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Summer might be the busy season for Estes Park, but with so much to do (and no crowds), winter is actually the best time to visit the mountain town.
While it doesn’t have the ski resorts of Breckenridge or the upmarket shopping of Aspen, Estes Park is one of the most famous and popular mountain towns in Colorado. It’s the gateway into Rocky Mountain National Park, has an emerging brewery scene, and is home to one very infamous hotel…
So, ditch the crowds and grab your jackets, because there’s tons to do in Estes Park during the winter, all at great off-season pricing. Whether you’re staying for the week, or just passing through on your way to one of Colorado’s many other exciting destinations, here are the best things to do in Estes Park during the winter.
1. Visit Rocky Mountain National Park
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t visit Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, winter is arguably the best time to visit because it offers such a wide variety of things to do. Grab your crampons and head out for a hike, or rent some snowshoes and make your way off-trail, or, if you’re really feeling brave, do some backcountry skiing.
One of the easiest places to enter the park on the Estes Park side is the Bear Lake trailhead. From there, you can hike one of the park’s most popular trails, which leads up to Emerald Lake. Hiking uphill from Bear Lake you’ll cross Nymph Lake and Dream Lake before arriving at Emerald Lake, which is surrounded by mountain peaks and towers over 10,000 ft. above sea level. Need to rent gear or want to hire a guide for your hike? Kirks Flyshop has you covered.
Related Read: 10 Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
2. Hunt for Ghosts at The Stanley Hotel
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the Stanley Hotel has an insanely creepy history. Author Stephen King slept in room 217 in the early 70s and had a horrible nightmare of his son being chased through the hotel’s hallways. This inspired his book, The Shining. But this wasn’t room 217’s first brush with horror.
In the early 1900s, an explosion destroyed the room after a gas leak, severely injuring one of the hotel’s employees. And decades later, while filming Dumb and Dumber, actor Jim Carrey stayed in the same room…but only for a few hours, before walking downstairs, checking out, and refusing to ever step foot in the hotel again.
The Stanley is allegedly home to a dozen ghosts – some friendly, others mischievous. You can take ghost tours throughout the day, but the nighttime ghost tour, which begins between 9 and 10 pm, is the best.
Walk through a dark tunnel built beneath the hotel, explore the theater’s basement, and journey through the abandoned dormitory that used to house the hotel’s staff, all while learning about The Stanley’s resident haunts. It’s scary, but tons of fun.
3. Explore the rest of The Stanley
Not a fan of ghosts? That’s fine, there’s still tons to do in the hotel. Stop by for dinner at their restaurant or for cocktails in their gorgeous 217 Wine Bar. Downstairs there’s a small whiskey tasting room and even a chocolatier.
They also host major concerts and shows in their historic theater throughout the year and recently unveiled a new underground theater where you can see a magic show. But for a truly wild and unique experience, you have to check out 13. Taking place in a small room upstairs, the experience only fits 12 guests per show, and your host will guide you through a theatrical seance complete with illusions, magic, and apparitions.
Related Read: 10 Best Cabin Rentals in Estes Park, Colorado
4. Party with a Frozen Dead Guy
Estes Park’s reputation for the weird, creepy, and macabre has only grown since it acquired the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival. The festival honors (and this is a totally true story) Bredo Morstoel. A man whose corpse is currently being kept at extremely cold temperatures in a small shed in Colorado – a makeshift version of being cryogenically frozen.
Soon, Estes Park plans to build a full-blown cryogenics facility where Morstoel and his family’s bodies will be kept and hopefully, one day, reanimated. In the meantime, each March, a festival honors Colorado’s most unique residents, and partygoers are treated to concerts, coffin racing, hearse decorating, and even a polar plunge. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s gross…but damn, it’s tons of fun!
5. Go to the YMCA
Yep…that’s right. Head on down to the good ol’ YMCA. But trust me, this isn’t just your local community center for geriatric aerobic lessons. The YMCA of the Rockies is a giant, sprawling camp complete with a lodge, cabins, yurts, and tons of activities like archery, astronomy, ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing, hiking, and more.
For families, this is an excellent way to get outdoors and explore the Rocky Mountains. It’s also a great option for anyone who has never been to the mountains before and wants to try out activities like snowshoeing with a guide or group.
6. Explore Downtown
Like all proper small towns, Estes Park has a charming little downtown main street, Elkhorn Ave. Here, you can find fantastic art, like at the Earthwood Artisans and Mountain Blown Glass; sip on some great brews at the Estes Park Distilling Co. or Rocky Mountain SereniTea; or pick up some RMNP-branded clothing at one of the many cool and funky gift shops.
There’s also lots of restaurants along the street, like Mama Rose’s, an Italian restaurant perfect for anyone who needs to carb up before a big hike. If you decide to arrive an hour or so before dinner, you can take a stroll up and down the street and check out some of the area’s local shops.
7. Hop on a Winter Photo Tour
If you’re hoping to visit all the best spots in one day, hop aboard one of WildSide 4×4’s winter photo tours. The jeeps take you in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, stopping at all the best vistas so you can get your Insta-perfect photos of snow-covered pine trees and craggy mountain peaks. The tour also comes with some light hiking as well, where you can walk to frozen waterfalls and icy lakes for even more photo opportunities.
The jeeps are heated and have snacks and drinks available so that everyone can stay comfy and ready for adventure. They’re also all-wheel drive and have studded snow tires, so they’re ready to go everywhere in almost any condition.
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