The Perfect Fall Getaway – Estes Park

Crisp mountain air, glorious fall colors in bursts of vibrant orange and yellows, and the haunting bugling of the bull elk. It’s not a well-kept secret, but for many,
fall is the best time of year to visit Estes Park.

The grandparents are available to watch the kids so my wife and I decide to escape to Estes Park for a three-night getaway. We chose the Misty Mountain Lodge for its rustic charm and close proximity to downtown Estes Park. Like almost every fall weekend, there’s a festival going on this weekend in Bond Park.

Friday Afternoon. I was unpacking my suitcase at Misty Mountain when my wife looked out the window and cried, “Hey, look at this!” Outside we saw a bull elk with massive antlers bedded down on the front lawn. I take pictures until my wife asks, “Do you really need 50 photos of one elk?”

At a safe distance, we edge around the resting bull elk and search for an adult beverage. We’re in luck because the microbrewery rage has caught on in Estes Park.

Rock Cut Brewing in Estes Park is pictured.
Rock Cut Brewing Company near the Big Slide is one three craft breweries now in Estes Park.

We walk down Riverside Drive to one of three brewpubs in town, Rock Cut Brewing Company. We love IPAs but we also wanted to sample the other beers on tap. The English Porter, Smokey Brunette, and IPA were all excellent. One of the owners, Tracy Goodemote, even gives us a tour of the actual brewery. I was happy to see that by the time we walked back up Riverside Drive to Misty Mountain Lodge, our bull elk friend had moved on to greener pastures.

After a well-deserved short nap, we head up Riverside Drive to catch the Riverwalk for a short stroll to Poppy’s Pizza and Grill for pizza. We eat outdoors on this warm fall evening and listen to the gentle sounds of the Big Thompson River rolling by.

­When we return to Misty Mountain Lodge there is a bonfire and the friendly lodge owners, Peter and Ellen Reinertsen, are making s’mores for everyone. “Want one?” We lick the chocolate off our fingers and my wife says she hasn’t had one since she worked at the YMCA of the Rockies in the late 1970s. What a treat!

Saturday. We hop out of bed early and look outside. No elk on the front lawn. What to do for breakfast? I don’t want to miss the morning light so we stop at the Donut Haus on the way to the Rocky Mountain National Park. The line snakes out the door but it moves quickly. I munch on my bear claw as we drive along Bear Lake Road and notice a clot of cars along the road.

A bull elk is pictured rounding up his harem.
The fall rut runs from late August through early October. Bull elk take harems and protect the females from other bull elk. It’s quite the show to watch.

Off in Moraine Park, a bull elk is aggressively tending his harem. It is the fall rut. I use my telephoto lens to zero in on the bull elk, his breath forming clouds in the brisk morning air. I keep snapping photos, even as my wife drags me back into the car. As we continue up Bear Lake Road, the brilliant yellow and orange aspen are alive in the morning light. The leaves vibrate like tiny cymbals in the breeze.

We return to Estes Park and notice white tents in Bond Park. Who is that singing “Rocky Mountain High?” Sounds like John Denver. We freshen up and then walk over to the Autumn Gold Festival in Bond Park. The signs say that it’s a Sunrise Rotary fundraiser so we buy bratwursts smothered in onions and sauerkraut, grab a beer, and eat our lunch under a tent as we listen to Cowboy Brad Fitch play some John Denver favorites.

A bratwurst and cold beer is pictured.
Served up at the September 24/25 Autumn Gold Festival – Beer, Brats, and Bands.

We hang out for a few hours and then amble downtown and browse through the jewelry stores, galleries, and Macdonald Book Shop, which has been in business at the same location since 1928. My wife, Lori, buys an Estes Park sweatshirt to keep warm against the chilly mountain evenings. I have a sweet tooth, so we buy a box of salt-water taffy at The Taffy Shop under the neon sign. Owner Mark Igel says the business is going strong after 81 years.

