Welcome to the fifth installment of our “Trail Town” series. Every month we will feature an article about a trail running city that you should put on your bucket list of places to visit! This month we feature the town of Estes Park, just outside Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
Written by Terry Chiplin, Owner of Active at Altitude and resident of Estes Park, Colorado with contributions from Brooke Burnham, Director of Marketing & Communications for Visit Estes Park, Belle Morris, Estes Park Running Club and Amy Plummer, Founder, Asylum Group.
Estes Park, CO – population 6,260 (Census bureau 2015)
Photo above courtesy of Visit Estes Park
Estes Park, Colorado is the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park. With the park surrounding this small mountain town on three sides and national forest on the fourth, outdoor recreation, real wildlife and alpine beauty abound. The town of Estes Park was incorporated in 1917, two years after the national park was established, which means these folks have over 100 years of practice in the hospitality and mountain guiding businesses!
With dozens of peaks reaching over 12,000 feet and one of Colorado’s famous 14-ers, Estes Park offers year-round scenery and exploration. The variety of wildlife is punctuated by one of the largest elk populations in the United States. Over 2,000 of these majestic creatures call the Estes Valley home and are a common sight all year, with a fantastic mating display in the fall called the ‘rut’. During this time, the bulls bugle, spar and strut their impressive antlers to gain attention from the cows, and the onlookers.
Estes Park is located just 45 minutes from Boulder, a home for several of the top trail and mountain runners in the US, and 1.5 hours from Denver Inter-national Airport or downtown Denver. For any runners looking for altitude training, Estes Park is at 7,500 feet above sea level, right in the sweet spot research suggests maximize the benefits of altitude training. Unusually for a training destination at that altitude, you can also drop more than 2,000 feet in elevation within 25 minutes, and gain the benefit of running harder sessions with more available oxygen.
With Rocky Mountain National Park literally on the doorstep, and over 355 miles of trails on offer, Rocky is a firm favorite with both locals and visitors. RMNP also contains 150 lakes and 450 miles of streams, plus ecosystems ranging from wetlands to pine forests to montane areas to alpine tundra – no wonder it is the third most visited park of all the National Parks in the US. Must do trails in RMNP include the Kiener’s route for Longs Peak (a favorite run of legendary trail runners Anton Krupicka & Joe Grant), the Lumpy Ridge Loop (a favorite of seven time Western States winner Scott Jurek), Cub Lake Loop, and Deer Mountain summit.
The Estes Park area is a trail runners paradise, with trails to suit every taste and desire. From level single track across Moraine Park, to shorter challenging summits like Deer Mountain, in-credible views from on top of the Continental Divide on Flat Top, and the ascent on the big daddy, Longs Peak. In 2014, 5280 magazine compared Estes Park to Chamonix, the de facto trail running capital of Europe. From wildflower meadows that stretch out of view, stunning blue lakes, and breathtaking alpine views above treeline, and clean clear mountain air, Estes Park is a treat for every one of your senses.
The popular Lake Estes path circles the lake, has fitness stations, and provides panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 3.8 mile distance features views of Long’s Peak, 14,258 feet in elevation, the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Parking and Transit:
Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, weather permitting. From late May through early October, the park operates a free shuttle bus along the Bear Lake Road. This is a great way to avoid parking lots that are possibly congested. It also opens up some wonderful opportunities to do loop hikes and catch the shuttle back to your car. For de-tailed route and schedule information, check the shuttle bus page.
In town, the Estes Park Visitor Center offers parking, rest rooms, and access to all five of the town shuttles, as well as the Rocky Mountain National Park hiker shuttle.
Surrounded by the soaring peaks of the national park, a sense of adventure is very prominent. As a result, this well-known tourist town has been rapidly evolving into an outdoor recreation and wellness mecca. The many recreational activities are brought to life by dozens of local guides, including many pro climbers and mountaineers, that are eager to share their passions with the everyman – heading out onto the trails and waters of this breathtaking landscape. The town offers a wide variety of businesses to serve the explorer – from boutiques and gear shops to local restaurants and brew pubs. You’ll also find a wide variety of lodging options with both refined and rustic attitudes.
