MINI TOUR: Loop drives from Estes Park

By Jeff Miller

Estes Park
Courtesy of Estes Park CVB

There’s no getting around it: This month’s Mini Tour is a bit unusual. Part of the trip is not on any state road map. A “Picasso moose” leads the way into elk country. And you end where you started, no matter which of six ways you go.

Home base for such whimsy is Estes Park—famous tourist town. Since the 1870s it’s been welcoming travelers from around the world, and has become the perfect host. The visitor center has useful information, a friendly staff and clean toilets; Rocky Mountain National Park is nearby; the historic Stanley Hotel welcomes non-guests to wander around; and Main Street’s gift shops are easily outnumbered by candy, ice cream and pastry shops. Tourist heaven.

Pat Dolan, a Colorado native, puts the town’s friendliness in a slightly different way: "Estes Park is kind enough to supply sidewalk seating on Main Street, where numerous husbands sit, head in hands, waiting for their wives to get done shopping."

To those bench-warming spouses, this Mini Tour is dedicated. It’s comprised of three loop drives out of Estes Park, each less than 50 miles, that are more road trip than shopping excursion. In fact, there are only a few small shopping stops along the routes and they’re easily tolerated by even the most impatient loved one.

Finding the three loops might be the most difficult part of the journey. A portion of one loop is not shown on Colorado road maps. All three complete drive routes are shown on page 29 of the Estes Park visitor guide map and on the visitor center’s handout map. If you stare long enough, the routes on the map form two antlers and the bulbous nose of a surreal, Picasso-styled moose, with Estes Park as the critter’s tiny head.

Left Antler: US 34 Bypass & US 36

This is the shortest of the three loops and the one that’s not completely shown on the state map. It is, however, the only one that takes you into Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). As you head out of Estes on US 34 Bypass (aka Wonderview Ave., then Fall River Rd.), you’ll pass the turnoff to the Stanley Hotel, which sits majestically in white against the green and blue mountain backdrop. Further up the road are a handful of rustic rental cabins that hug the banks of the creek-sized Fall River.

Not far from town is RMNP’s Fall River visitor center. Here, kids from kindergarten through eighth grade can participate in the free, self-paced junior ranger program that includes time with a ranger and a book with age-appropriate activities and questions. Upon completion, each child is sworn in and receives a junior ranger badge. Meanwhile, parents can study various exhibits, grab a snack at the small restaurant or explore the surprisingly good gift shop.

For those with more outdoor pursuits in mind, Joe Philips—who works at the center as a member of the Rocky Mountain Nature Association—knows plenty of RMNP hiking options. When someone said they were recuperating from cancer treatments and needed an easy hike, Joe leaned forward and said, “I have the perfect place. It’s a secret spot where you’ll see the remnants of the first 1930s CCC (Civil Conservation Corps) camp built west of the Mississippi—and no one else.”

He was right. On a Sunday afternoon in early August, when the park was overflowing with visitors, Joe’s suggested spot was blissfully devoid of hikers. The gently sloping trail led past a couple of CCC structures and then into a broad alpine meadow ringed by hills. In the distance, rugged mountain peaks bullied passing clouds into giving up some rain. The only sounds were of birds singing, the summer breeze wafting through the meadow grasses, and the stress draining from my body.

Moving on, the loop continues a few miles on US 34 Bypass before meeting up with the continuation of US 34 (which goes over Trail Ridge Road) and the end of US 36 that takes you back to Estes Park. While this little loop drive doesn’t go far into the park, visitors can still see a surprising amount of wildlife from the side of the road, including deer, elk and the occasional bighorn sheep. Coming back into town, there are enough playlands, fun parks and miniature golf places to satisfy the most discerning child.

Right Antler: Devil’s Gulch Road/CR 43 & US 34

The scenic Riverwalk in Estes Park.
© Jeff Miller.

This second loop is probably the least known of the three. Starting north from Estes Park on MacGregor Ave., the road quickly turns into Devil’s Gulch Road and then County Road 43. Not far out of town is a left turnoff to the aptly named Lumpy Ridge Trail—the fascinating rock formations are like creatures from a 1950s sci-fi B movie. For a closer look, take either the 1.7 mile trail to Gem Lake or the 0.6 mile Twin Owls Black Canyon trail. Both lead into RMNP and are easy hikes.

