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Dec 01, 2006
Back to Nature in Estes Park, Colo., Off Season in the Shadow of the Rockies - The New York Times

THE large bull elk was calmly walking down the main street of Estes Park, Colo., turning his head this way and that, his five-foot antlers waving in the night air. A lone car approached him and slowed to a crawl, but the elk just kept to his window-shopping pace until he reached his goal: a dozen elk cows huddled like truants in front of the closed Dairy Queen. Two smaller bulls stood across the sidewalk and watched in apparent jealousy as the larger bull waded among the cows.

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The New York Times

 

Come here in the summer, and this stretch of street will be snarled in traffic heading to Rocky Mountain National Park, where the parking becomes so tight that many visitors take shuttle buses to go to the trailheads. But beginning in late fall and continuing through the winter, the tourist herds disappear and are replaced by elk, deer, bighorn sheep and other wildlife that have wandered off their summer grazing fields in the mountains. Now that the Rockies are clad in snow, Estes Park is a family haven for sledding, snowshoeing, skating, hiking and less strenuous activities.

Standing in the snow-patched but still lush meadows of Moraine Park and staring at the rocky crags of the Continental Divide that loom above the dense groves of aspens and pines, one can easily see why the first homesteaders in Estes Park compared the area with Switzerland. The valley even has its version of the Matterhorn: Longs Peak, whose notched 14,255-foot summit lingers above its Rocky brethren with a seductiveness that begs to be scaled. Some 15,000 climbers attempt it every year.

Stephen King was attuned to Estes Park’s isolated setting when he wrote and loosely set “The Shining” in the 97-year-old Stanley Hotel, a stunning Georgian-revivalist building that, even in winter, shimmers over the town in its white-painted elegance. While that story ended up with Dad chasing Mom and Son around with an ax, the wildest thing that happened to our family was a black bear racing alongside our car.

Skiing, Skating and Climbing

The main reason to come to Estes Park, no matter what the season, is to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Estes Park abounds with great climbing routes for every skill level. The house-size cliffs above Marys Lake are especially popular with families. Estes Park Mountain Shop (2050 Big Thompson Avenue, 970-586-6548; www.estesparkmountainshop.com) arranges climbing trips there ($49 a person, half-day, includes gear). With his infinitely patient guide holding the rope, my 4-year-old scrambled up the side of a 30-foot sheer granite face with considerably less fear than that of his parents watching below. The cliffs are warmed by the winter sun, but if it turns too chilly, the Mountain Shop also has indoor climbing walls.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a hiker’s shrine. You can rent snowshoes from the Y.M.C.A. or the row of sports shops along Elkhorn Avenue. Many of the trails are easy loops, so backtracking is not necessary. The park has several fantastic mountain lake trails that are easily accessible from parking lots. The trail around Bear Lake, which can be completed by people with disabilities, is always popular because it provides a great view of the mountains and can take as little as a half-hour. Bear Lake is very shallow and freezes quickly; it’s great fun to glide on.

Trail Ridge Road, America’s highest paved continuous public road, goes right through the spine of Rocky Mountain National Park. Even when snow closes the road a few miles beyond the park headquarters, it still offers stunning views.

A favorite place for sledding is in Hidden Valley, a former ski area a mile before the winter barricade on Trail Ridge Road. There’s even a warming hut.

Eldora is an intimate family-style ski resort in the town of Nederland, 45 miles southwest of Estes Park. At 680 acres, it’s so small that no one will become lost but big enough for every level of skiing. Even though the 1,600 vertical feet of runs are quite respectable, Eldora (303-440-8700, www.eldora.com) is no Vail. I could drive right up to the main lodge area and get everyone outfitted with full ski gear and tickets within 15 minutes without going broke. Day lift tickets are $43; ages 6 to 15, $19.

There are several places to skate in Estes Park, including a rink in town. Another favorite is Beaver Pond in front of the Aspen Lodge Ranch Resort (800-332-6867) on Highway 7, where you can rent skates. The pond is so close to the national park’s tallest mountains that Longs Peak is practically a skating partner.

Shopping and Culture

Bad weather doesn’t veto great outings.

The Estes Park Museum (200 Fourth Street, 970-586-6256; www.estesnet.com/museum) offers local history and activities for children, including American Indian storytelling and crafts.

Take Highway 7 to Eagle Plume’s, an extraordinary Indian arts and crafts shop (9853 Highway 7, Allenspark; 303-747-2861; www.eagleplume.com). This picturesque two-story cabin, built in 1917, also serves as a museum for the late Charles Eagle Plume’s collection of Indian art. His protégée, Ann Strange Owl-Raben, has taken over the store and provides kids with Native American lore and hands out feathers.

What must be one of the most unusual stores in the world is Estes Ark, designed to resemble Noah’s Ark; it seems to teeter on a knoll overlooking Lake Estes on the east side of town. The more than 10,000 animals within its two-story galley are stuffed. And for those less interested in bears, there is a 100-foot slot-car track (521 Lone Pine Drive, 970-586-6483; www.estesark.com).

Downtime

Intimate plazas along Estes Park’s river walk, which follows the Big Thompson River, allow for unwinding with delicacies from many cafes. Kind Coffee (470 East Elkhorn Avenue, 970-586-5206) has organic coffee starting at $1; smoothies starting at $3; and baked goods, including organic cinnamon rolls for $3.50
   
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