Travel above the tree lines to discover Rocky Mountain National Park, then set out for some tundra trekking allowing time to gaze across wide-open landscapes.
Look down into the glaciers in this century-old National Park because they’re not only off in the distance like some other parks.
Rocky Mountain snowy ice is touchable and so are wildflowers. I recommend driving the entire 50-mile Trail Ridge Road, getting out at multiple pull-off spots, and exploring the visitor center with walking paths at elevation 11,500 feet.
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Astonishing pairings of opposites like the ice and flowers can distinguish this Colorado vacation if you keep your eyes open to them.
Here are some lodging tips.
Explore two towns
Estes Park and Grand Lake call one another “the other side” and you should experience both. Fly into Denver for an Estes Park start or Fort Collins for Grand Lake beginning. Or mix it up however you approach because connections abound.
Estes Park is a lively city with shops and eateries artfully arranged along a river. Expect curves and angles with buildings protecting tiny courtyards for people watching, river gazing and conversational dining. Very pedestrian friendly.
The downtown in Grand Lake stretches in one straight line, and you’ll see from one end to the other. Sidewalks are made with boards giving a western feel to this eastern traveler.
Downtown includes a child-friendly playground anchoring one end of the street and a sophisticated performance theater the other end.
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Sleep two places in Estes Park
Sure, I too say it’s easier to unpack only once but the lodging experiences in each of the “other side of the Park” towns are worth the effort.
Misty Mountain Lodge was my home in Estes Park, two easy-walking blocks from the bustling downtown, glorious views every which way and chatty innkeepers Peter and Ellen Reinertsen. Leave the pets at home.
They’ll fix you S’mores over the front-yard campfire each night, and grill a hamburger for supper if you like. Save free time for either of the two hot tubs because the starry skies are spectacular.
The Stanley Hotel is the other end of the Estes Park lodging spectrum: main building, boutique mirror-image hotel next door and condos. Grand old elegance built in 1909 by the inventor of the Stanley Steamer—and one’s in the lobby.
Preferred Pooch Program at the Stanley so bring your dog.
Grand Lake lodging
Triple up on this other side too because the changing views of Grand Lake provide different vacation moods.
Choose the Western Riviera which I did to be a block off the boardwalks of downtown, next door to a stunning café named Blue Water Bakery. Every room faces the lake with shared patio seating along the first floor. Boat tours circle the refreshing 61-degree lake, with commentary about private homes, historic events and winter sports when the ice is two feet thick.
Native lodgepole pine provides the look of Grand Lake Lodge, a little drive from downtown, perched high above the Lake, welcoming guests since 1920.
Think resort when you stay here with swimming pool overlooking the lake and mountains, fine dining restaurant with casual personality, cabins as well as the main lodge and – no small matter – Rocky Mountain National Park on three sides!
Consider a different family travel angle at either of two Sunnyside Cottages, family-built in the 1930s, purchased by the in-laws in the ’40s and now modernized as well as charming in an artistic, whimsical way.
You’ll feel like a local at Sunnyside, enjoying your yard, listening to rushing water.
First in a series of stories about the towns and experiences surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park, celebrating its centennial all year, culminating Sept. 4, 1915.