Must see, must read, must sip list: hikes, bookstores, and coffee shops in Estes Park, CO

Estes Park, CO houses all you could ever want and you might start looking for real estate. Estes (pronounced “Est-is”, not “Est-ees”) has the rockiest mountains, Colorado’s largest collection of whiskey, the strongest coffee, and the friendliest folks (though I’m here in April and not during the summer tourist overload; the friendliness might decrease by July). The main downtown street leads right to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. The following are my favorite hikes, coffee shops, and bookstore (singular, but if there were more, I think this one would still be my favorite).

Inkwell & Brew

I could spend $500 here easily. Everything is beautiful. Prints, stationery, posters, journals made out of wood, it is fantastic. As you browse you can smell the espresso beans being ground. The coffee is delectable and the service is top notch. The baristas made me feel very special until I sat upstairs for a couple hours and heard conversations with other customers. They treat everyone as if they’re special and it kept me coming back.

You might find yourself staying for hours when you hadn’t planned on it and you might become hungry. Worry not! Inkwell & Brew has a variety of wraps, sandwiches, and salads. I had a spinach, brie, dried fig, almond, turkey salad that I would’ve paid $10 for at a restaurant. It was $6 here. So then you can use the $4 you save on the salad to buy stationery. Check them out: http://inkwellbrew.com/

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Mills Lake

Roundtrip: 5.5 miles

Wow. My favorite, but also my first, hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I trudged through both soft and icy snow in order to see a panoply called Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. I saw five people on the trail and three of them turned around because every twentieth step would plunge you hip deep in snow. I had Yak Trax (chains that slide on my boots) and two walking sticks made for petite hikers which were waiting for me at the trailhead and I felt like Mills Lake had to be seen. I read that it’s the prettiest lake in the park. So I trudged on with a big smile and a lot of layers.

The trail was well marked in the beginning and then I think I ended up following one fella’s large tracks as he lost the trail. This is the problem with snow covered trails, one wrong move and you’re toast. Cold toast. It turns out he had no idea where he was going. This made the 5.5 mile hike about 6.5 miles.

I followed the fella’s tracks until they ended in a big circle, looking like he stood there, turned around a few times, and then turned back. I knew I had to be close to the lake, so I was totally bummed about having to turn around. I got back to the river and climbed a rock to get the prettiest view. And on top of the rock, I found the trail again!

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Sprague Lake

There’s a half mile walking trail that follows the lake and it’s nice if you don’t have much time…or if you really want to just go sit at Inkwell & Brew. I cannot blame you for that.

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Kind Coffee

The windows face the river. There are plenty of seats, whether you want to be in the middle of it all or on a couch in the back room. The mugs and tshirts all read “Be Kind.” It’s the kind of place Ellen DeGeneres would adore. The coffee is delicious and you get a free refill if you stay in house, which you will want to do.

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Cruising in Rocky Mountain National Park

This might be my favorite past time here. Check out the views from the park:

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Bear Lake

This beauty is only about 500 feet from the Bear Lake parking lot, therefore it has a Disney World feel instead of a National Park feel. The morning I decided to hike to Bierdstadt, a tour bus pulled up as I was starting. This made me walk much faster. I recommend seeing Bear Lake on your way to Bierstadt Lake.

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Bierdstadt Lake

Roundtrip: 4 miles

The trail from Bear Lake to Bierstadt is two miles. It starts out a bit steep, but levels off nicely and has a lovely view from the trail before going into the woods:

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There is a parking lot that leads right to Bierstadt Lake, and that’s why this route is so great. It’s like taking Frost’s road less traveled and it was covered in more than just frost in April. It’s a bit longer and less crowded in the most beautiful way.

Be sure to walk the trail around the lake once you arrive. The view of the Front Range Mountains will take your breath away.

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Nymph Lake

Roundtrip: 3.6 miles (includes Dream and Emerald Lakes)

Park at the Bear Lake parking lot and hike up to the left and you’ll be able to see Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes.

