For reasons we Estes Park residents are familiar with, our community serves as a destination – sometimes the destination of a lifetime – for people from the rest of Colorado, the nation, and even the world. The things we take for granted are obstacles for many people.
For example, during a Zoom chat with family members across the country a while ago, the topic of backyard wildlife came up. Birds, squirrels, rabbits, even a badger have been mentioned by others. When it was my turn, I told them about the good-sized herd of elk, including a few still spotted calves, that had wandered into the yard that morning and drank our dry birdbath. There was a brief silence before someone changed the subject.
It’s easy to forget, living here, that the rest of Colorado is right on our doorstep, that Estes Park can serve as a jumping off point to visit the many other places in our highest states that offer their own spectacular attractions. . There are, of course, other such starting points. The Denver metro area, for example, is more centralized and sits at a crossroads of major freeways leading in all directions. And what better place to be motivated to get away from it all than Denver? (Oops. Low blow. Sorry.)
But Estes Park does pretty well, especially when Trail Ridge Road is open. What better landscape to start or end a road trip than Kawuneeche Valley and Rock Cut? As a starting point for road trips, Estes Park therefore works – and not least because it is also a wonderful destination, especially for coming home.
In fact, there are a few day trips worth highlighting that have their destination at their origin, Estes Park. Both use TRR so these are trips for summer or early fall. Each is a loop around much of the Front Range, one south, one north. And each works clockwise or counterclockwise. Here they’re both discussed with the TRR last, on the way home, to help plan things out so you don’t have to get one of those timed entry permits – this system, for the TRR portion of the park, ends mid-afternoon. If need be, you can hang out in downtown Grand Lake.
The South Loop (approximately 190 miles) uses the Peak-to-Peak Highway to Black Hawk; city streets through Central City to Central City Parkway, then to I-70; an 11-mile stretch of this busy highway to the US-40 exit, then over Berthoud Pass to Granby; and finally US-34 from Granby on TRR to Estes Park.
The North Loop (about 50 more miles) uses US-34 into Big Thompson Canyon (or, alternatively, County Road 43 through Glen Haven to Drake); County Road 27 (Buckhorn Road) then Stove Prairie Road to Colorado State Road 14 in Poudre Canyon; west on Cameron Pass to Walden then south on CO-125 over Willow Creek Pass to US-40; southeast to Granby, then back to Estes Park again on US-34.
Either makes a nice day trip, and there are plenty of places to stop for a picnic. All the roads mentioned here are paved and the more obscure sections can be mapped easily on Google Maps. For example, “Drake, CO to Rustic, CO” typed into the search box shows the county roads between Big Thompson and Poudre canyons, and “Black Hawk to Idaho Springs” shows, zoomed in, the route through Central City between the Peak-to-Peak and the boardwalk.
It should be noted that the North Loop could be dubbed the ‘Wildfire Tour’ as it takes you through areas burned by the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires in 2020 and the High Park fire in 2012. The recovery from the damage of 2012 is, although slow, an optimistic sign of recovery to be expected from more recent conflagrations. Be sure to check with the CDOT website (cotrip.org) for road works or closures before you go – mudslides do happen, after all.
Despite the burnt areas, a picnic on the North Loop is both possible and even recommended, at State Forest State Park on the west side of Cameron Pass southeast of Walden.
The south loop offers more restaurants. Winter Park offers timely lunch choices as long as you don’t get distracted by Black Hawk’s casinos.
It could make for a long and expensive day. It’s about the landscape, not the roll of the dice.
Howard Hanson’s “Road Tripping” offers biweekly observations on Colorado and Southwestern exploration. Feedback to [email protected] is welcome.