway traffic, filled-up ski resort parking areas, and crowds at every trailhead, summit, and ski lift, can make it difficult to get the relaxing, wilderness-filled weekend in that you had in mind. But if you know where to look, there are still plenty of spots in the Rockies where you can find world-class views and adventure, minus the crowds. And, one of the best is the little town of Estes Park.
A popular launch pad for hikers and climbers heading into Rocky Mountain National Park during the summer, Estes Park—tucked just beyond the foothills of the Front Range—might as well be hidden during the winter, even though its less than an hour and a half from downtown Denver. Estes Park is in the perfect location to be off the radar of most weekend warriors yet surrounded by world-class adventure. In the wintertime, Estes offers everything from soaring 14ers to climb and steep couloirs to ski, to mellow snowshoe tours finished with craft beer and a good burger, and all without sacrificing the quiet vibe of a true mountain town.
Play in the Snow
Lift lines won’t be an issue at Estes Park’s Hidden Valley, though—the ski area’s lifts were decommissioned in 1991, leaving the large, accessible bowl in Rocky Mountain National Park free of chairlifts and crowds. But with ski runs still visible and the powder comparatively untouched, it’s still a popular spot for backcountry skiers of all levels. Beginners can do laps through the trees down low, or on days with good visibility and low avalanche danger, advanced skiers can climb higher above the trees for an alpine feel and steeper runs.
Deeper inside Rocky Mountain National Park, hikers can strap on snowshoes or click into skis at the Bear Lake Trailhead and make the short 1.5-mile trek passed Nymph and Dream Lakes to Emerald Lake. Perched at the bottom of the deep, sheer Tyndall Gorge, Emerald is one of the most picturesque spots in the Park and the entire area. Snowshoers should stop here, but expert backcountry skiers can climb one of the dramatic couloirs—like the classic Dragon’s Tail—for a true Rocky Mountain ski experience. Snowshoers: Be sure to look closely into the narrow snow-filled chutes surrounding the lake for the chance to see a skier making their descent.
While the 415-square-mile National Park that surrounds the town on almost 3 sides is one of the most adventure-rich spots in the state, Estes Park is a lot more than park rangers and tour roads. The 4-mile hike up and down Lily Mountain, standing just off Route 7 south of town, makes for a great snowshoe yielding views of 14ers Meeker and Longs, the rest of the Continental Divide, as well as town to the north. The best part: Because Lily Mountain isn’t in the National Park, your dog can come along for the hike.
Re-fuel and Repeat
After your day outside, head to Lumpy Ridge Brewery, tucked inside a former gas station, for cheap and delicious craft beer. Thurman’s Stout (named after the brewery dog who is almost always roaming around the small bar) is just heavy enough to satisfy after a hard day, without spoiling your appetite. For grub, stop by Ed’s Cantina for a filling, Mexican-inspired burger or torta. Just looking to grab a quick something to stuff in your backpack for tomorrow? Scratch Deli and Bakery is right off the road on the way into the Park and makes delicious sandwiches in fresh-baked bread with house-smoked meats.
Estes Park has plenty more to do than you can fit in one day. Rest your body at the local classic, the Stanley Hotel for luxurious old-world charm. Or, visit the modern Della Terra Mountain Chateau featuring cabins, condos, townhomes, and more, making the perfect resting place for any type or size of trip.
Regardless of how you spend the day, hop in the car around dusk and drive up Trail Ridge Road to Many Parks Curve, just about where the Park Service stops plowing for the winter. The pull-off, with views of snow-covered meadows leading out to the town, mountains rising behind it, makes the perfect place to relax and revel in the day—and plan what you want to do tomorrow.