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Thursday 28 January 2021

12 Things to do in Estes Park with Kids

Estes Park up in the Rocky Mountains is a popular destination for Colorado locals and tourists alike. Located just an hour away from Boulder (or an hour and a half from Denver) it makes for a perfect quick and easy get away for the weekend. With warm Summers, colorful Falls, and snowy Winters, Estes Park is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year. 

We've visited Estes Park a handful of times and we've always found something new and fun to do on each visit. Today I thought I'd share some of the fun that we've found in and around Estes Park. 

Here are my top 12 things to do with kids in Estes Park...
1. Explore Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colorado, and with good reason. With an entrance located just outside of Estes Park it's the perfect place to spend a day while visiting the town. In fact, most people come to Estes Park specifically to visit RMNP. With hiking trails for all skill levels, picturesque overlooks, stunning scenic drives, and the cutest wildlife (including moose, elk, coyotes, chipmunks and the marmot below), RMNP is not to be missed. Some visitors choose to camp here but if camping's not your thing there are plenty of accommodation options in Estes Park. It can get pretty busy at RMNP, especially on weekends, so expect for there to be queues at the most popular spots. In fact, we didn't actually make it to RMNP until our third attempt due to it being busy! But that's ok, because if you read on you'll find there are plenty of other things to keep you busy in Estes Park.

2. Take in the views from Estes Park Aerial Tramway
For stunning mountain views without trekking into RMNP head to the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. These cute little red carriages have been transporting visitors to the summit of Mount Prospect since 1955. Unlike most aerial tramways in the US, this particular one features a free span, meaning that there are no towers between the bottom and the top. That also means that there are uninterrupted views! From the summit you'll find jaw dropping views over Estes Park and the surrounding mountains. You'll also find hiking trails, a cafe and gift shop, and the next item on my list...

3. Feed friendly chipmunks
Ok, so in most places feeding the wild animals is a big no no. At the summit of Mount Prospect, however, feeding the local chipmunks is encouraged. The cafe at the summit sells bags of peanuts to visitors for the specific purpose of feeding the furry little friends. I have to admit that I wasn't so sure about this at first, but the kids were excited to see the chipmunks up close so we bought a few small bags of peanuts to feed them. The chipmunks definitely know where their treats come from and if you sit still long enough with a bag of peanuts one is sure to appear. Please remember that the chipmunks are wild animals, and despite their cute appearance they should not be touched. You may find that they'll come up close and take a peanut from your finger tips but don't take that as an opportunity to try and pat them. I preferred to gently throw the peanuts on the ground and let the chipmunks eat at a safer distance - and use my big zoom lens to see them up close! 

4. Explore the historic (and possibly haunted) Stanley Hotel
This one's for all the movie buffs, Stephen King fans and lovers of architecture. And, well, for anyone else, really. It's such an interesting place to visit that you're sure to find yourself enchanted no matter your interests. I'm talking about the historic, and rather grand, Stanley Hotel. Most people know the Stanley Hotel as the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's The Shining. Stephen King wrote his famous novel after he and his wife found themselves as the only guests at the Stanley Hotel one Winter. While the Stanley Hotel doesn't feature in the movie of The Shining, it does appear in another movie: Dumb and Dumber! Ok, that's about as removed from The Shining as you can get! Tours of the Stanley Hotel are available, however they are not aimed at young children, so we chose to check out the public areas on our own. We will definitely be back for a tour once the kids are older; maybe even one of their evening ghost tours! Our self led explorations of the Stanley Hotel and its grounds took in views of the lobby and grand staircase, the front gardens and maze, and the garden level public areas which include a small exhibit which shares the Stanley Hotel in popular media and a Lego rendition of the hotel - including a ghost on the balcony! We stopped by the Colorado Cherry Company on the garden level for delicious pastries and coffee. 

5. Go horse riding in the mountains
What could be better than going for a hike in the mountains? Horse riding in the mountains! The first time we visited Estes Park we had planned to spend most of our time in RMNP, however our visit coincided with a government shutdown and the national park was closed. The staff at our hotel were super helpful with alternate suggestions and one of those was to go horse riding. Mathilde was only four at the time and I wasn't sure she would be allowed to ride, but I contacted Sombrero Stables, and they gave us the go ahead. In fact, not only was Mathilde able to ride, she was able to ride on her own just like Ava and Lola! We took a one hour trail ride through the mountains and it was just the perfect way to explore. Long enough to see plenty of the landscape, but not so long that these horse riding newbies would end up with sore butts! The kids loved horse riding and have been keen to go back ever since. Note: Sombrero Stables' webpage notes that six is the minimum age for riders, so please make sure to double check this with them in advance. 

6. Play on a frozen creek
Visiting Estes Park in Winter? You're sure to find the Fall River frozen solid in many places. This narrow river runs a block away from Elkhorn Ave, the main strip where you'll find most of the shops, restaurants and cafe. We found a nice frozen section along Wiest Drive and the kids had a blast "skating" around on the ice. Make sure to check that the ice is solid first and keep an eye out for any warning signs. A little further down the creek we spotted warning signs about thin ice so we made sure to avoid that area. In some areas the water flowed freely over the top of the ice which was pretty fun to see. We made sure to avoid these areas too.

