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Tourist Traps or Worth Your Time: Best Places to Go in Estes Park

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

Estes Park is one of the many iconic mountain towns of Colorado, known for its stunning Rocky Mountain landscape, entertaining outdoor activities, exuberant downtown, and variety of wildlife. Even after spending a lot of my life there, traversing through childhood and adulthood and the four seasons of each year, I can say exciting adventures still wait up a trail or in a hidden coffee shop in Estes Park. However, many people and visitors don’t have the liberty to spend weeks perusing around the Rocky Mountains or hopping in and out of local shops; oftentimes a weekend trip is more realistic. To help combat this problem, I’ve separated popular activities, places, and restaurants into tourist traps or hidden gems, so you can make the most out of your time in Estes Park– no matter how long you’re there. 

Bear Lake 

In practically every photo collage of Estes Park, this is the lake you’ll see most often. Nestled at the base of a valley with stunning views of Longs Peak (the only fourteener in Rocky Mountain National Park), this hike is super accessible and provides amazing mountain landscapes. However, what they won’t show you in the photos are the masses of people and tourists that bombard the trail, and more specifically, the parking lot. It’s the most popular destination for a reason, but if you don’t want to be stuck without a parking spot and overwhelmed by crowds, I’d skip out on this one (or save it for the dead of winter).

Lake Haiyaha

If you’re not familiar with the trails of Rocky Mountain National Park, you will likely not have heard of Lake Haiyaha before. Kept a secret in the local community and between more regular hikers, this Lake provides the perfect blend of picturesque, serene, and isolated atmosphere to give you that true breath of mountain air. Taking on this moderately-difficult hike will separate you from the buzz of Bear Lake and also give you that perfect feeling of triumph after a hard trial. There are also variations you can make to this hike that extend the length and offer up different destinations, such as Mills Lake. 

Fun Zone 

There isn’t much to explain about this activity located just outside of the downtown area of Estes Park, yet each summer, it seems to attract an abundance of people. Filled with go-kart races, giant slides, bungee jumping, ropes courses and more, this is more eye-catching than worth spending time at, especially when there are more fulfilling activities just around the corner. 

The Rock Inn Mountain Tavern

Live music, rustic atmosphere, high local attendance and great cuisine–The Rock Inn has everything you need for a night dining out in mountain style. Located on the edge of town and away from the bustle of the main street, Elkhorn Ave, this beloved restaurant has served up both the Estes Park community and those passing through since 1937. The menu has something delicious for everyone, and the Devils on Horseback is a must-have appetizer. The Rock Inn is definitely worth a stop on your next trip up. 

Overall, anywhere you go in Estes Park will end up being a good time–tourist trap or not. It’s hard to find any negativity in this town nestled in the heart of the Rockies, filled with friendly locals and enthusiastic hikers, bikers and climbers. Below are some other recommendations on other locations worth a visit during your next trip to Estes Park. 

  • Notchtop Cafe: This restaurant serves up great breakfast food backdropped by friendly staff and picturesque scenery.  
  • Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Hike: A very accessible and easy trail that will show you three lakes in one hike. 
  • Ed’s Cantina: Easily the busiest restaurant in town, but it’s worth the wait for the amazing atmosphere and tasty Mexican food.  
  • Reel Mountain Theater: If you’re needing a late night movie break, this small theater is the perfect escape, offering lots of great snacks and a small-town vibe. 
  • Stanley Hotel: Whether you’ve read “The Shining” or not, this impressive hotel and landmark is a blast to explore and great for fun photo opportunities. 
  • Coffee on the Rocks: A quiet coffee shop with outdoor seating in the midst of the lush outdoors; an accurate precis of life in Estes Park. 
Olivia Neilly

CU Boulder '26

Olivia is a sophomore at CU Boulder double majoring in Molecular Biology and English. While one day she hopes to attend medical school, she still loves to read and write, often curled up with a good book and a cup of hot coffee. When not in class or studying, Olivia enjoys visiting cafes, shopping for new books, playing with her dog, or watching movies. Her favorite films are La La Land, Silence of the Lambs, and Amadeus. She is also passionate about research in biological and neurological fields, and she works in a lab at CU to help learn more about neurogenetics and mental disorders. Olivia is excited to be able to publish her work and explore a wide variety of topics that bridge between science and art along with what it's like living as a college student in Boulder, CO.