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Dream Lake

As I rounded the snowy corner and saw the mountains dramatically framing half frozen Dream Lake, I gasped. Then I laughed and said, “Wow” under my breath. Dream Lake is just that, an absolute dream. I found a rock in the sunshine and ate a hardboiled egg while I watched the fish swim near me. I looked up when I heard voices and gasped again when I saw two guys walking across the half frozen lake. I’m sure on their side, it was very frozen, but like I said, I was just watching fish swim on my side. I was having such a peaceful lunch until I kept thinking I was going to have to go all It’s a Wonderful Life on them and I would never hear from out of my left ear again.

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The Rock Inn

The Rock Inn has a cabin and lodgelike feel with the fire roaring and live music playing. I believe it stops during the summer, but on Thursday nights currently (April), there is a bluegrass jam session and everyone is welcome. They sounded great and they were having a wonderful time together. I watched it all as I sipped on my two for one red wines (4-6pm is happy hour and they have local beer on tap) and devoured a white pizza. Highly recommended. I will think about The Rock Inn when I think about Estes.

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Gem Lake

Roundtrip: 3.2 miles

This trail starting at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead is not boring. For one, the view of the mountains is spectacular for most of the walk. Second, there are little chipmunks all over scattering about and being cute, cute, cute. Thirdly, the trail is not boring because there are steep steps and breaks might be necessary; they were for me. Gem Lake is small compared to the others, but it’s peaceful.

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Chapel on the Rock

Just outside of Estes Park in Allenspark, the Chapel on the Rock is worth the fifteen minute drive on highway 7 (also the Peak to Peak Highway that will take you to Brainard Lake to see the Indian Peaks).

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Coffee on the Rocks

As I passed the snowy patio by the river on the way to the front door, I realized I was already overly caffeinated and thought I should come back later. But I saw the sign of specials full of things like “peanut butter lattes” and “sticky candy lattes” and two people were being welcomed by sweet elderly locals and I wanted to stay to take it all in.

“I just want to personally welcome you to Estes. And if you’re ever here at 8:30 in the mornings, we’ll be sure to see you!”

As the local couple left, the barista said, “And that’s why I like working here.”

I went to the back room and sat by the window next to two elderly gentlemen in plaid shirts and faded jeans. They smiled at me and I felt like I belonged.

Will Coffee on the Rocks pass Kind or Inkwell & Brew on my Estes favorite list? Neh. Those two are solidly tied at the top. But Coffee on the Rocks seems to fill a niche as well. It is not downtown, but only about a mile away.

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Summit Coffee Drive Thru

I know you’re excited about hearing my review of the chicken fried latte, but I couldn’t do it. A local told me to not waste my money and when I looked up reviews, others seem to agree. Now you know.

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MacDonald Book Shop

Old MacDonald has more than just a farm. And it’s lovely. It’s not large but the selection somehow doesn’t even suffer from this. The people are kind and the place is charming. Take a seat and start a book.

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The Stanley Hotel

Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining while staying with this family at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Because of this, it is creepy. You can buy stickers, patches, plaques, sweatshirts to show everyone you love The Shining and you might lose a couple friends. The Stanley Hotel sits on Wonderview Avenue and it has just that. Since I’m a budget traveler (nice way to say “poor”), I did not eat or drink here, but I sat by the fire and planned my next hike. The whiskey at the Cascades Whiskey Bar is supposed to be divine.

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Bridal Veil Falls

Roundtrip: 6.1 miles

The trail to Bridal Veil Falls starts at the Cow Creek Trailhead. The walk is very easy until the last quarter mile or so, when it becomes steep and you have to climb a few rocks. There were many signs of wildlife here: bear, deer, and elk scat. I’d bring trekking poles in order to look large if you see an animal. And I learned rattlesnakes on the trail hear the vibration of the poles and slither off.

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Enjoy Estes Park! I have no doubt that you will.

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2 thoughts on “Must see, must read, must sip list: hikes, bookstores, and coffee shops in Estes Park, CO”

  1. I love Estes Park. Used to live up in Fort Collins and we would take the kids down there for the weekend. Have some really fond memories of Estes Park. Great post and photos!!!!!

  2. We leave for CO next week and I read this again to get me pumped for it, boy am I ever! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your favorite stops along the way. I can’t wait to enjoy them!

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