7. Taste freshly made taffy
Salt water taffy seems to be an institution in American towns popular with tourists, and it's no different in Estes Park. Along Elkhorn Avenue we found several shops selling home made taffy. A few of the stores had taffy pulling machines at work on display in the window and the kids were mesmerized by the candy as it was stretched and looped. Watching the taffy being pulled was pretty cool, but you know what's better? Eating the taffy! In each of the stores we were able to try a few flavors before we made our choices to purchase. If you're after something sweet but taffy isn't your thing, never fear. Each of the taffy stores has a large selection of candies and some even have ice cream. Our favorites were Danish Cone Factory and The Taffy Shop, both of which have taffy pulling machines in the window. 

8. Search for the pika sculptures around town
If you've been following along for a while you'll know that I'm a big fan of a good treasure hunt. We used to love searching for the heart sculptures in San Francisco, had fun tracking down painted lobster statues in Plymouth, and recently we've been on a few local treasure hunts for painted groundhog and bear sculptures. On our first visit to Estes Park we stopped by the visitor information center and the staff told us all about Pikas in the Park, a scavenger hunt featuring adorable bronze pika sculptures. Ok, I hear you asking... what's a pika? A pika is a small rodent native to the Rocky Mountains. We picked up maps from the visitor center and set off to find the pika sculptures around downtown. Unlike other similar treasure hunts we've done, these sculptures are much closer to life size, and because pikas are pretty tiny this made the treasure hunt much trickier than we expected! The map shows the general location of each sculpture along with some pretty cryptic clues. You definitely need to keep your eyes peeled for this one! We spent the better part of a day searching for the pikas in between other activities. Once we'd found them all we returned to the visitor center and the kids were awarded with badges. You can pick up the map from the visitor center or download a copy here.

9. Play by a frozen lake
If you're visiting Estes Park in Winter, Lake Estes may not seem like the best place to hang out given that the water will likely be frozen over, but if your kids are anything like mine, that's all the more reason to go check it out! Unlike the frozen Fall River that I mentioned above Lakes Estes wasn't frozen solid during our Winter visit, so that meant that playing out the surface was a little dangerous. Playing on the shores, however, was a ton of fun! Here the kids found sheets of ice that they could easily break off the lake shore to play with. Have you ever thrown a piece of ice across a frozen lake? It makes the most amazing sounds! It kind of sounds a little like whale song as it slides across the ice and shatters into pieces. Along with these sounds the frozen lake made creepy creaking and moaning noises which were also pretty cool to hear - and a good reminder not to walk on the lake. If you're visiting Estes Park in the warmer months, Lake Estes is a great place to go boating and there's a small playground by the marina. 

10. Eat the sweetest candy apples
Every time we visit Estes Park we stop by the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Stanley Village for caramel apples. Their caramel apples are the best and the kids can't get enough of them. Seriously, does it get any better than a crisp apple covered in caramel, chocolate and mini marshmallows? Maybe caramel and M&Ms. As well as caramel apples the store features a great selection of gourmet chocolates and candies, including a sugar free range. While this isn't the original Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory store (that one can be found in Durango in southern Colorado) it does have a fun story that the kids always love hearing about. A little while back a bear broke into the Estes Park Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory store and helped themselves to as much chocolate as a bear can eat - and a bear can eat a lot! It was all caught on surveillance camera which you can see here

11. Look for elk and deer
If you're out and about in Estes Park early in the morning or at dusk there's a good chance you'll find some of the town's four legged residents out grazing on lawns. I'm talking about the deer and elk that call Estes Park home. Now, we're not morning people at all so we missed our chance at spotting any elk earlier on in the day, but we took a drive late one afternoon and found dozens of elk grazing along the side of the road and in people's yards. As you can see from the picture below, we also found some pretty spectacular mountain sunsets! The elk and deer around Estes Park are pretty used to people, so they likely won't be phased if you stop to check them out, but remember that they are wild animals and should not be approached. 

12. Take a walk along Fall River
Rivers aren't just fun when they're frozen! Fall River in Estes Park is quite picturesque and makes for a lovely place to take a stroll. Tregent Park is one of my favorite spots to stop and spend a little time by the water. The kids love dipping their feet in the water and jumping across the big rocks here on a hot day. There are plenty of places to sit and take in the view in Tregent Park and, if you're lucky, you just might spot hummingbirds feeding off the nectar filled flowers in the gardens along the river's banks. We hadn't seen hummingbirds since we moved away from California so this was a pleasant surprise. Here you can see the water wheel as well as sculptures.

Planning an Estes Park getaway? Here are my favorite places to stay.

Ridgeline Hotel

Have you been to Estes Park? I'd love to hear what you favorite things are to do there!

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