Every other summer my family of thirty-seven hops on the local interstate and travels 970 miles west to middle America—specifically Estes Park, Colorado, our idyllic and preferred “happy place.” We leave behind the umpteen-thousand lakes of Minnesota, skirt the South Dakota Badlands and spend the night at Three Forks Campground beneath the giant heads of Mt. Rushmore. The next morning, after chasing the dew and bison off Wind Cave National Park’s hoof-beaten paths, we shimmy down to Cheyenne, loop to Loveland and hook a right into one of the most beautiful half-hour stretches on earth—up the Big Thompson River canyon, past that Dam Store, to Estes Park.
Why, pray tell, do we willfully subject ourselves to such a lengthy car ride, without even a DVD player? Because we did it as kids, and my parents did it as kids. Back then we survived on picnics and bonanzas. Today, there’s much more to choose from. It’s a tradition, an opportunity to “getaway and get together.” That car ride is a crescendo of anticipation; I feel like an 8-year-old girl waiting for Cinderella’s autograph at Disney World. When I get there, it’s even more amazing than expected—like every single Disney princess was there to sign my autograph book at once. It’s overwhelming, but so dang cool!
There are plenty of lodging options in Estes Park so you don’t have to “rough it”—rent a condo, stay at the Stanley Hotel (made famous by Stephen King) or camp at Mary’s Lake. But we prefer to stay at the YMCA of the Rockies. No TVs or distractions, just plenty of elk, Village People chants and serenity. Realistically, though, traveling is not about where you sleep. The YMCA has plenty of activities for kids on-site: mini-golf, horseback riding, trails, excursions and more. But you’re at the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park. You need to get out and explore.
Kids typically love to climb so take them to Bear Lake and the Alberta Falls at the foot of Hallett Peak or to the iconic Twin Owls at Lumpy Ridge. For kids who love to run, it’s hard to beat the beauty and paved paths of Sprague Lake. Adventures will love the drive up Trail Ridge Road to the Visitor’s Center; you can even go a little further to the Continental Divide. Head over to look for bighorns at the base of Bighorn Mountain or splash through the cold creeks and crystal clear water at the incredible Alluvian Fan in Horseshoe Park. If you’re really ambitious you can get up just before dawn and catch the moose at the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. The best part of all these activities is the cost: FREE.
Of course, you’re going to have to spend money at some point… there are too many great snack and souvenir shops on Main Street—and great food at the Wapiti Grill. You’ll also want to take your family to Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Taphouse at least once. There are also mini-golf courses, bumper boats, trout farms, and a huge carpet-ride slide. The Aerial Tramway gives you the best panoramic view of the area complete with the perfect opportunity to take some family photos.
Although there are plenty of other places you can go, America is beautiful. All summer long in Estes Park, you’ll get rain, plenty of sunshine and maybe even snow. You can swim, hike, bike, climb, dine and unwind pretty much every day. It’s only about an hours drive to Denver, where you can get a quick shopping fix, attend a Mile High baseball game or have a thrilling zoo excursion. Estes Park is one of those places you can go to spend little money while still getting an incredible yield for every dime—a highlight at a low price.
If, like me, you’ve ever wanted to throw your cell phone away and pull your family closer…if you’ve seen your kids grow way too fast and realize that your full-participation family vacation opportunities are so rapidly waning, then you’re looking for a place like Estes Park. We do travel to new vacation destinations, but every other year, we keep coming back to Estes Park. You’d be remiss not to give it a shot—everything you need to plan your trip is right here. You can thank me later.
E. Nolan is a stay-at-home dad, as a father of four, physically residing in the Midwest but mentally living pretty much anywhere else. With seven years of professional travel writing experience and a passion for both travel and writing, he’s always looking for another great place to recommend to his varied audiences. His recently-released debut novel titled “Emergency Exit” (penned as Ever N. Hayes) is out now. Follow him on Twitter @EverNHayes