There is that sense of smallness you feel as you ascend and twist along Highway 36 toward Estes Park. This eastern gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park is close to the Front Range, but can feel worlds away. There’s something about those granite cliff faces, the iconic Stanley Hotel atop its hill, the lake, the massive peaks of the Continental Divide, plus the crisp mountain air itself, that will always draw me here, even if only for a one-night getaway with my family.
There are plenty of options for quick escapes from metro Denver that require little planning –Idaho Springs, Central City, Boulder/Nederland, points south — but Estes is the longtime option that always pleases. Sometimes, entering town, you spot a bald eagle atop a utility pole or a local elk herd grazing next to Lake Estes. On a recent visit with two of my daughters we rounded the east side of the lake and turned into Mountain Village at Lake Estes.
I opened our cabin with a door code we’d been sent (touchless check-in for the win) and entered the modern two-story, decked out for the holidays. Think “ski condo meets alpine chalet” with a soaring Christmas tree in the living room. With that attention to detail, you can rest assured it decorated appropriately for any season. The 1,577 square feet included an upper-level loft, two master bedroom suites, 2 1/2 bathrooms, and an east-facing view of the lake and what I thought would be a spectacular sunrise.
We had a number of outdoor activities from which to choose on our late-fall visit — hiking, climbing, fishing and ATV rentals, to name a few (in winter, add cross country skiing and snowshoeing to that list). But on this day, our ambition led us no further than downtown Estes Park to the river walk, the girls climbing whatever statues or trees crossed their paths. We found coffee and hot drinks, then browsed Cliffhanger Used Books and enjoyed the pre-holiday buzz of the main drag.
Back at the cabin, we prepared for perhaps the property’s best amenity: immediate access (right across the parking lot) to the on-site Italian restaurant, Dunraven at the Estes Park Resort. I’d last visited the venerable Dunraven Inn nearly a decade ago, at the previous location in a cozy stone building on Colorado 66. Known for some of Colorado’s best comfort pastas and, believe it or not, seafood, the Dunraven has been around for more than 40 years and is also famous for the many signed, decorated dollar bills stuck to the walls and ceiling by years of customers. The owners donated a large chunk of this “wallpaper” to local charities when they moved the restaurant last year.
This version of the Dunraven offers an expansive ceiling above the dining space and wraparound porch/pier with outdoor, lakefront tables when the weather allows. I went for the full surf and turf — tender lobster tail and Lord Dunraven top sirloin — followed by a belly-warming espresso martini (Van Gogh espresso vodka, Kahlua and coffee).
After, we walked back to the room for some Jacuzzi, fireplace and Jenga action, then went to sleep early. My youngest and I rose with the sun, which filled the living room with pink light. We wandered to the playground near the water’s edge and poked around in the cold morning air as the dawn carried on and a new day began. Home and city life seemed another world away.
IF YOU GO: Rent a single-family vacation home from Mountain Village at Lake Estes (from $550/night). For a more affordable escape, check the classic two-bedroom cabins at YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center (from $109/night, plus winter sleigh rides, and Santa gift delivery). For more places to stay, things to do, and an events calendar, try Visit Estes Park (top picks this month are the Crystal Ball and the Nutcracker at The Stanley Hotel).