One of the most popular parks in the country, Rocky Mountain National Park welcomes 3 million visitors each year and still manages to nurture cravings for solitude. Daybreak is the best time to explore the park’s stunning see-through lakes, sweeping meadows and dew-spritzed forests. The park's eastern entrance is in the town of Estes Park.
For a true Rocky Mountain high, take a drive on Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved through-road in North America. This rollercoaster route crosses the Continental Divide and offers breathtaking photo ops as you climb past subalpine forests and windswept tundra to 12,183 feet above sea level.
Or enjoy one of the park’s easier hikes and follow signs to the Bear Lake trailhead where you’ll embark on a mellow loop to the lake and back. For a little more challenge, try the 2.8-mile Mills Lake trek. You’ll be rewarded with grand views of 14,259-foot-tall Longs Peak and the Keyboard of the Winds, a whimsical rock formation named for its shape.
Pull over at Moraine Park for prime wildlife watching. More than 3,000 elk and 800 bighorn sheep live in Rocky Mountain National Park, and this U-shaped valley is a regular gathering spot for bugling elk. Keep an eye out for mule deer, coyotes, eagles and the occasional moose.
Window-shop along Elkhorn Avenue, Estes Park’s bustling main thoroughfare. Filled with one-of-a-kind stores, several fine restaurants and plenty of places for an afternoon snack, the area is just steps from the park’s eastern entrance. Stop for coffee and sit outside on the Riverwalk. One block off Elkhorn Avenue, the beautifully landscaped path follows the Big Thompson River as it flows through town. Take the path east for a tranquil walk around Lake Estes or stop at the marina to rent bikes, pontoon boats or kayaks.
Ride 1,100 feet up the side of Prospect Mountain on the aerial tramway for fantastic views of Estes and the surrounding peaks.
Wind down with cocktails and dinner at the storied Stanley Hotel. The elegant 103-year-old, white-pillared landmark sits on a hill overlooking downtown Estes Park. Guided ghost tours take you through an underground tunnel and reveal how Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining while staying in room 217.
Photos: Courtesy of the Estes Park Convention & Visitors Bureau.