That evening we have a taste for Mexican food so we walk a little further along the Riverwalk to Ed’s Cantina, which has the biggest and best margaritas in Estes Park. I order the “14’er” burrito and my wife goes with the fish tacos. It’s dark when we return to our room. Is that our elk in the shadows?  We relax in the hot tub before going to bed.

Sunday. Up early I look out the window. There’s our bull elk friend snoozing on the front lawn. We stroll down the Riverwalk to Kind Coffee for a latte and breakfast burrito and enjoy breakfast along the Big Thompson River. We can see our breath but my wife is cozy in her new sweatshirt. I’ll have to get one, too. On the hillside across the river a deer walks past and disappears into the underbrush. Afterwards, we buy a pound of Alpenglow Espresso, an organic, fair trade coffee. Now we can look forward to getting up in the morning with a great cup of coffee.

Because we plan to spend the morning in Rocky Mountain National Park, we stop at Scratch Deli and Bakery on the way to pick up sandwiches for a picnic. These sandwiches are huge and the bread is made from scratch. I order a grilled pastrami on rye and Lori chooses the turkey bacon avocado sandwich.

We want to experience Trail Ridge Road one more time before the snows close it for the winter. The road was completed in 1932 and it is the highest, continuous paved road in the United States. We pause at Many Parks Curve for a photo of Longs Peak with fresh snow on the summit. Once above treeline, the tundra is a rich tapestry of orange, yellow and gold against a crystal clear deep blue sky.

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is pictured.
View from Trail Ridge Road. By late September, snow begins to accumulate on the the Trail Ridge Road tundra and surrounding peaks. Trail Ridge Road, typically, closes for the season sometime in October.

Gorgeous! We pull into the parking lot at the Trail Ridge Store and put on our jackets against the brisk breeze. Lori wants to buy Christmas presents for family and I need a sweatshirt. Oh boy, I need a sweatshirt.

What is it about the clean, crisp mountain air that makes us so hungry? On the way down we stop at the new picnic area at Hidden Valley, find a table next to a mountain stream and unwrap our sandwiches. The ski area closed in 1991 and the Park has turned it into beautiful picnic area with shelters and gentle walking paths into the woods. The sandwiches are thick, tasty and huge. The chipmunks gather for handouts but nothing for you! It is unhealthy for wildlife to depend on handouts.

As we pull into our parking space at Misty Mountain Lodge, we hear  “Desperado” by the Eagles coming from Bond Park. We quickly drop the fruits of our shopping in our room and head over to the park in the middle of downtown Estes. It’s the second day of the Autumn Gold Festival. We grab a beer and brat and listen to the band Long Run play our Eagles favorites. Memories of our first years in Colorado flood back. We sing along with everyone else. The ultimate time machine of music transports my wife and I back to another place and time.

Monday: For our trip back home to Denver, we have a scenic route in mind. We say goodbye to Peter and Ellen at Misty Mountain and head south out of Estes Park along the Peak-to-Peak Highway, aka Highway 7. We stop for breakfast in Allenspark at the Meadow Mountain Café. Their homemade bread makes every breakfast dish fantastic. The Meadow Mountain now takes credit cards.

Rock Cut Brewing Company near the Big Slide is one three craft breweries now in Estes Park.
The fall colors along the Peak-to-Peak highway between Estes Park and Nederland are stunning.

We continue south to pick up Highway 72. There are scenic overlooks between Estes Park and Nederland that are just spectacular in the fall. From Nederland, we head East on 119 to Boulder and then back home to Denver.

It was an outstanding long weekend in Estes Park, one we will cherish for years to come. Now I just have to sort through these 2,000 digital photos.


Note: Our Colorado couple visits Estes Park the weekend of September 24/25 of 2016, the weekend of the Autumn Gold Festival in Bond Park in downtown Estes Park. Autumn Gold information can be found on this Facebook page:

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