Back on the loop, the road glides along the northern side of a giant alpine valley. Approaching the end of the valley, the road and scenery take a dramatic turn with a series of tight switchbacks. In short order, drivers reach the floor of a narrow canyon with steep forested hills.

Tucked away in the folds of these mountains is the tiny town of Glen Haven. With rustic Post Office, B&B, town hall, general store and café, it’s not just a spot in the road, it’s a stop. Check out Leah’s Artisan & Coffee/Tea Shop—the coffee is good and the offerings from area artists are even better. Moving along, the road crisscrosses the north fork of the Big Thompson River in a fancy two-step as they both head toward the fly-speck town of Drake. Three picturesque picnic areas along the way are cool and shady during the hottest summer days.

At Drake, the road dead-ends at US 34. Turn right and head back toward Estes only 10 miles away to complete this loop. This portion of road boasts cozy-cute split-rail cabin resorts with names like Rustic River Cabins, Loveland Heights Cabins and Dripping Springs B&B. Looking straight out of the ’50s or ’60s, these places have replaced dated advertising such as “Free phone in every room” with the hip hype of “Free WiFi.”

The only thing more prevalent than rustic cabins on this stretch of road are fishermen, struggling with the quick current and with wily trout. For lucky drivers there can be roadside sightings of elk or bighorn sheep.

Bulbous Nose: SR 7 & US 36

This route, the best known of the loops, includes the two most popular ways of reaching Estes Park from the Front Range—SR 7 from Denver and Central City, and US 36 from Boulder. Leaving Estes on SR 7, the road climbs out of the mountain-rimmed valley and crests right at charming Lilly Lake, then proves that its other name—the Peak to Peak Highway—is no misnomer. On the right are panoramic views of nearby Longs Peak (14,259 feet) and Mt. Meeker (13,911), while in the distance can be seen Chiefs Head Peak, McHenry’s Peak, Hallett Peak and Notchtop Mountain. On the left are the close-knit Twin Sisters Peaks.

Just before the road crosses the North St. Vrain River, there’s a right turnoff for RMNP’s Wild Basin Entrance and two trails that lead to either Thunder Lake or Bluebird Lake. It’s about 1.7 miles to the first water fall on Thunder Lake Trail, then a mile further to even more beautiful falls. While there is one small section of trail that’s steep, the rest is relatively moderate.

A few miles further on is the small SR 7 business loop that leads to Allenspark. Set among a massive grove of aspens, Allenspark is the epitome of a charming mountain village, anchored by the postcard-perfect Allenspark Lodge. There’s not a lot to do here, but it’s a good stop for a coffee break and to listen to the aspens talking among themselves.

The Peak to Peak Highway continues on SR 72 but, for this loop, we’ll stay with SR 7 as it turns east and heads toward Lyons. Running fast along the South St. Vrain River, the road drops down between massive rock walls and delicate rock spires as the river runs bubbling counterpoint to the stony silence of the canyon.

The artist community of Lyons is a big surprise. The town’s main street is broken into two one-way streets. Lining the east-to-west street are sandstone buildings from the 1800s that speak of the quarrying that was a staple for the town. Today, numerous artisan shops sport sandstone items, while the town park has magnificent sandstone monoliths.

Well worth visiting are Nicholas Angelo’s Fine Art and Left-hand Trading Antiques, both of which will entertain even the most jaded non-shopper. Try Andrea’s Homestead Café for a break. The Redstone Museum is housed in the 1881 schoolhouse and has a good collection of local artifacts. Lyons is also where SR 7 meets US 36. Turning west onto US 36, this loop leads back to Estes Park. From tight canyons and the fast-moving Vrain River, the road breaks into broad meadows ringed with soft green hillsides and distant mountain peaks. Finally it drops into the valley that’s home to Estes Park, meandering alongside the stunning blue waters of Lake Estes before arriving back into the bustling tourist town.

It’s here that the three loops have started, and it’s here where the journeys all end. While the starting and ending points might be the same, it’s the distances between those points that have made each loop memorable.

Now it’s time for some serious shopping … or maybe a double fudge, triple-scoop, banana nut sundae drizzled with chocolate. Ahhhhh, now that’s tourist heaven.

Jeff Miller is a Denver-based freelance writer and past editor of EnCompass.

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