The weekly Tuesday evening Fun Run, organized by the Estes Park Running Club, welcomes runners and walkers of all abilities. Starting from the REI Basecamp at the Stanley Hotel, routes include 3, 4, or 5 miles along the Lake Estes trail, downtown loops, MacGregor Ranch, or Devil’s Gulch road. Celebrating the seasons, the community run occurs year round and includes the snow packed winter nights. Wearing reflective vests and headlamps, runners test out their winter apparel on the cheerfully lighted downtown pathways. The occasional costume challenges and guest speakers add to the evening gatherings for information and fun! The Stanley Hotel provides a delicious & healthy meal to participants after the workout. If you are looking to find opportunities to meet local runners, a similar pace, or training motivation, the Tuesday evening runs are the place to be year round! During the summer months, trail club runs are organized on Thursday evenings and water running clinics during the winter months. See more at www.epmarathon.org.
The local Asylum Group has been loving the local trails here for years, running once a week in the area. Founder of the Asylum group, Amy Plummer, has lived in Estes since 1979, and has been running all this time. She said, “..it just keeps getting better.”
Rocky Mountain National Park keeps visitors coming back across generations, which also in-spires many guests to become residents. “We have a very eclectic population in Estes Park,” reports Brooke Burnham, Director of Marketing & Communications for Visit Estes Park. “With a large retiree population we get the wisdom of older generations, while the families and millennials are making their mark with art, music, craft beverage houses and entrepreneurship. The immediate access to wilderness adventures and the 360-degree alpine views attract potential residents, and the small-town spirit is what keeps us here.”
While Estes Park is best known as a summer destination, the word is spreading about the in-credible winter activities here. As resort skiing prices soar and interest lags, Colorado is seeing an increase in alternative winter endeavors. Estes Park is no exception. With mild snowfall in town, but feet of snowpack on the slopes, it is a perfect spot for an easy winter escape. Snow-shoeing and Nordic skiing are growing quickly in popularity, are affordable and can be done at virtually any age or ability. For more of a challenge, backcountry skiing, split-boarding and ice climbing are also growing among outdoor enthusiasts. All of these activities are easily accessible from Estes Park – with guides available, as well, for newbies or those unfamiliar with the area terrain.
There is an ever increasing variety of other outdoor recreation choices for trail on top of increasing numbers of trail runners. Cross training activities like guided bicycle tours, guided rock climb-ing and hiking, pool running in the Aquatic Center, along with a wide choice of other fun out door activities, like white water rafting, open air park, fishing trips, as well as wildlife and photographic safaris. There are many options for rentals for winter outdoor equipment, like the Mountain Shop, Outdoor World, the Warming House, or Kirks.
If you’re staying in the town for a block of altitude training, Estes Park Medical Center has a Sports Medicine test panel that includes lactate threshold, VO2 max, gait assessment, and blood panel options.
Local business Active at Altitude holds co-ed trail running camps and women’s running camps through the summer, providing high quality coaching, paired with local knowledge, great food, amazing trail runs, and guest star athletes. They can also arrange trail running vacations in the Estes Park area, with advice on lodging and trail runs.
Estes Park is home to our local coffee shop, Kind Coffee. Roasting only certified organic and fair trade coffee, their downtown shop, located on the Riverwalk, is a community meeting place for active and outdoor folks of all persuasions. The quaint cafe makes a great place to meet before a run, or to gather for post run drinks and snacks before heading home. There is also a Starbucks for those that are used to the global brand.
Unique in the town is Via Bicycle Cafe, a specialty coffee and bicycle shop. It’s a meeting room and hub for rides and riders, a workshop in some cases, a stage for local musicians, and a place to relax and watch the pro peloton on an 80″ TV. Their coffee is prepared in traditional Italian quantities (i.e. no 20 ounce cups) and it will be crafted with the same obsessive attention to detail that they lavish on a bike brought in for a tune-up.
Out toward the RMNP south entrance is Coffee on the Rocks. They serve fresh roasted coffee, espresso, lattes, cappuccinos, smoothies, and frappes. To satisfy your munchies, they offer bakery items such as bagels, muffins, pastries, deserts and yummy cinnamon rolls. Lots of pre-hiking on the go snacks, protein bars, granola, etc. After your run or hike, relax with their spiced chai latte or hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Estes Park Brewery has over 12 hand-crafted beers on tap, with samples for those that haven’t tasted their wares previously. Their restaurant has a scenic overlook, video games, and a beer garden. Their beers are widely recognized as being excellent for post run recovery!
