ESTES PARK - It may be the gateway into Rocky Mountain National Park, but Estes Park is just as worthy of a trip as one of our nation's most beautiful parks.
The mountain village, which sits about an hour and a half from Denver, has always found its identity and success in tourism, which is evident by the many souvenir and ice cream shops along its main streets, perfect for a leisurely stroll on a day of family vacation.
Still, its residents have endured floods and fire to make it a mountain strong community worth visiting.
Much of the town and its infrastructure was shaped by the man behind the iconic Stanley Hotel.
Join us Friday on Instagram @9newsdenver to see a photo tour of the town!
Estes Park: A Mountain Town’s History
Estes Park’s history dates back centuries, but the town celebrates its Centennial this week.
Griff Evans established a dude ranch in the area we know today as Estes Park in the 1860s. Soon, more people flocked to the breathtaking village, reveling in the mountain panoramas often compared to those of Switzerland.
Estes Park was named for early residents Joel and Patsy Estes by William Byers, the founder of the Rocky Mountain News.
Byers had failed to climb Long’s Peak on an 1864 expedition, and stayed with the Estes family in town. He predicted “eventually this park will become a favorite pleasure resort.” Park, in the context of mountains, means “upland valley.”
The Estes family departed the area in 1866, and in the next decade, thanks to the Homestead Act, many more pioneer families arrived.
While these newcomers tried their hand at ranching and farming, they quickly learned more profits could be made taking care of the summer visitors who arrived to bask in the town as a mountain retreat.
The town proper was platted from the area of Elkhorn and Moraine avenues by Abner Sprague in 1905.
Within a decade most lots had been sold, and the town as we know it today was established. Thanks to F.O. Stanley (more on him later), the town’s electricity, water and sewage systems were established.
Decisions made by the townsfolk always centered around bringing in more visitors. They built a new fish hatchery on Fall River, reintroduced elk populations, and built roads and trails.
Around 1907, residents rallied around local naturalist and hotel owner Enos A. Mills in a collaborative effort to create a new national park. Eight years later, Rocky Mountain National Park was born.
Two years later, in April 1917, came the formal incorporation of the Town of Estes Park.
Fall River Road, over the Continental Divide, was completed in 1920.
A decade later, Trail Ridge Road followed.
Decades later, in 1944, construction finished up on the Alva Adams tunnel, keystone of the Colorado-Big Thompson Trans-mountain Irrigation Project, bringing water from Grand Lake under Rocky Mountain National Park to irrigate farms along the Front Range.
Through the years, the Estes Park community has survived devastating floods: first, the Big Thompson Flood of 1976, the Lawn Lake Flood of 1982, and most recently the “Hundred Year” flood of 2013, which nearly devastated all tourism into the town when both main entry roads were washed away.
Today, you’ll see the phrase, “Mountain Strong” at cafes, restaurants, coffee shops and just about anywhere the locals are. It’s a symbol of the community’s resilience and ability to band together in times of crisis and need.
The Stanley Hotel: Estes Park’s Beginnings as a Resort Town
As the longtime gateway city to the Rocky Mountain National Park and internationally renowned for its Stanley Hotel, it was only a few short years ago that Estes Park was ravaged by floods.
The 2013 flooding caused millions in damage, including shutting down the city’s two main highways (U.S. 36 and U.S. 34), which city officials at the time said would likely shut down tourism in the town for years.
The town has since bounced back in a big way. In fact, TripAdvisor in late 2015 said it was a top 10 U.S. destination on the rise (and is it ever).
Not only does it still serve as a main entry point to the 4th most-visited national park in the nation, but it also has a major draw on its own: The Stanley Hotel.
Thrillist last October called the hotel Colorado's "most iconic," largely because of the hotel's biggest claim to fame: its 1974 visit by novelist Stephen King inspired the book "The Shining." Tourists from all over the world come to visit the hotel for that, plus rumors that it's haunted.
The Stanley Hotel, now a 160-room hotel, was built in 1909 by Freelan Oscar Stanley, of Stanley Steamer, as a place where he could recuperate from tuberculosis.
The Stanley Hotel's roots as a place mean for health and wellness are a new focus for the hotel's current owner, the Grand Heritage Hotel Group. The group in April 2014 announced plans to build a $30 million wellness center owned and operated in partnership with the Estes Park Medical Center.
The hotel stays busy on other areas as well. Last June, for example, it formed a first-of-its kind partnership with sporting goods retailer REI to launch an outdoor school and activity center catering to people looking for adventure tourism. The partnership makes sense considering the numerous outdoor adventure companies who call Estes Park home-base, such as Colorado Cliff Camping, named one of the best "extreme camping" sites in the nation.
The hotel is also a big part of the Go NoCo tourism project, a four-tiered project that includes the creation of a horror film center at The Stanley Hotel that would serve as a genre archive, an educational center and a tourist attraction.
Beyond The Stanley Hotel: A Town Full of Mountain Charm
Outside of the hotel, Estes Park has that small-town mountain charm all its own — with plenty to offer in the way of shopping, dining and more.
Baba's Burgers (861 Moraine Ave.), for example, is a highly-recommended, tourist-friendly spot to grab a bite, as is Ed's Cantina & Grill, a vibrant, sustainable café dishing up traditional Mexican food.
And for classic comfort food in a low-key setting, head to Big Horn Restaurant (401 Elkhorn Ave.), which serves up barbecue and has a breakfast menu.
Like any good mountain town, Estes Park's The Taffy Shop (121 Elkhorn Ave.) makes its own taffy in-house (and we hear it's pretty darn good). If this taffy shop doesn’t suit your fancy, the main strip of Estes has about fifteen more taffy, sweet, and ice cream shops to satisfy any sized sweet tooth.
Art enthusiasts can see local art on display at the Art Center of Estes Park or create their own with guided classes at the school located along Big Thompson Avenue.
Beer lovers also have a few options. Rock Cut and Lumpy Ridge brewing companies are located right up the street from each other, giving visitors a chance to try out a wide range of mountain brews.
Estes Park has no shortage of shopping either. Brownfield's Souvenirs & Outdoor Gear (350 Elkhorn Ave.) sells plenty of mementos to remember a trip, and Mac Donald Book Shop is a quaint place to grab a book and curl up in a comfortable chair.
Coffee and tea fans have many options in Estes Park to enjoy a latte or an oolong. Moon Kats Tea (205 Park Lane) offers tea and light fare in a cat-themed tea room, Inkwell and Brew (150 E. Elkhorn Ave.) sits along the riverwalk and has fresh coffee and a neat gift shop inside as well. Kind Coffee is another highly rated local spot for java (470 E. Elkhorn Ave.)
A must-visit on your way into Estes Park is the Colorado Cherry Company, located on Highway 34 a few miles before town. The fourth generation, locally-owned pie and sweet shop is famous for their famous cherry jams, jellies and juices. With a location in Lyons and Loveland, the shop suffered during the flooding in 2013, but has remained open to the delight of locals and tourists alike.
If shopping isn’t your cup of tea, Estes Park is the gateway not only to Rocky Mountain National Park, but offers an Aerial Tramway ride, a charming Riverwalk along the Big Thompson, which winds behind Moraine Avenue, miniature golf courses and even a giant slide.
For adventurous families, there are Jeep tours, rafting and kayaking along the Poudre River, ATV rentals, guided fishing trips and more, all based out of the town.
For people looking to live in Estes Park, it's a bit on the pricey side. The median price for a home is $448,750, up 28 percent from a year prior, according to real estate website Trulia.com. The median rent for all-size properties is $2,500, although some two-bedrooms go for as low as $1,400.
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