The Barrel is a craft beer, wine and spirits garden – a fun and inviting place for folks to stop in for a pint or two; whether it’s after a long run in Rocky Mountain National Park, during a shopping break or before having dinner downtown.
Rock Cut Brewing Company is nestled in the midst of town. Join them and sample their distinctive beers brewed on premises with the finest grains and pristine Rocky Mountain water. And, while you’re at it, enjoy a tasty snack, or feel free to bring in your own food. Relax after a run, and have a pint or two, or enjoy a selection of tastings.
Lumpy Ridge Brewing Company is located just out of town up Highway 7, and brews some solid beers. Try their bourbon-barrel aged dark ale! Their mission is to brew, distribute and serve delicious beer in an inspired place where guests will want to return to again and again.
Dining in Estes delivers something for every taste from around the World. During the Summer season the restaurants in the downtown area can get very busy, so it’s wise to book ahead to reserve a table. Some of the choices are Mama Rose’s for home made Italian, Poppy’s for pizza, burgers and salads, Nepals for Nepali, the Thai Kitchen for a taste of the East, and the Estes Park Resort on the lake.
The Mountain Shop – 970-586-6548 – great resource for all things outdoors with friendly staff that know every trail in the area. They stock trail shoes, socks, energy gels, and have a wide range of other outdoor gear including hydration packs, as well as rentals to keep you safe and on the move. Owner Rob is a trail runner and big supporter of community events.
Outdoor World / Rocky Mountain Connection – 970-586-2114 – everything you need for mountain excursions, with super knowledgable and friendly staff. Clothing, rentals, energy gels, and more. Owner Ernie is an avid trail runner, as well as skier, and snowshoer.
Kirks Fly Shop – 970-577-0790 – although their main business is fly fishing, they are also a great resource for visitors engaged in all forms of outdoor activities. They also have rentals in store for camping and traveling in the park, along with winter activities like snowshoeing.
The Warming House – 970-586-2995 – excellent resource for all trail information, along with quality rental gear, along with rental gear for tents, sleeping bags, poles, snowshoes, and more.
Active at Altitude – 303-304-9159 – advice on trail running in the area, along with guided runs year round, and endurance coaching
Trail sharing and co-operation:
The Estes Valley Recreation and Park District board of directors receives recommendations from the Estes Valley Trails Committee regarding new trail development, maintenance and us-age. A newly completed master trails plan will provide guidance for future trail priorities. Both the Town of Estes Park and the EVRPD collect taxes specifically allotted for trails and are excited to cooperate in adding to the existing multi-modal trails system. The vision is to enable runners to go from town to tree-line without using a road on the way.
US Trail Running Conference:
Estes Park is host to the annual US Trail Running Conference, held in September / October, at the historic Stanley Hotel. The Conference is for experienced trail runners, an ultra-marathoner, a trail newbie, and trail race directors. Featuring interactive workshops, expert speaker panels, guest star athletes, fun runs, demo products, varied expo, prize draw, and more. The Conference is a unique celebration of trail running in the US, and is held in partnership with the American Trail Running Association (ATRA).
The US Trail Running Conference is rounded out with the Estes Trail Ascent, a 5.8 mile dirt trail race featuring glorious mountain running at its best. It’s sharp first quarter mile takes runners to panoramic views, fall colored rolling ridge lines and a scenic, steep descent to the finish line. The continental divide views make this race a popular destination among trail running enthusiasts. The Estes Trail Ascent race attracts the international elite runner as well as the recreational athlete seeking a challenging, and scenic course. A buffet breakfast and great prizes is provided at this fantastic Fall Season trail race.
June offers the Estes Park Marathon & Half Marathon’s 5K trail race along the Lake Estes trail. The Estes Park 5K starts at the Marina and finishes at the Estes Park Track & Field. Runners enjoy the flat course and scenic mountain views.
The Fall season brings with it cooler temperatures and brilliant colors. The call from the wild can be heard from the Bull Elk during this rut season. The Elk Fest and the Rut Run 5K provide runners a scenic trail race that follows the Fall River path and finishes at Bond Park’s festival location.