Best Places to ‘Have a Cup of Cheer’ in Estes Park, Colorado

From a steaming mug of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream to a glass of robust red wine, the holiday season is a great time to sip and savor. Estes Park has opportunities for you to pair fun winter adventures with your favorite cup of cheer.

Best Kid’s Drink

Trailhead Restaurant on Fall River Road serves hot chocolate the way  toddlers and their parents like it, with loads of whipped cream! If you are feeling extra festive you can order peppermint hot chocolate or opt for the hot cider that smells just as good as it tastes. 

Another favorite is the milk flight found at Mama Rose’s restaurant. Our kids enjoy small cups of strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and white milk. This is a fun replacement for dessert. 

Best Coffee

Kind Coffee is located on the edge of downtown Estes Park. Grab a cup of quality organic coffee and warm up in the cozy cafe before shopping, or take it with you on a stroll along the Estes Park Riverwalk. For many Christmas is the season for giving, but Kind Coffee gives back year-round by donating a percentage of their revenue to international charities as well as participating in the Estes Park Give Back community partnership. 

Estes Park Coffee Shops
Warm up in local coffee shops before shopping in downtown Estes Park

Best Local Beer

If you appreciate good beer and a laid-back, friendly environment, Rock Cut Brewing Company is your place. It’s a tough choice to decide which beer on their menu to try, so why not go with a flight of 5 tasters? Rockcut also contributes to the local community. When you order a pint of their German-style amber aptly named Altruism, $1 goes to charity. 

In this category we also have to mention Lumpy Ridge Brewery which is located in an old gas station building that feels both hip and compact. What they are lacking in space, they make up for in taste. Their menu currently includes a Winter Breeze Coconut Brown Lager – yum. 

Best Local Wine

We have written about our love of Snowy Peaks winery before and we probably will again because of their awesome play area for kids to enjoy why parents taste local wine. For $6 you can taste 5 wines that are made by Snowy Peaks and other local Colorado wineries. 

Snowy Peaks Winery in Estes Park Colorado
Kids entertained at Snowy Peaks Winery

Best Margarita

Merry Margarita to all! It’s not the first drink you think of on a trip to a winter wonderland like Estes Park, but there are several good Mexican restaurants in town and there is always room in our life for chips and salsa. If that comes with a refreshing margarita, no complaints here. For Mexican cuisine with a Colorado twist, we think Ed’s Cantina and Grille is the place to go.

There are plenty of ways to fill your cup this season in Estes Park, Colorado. We are excited to learn more about a Booze Cruise offered by the Ridgeline Hotel. We have kids traveling with us this season, so we can’t participate, but we want to share for those looking for a safe and fun way to experience local breweries and distilleries. 

The Ridgeline Hotel’s website also highlights Trendz boutique, which is one of our favorite local shops. They now offer a Sip & Shop experience along with a full calendar of great shopping events in December. 

Winter Refresh

We have been doing a winter refresh project on our blog and want to share a couple articles that have updated content. 

The Most Underrated Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park: Following the Historic Ute Trail

Gingerbread Cabin Cookie recipe

Crossing the Divide—Bear Lake to Grand Lake Traverse

A Trip Report from Eric’s hike over the Continental Divide with friends on August 19, 2018

I’ve been visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with my family since I was a young child, and have always been simply drawn to the mountains and the adventure that awaits out in the alpine wilderness. Kelly and I have been consistently coming out to Estes Park together since 2012, and have been on a number of adventures of varying difficulties. Often after a long day of hiking, I’ll turn on the television to the local “Channel 8,” which features productions from Estes Park legend Nick Molle, as well as (of course) plenty of advertisements for the in-town businesses. One of Nick’s productions that still loops from time to time is a show called “A Walk in the Park,” which features some of the great hikes in Rocky, along with commentary from guide-book author and former park ranger Lisa Foster. Their special on Long’s Peak still captivates me as I re-live my first trip up that mountain with friends back in 2010, and recall how under-prepared I was for that journey! However, another hike that I had read about in Lisa’s guide book had been tugging at me as the next challenge I had to try—hiking from Bear Lake, the start of some of the most popular trails in the park, all the way over to Grand Lake on the other side of the park. When an episode of “A Walk in the Park” featured this journey, I was convinced that someday I needed to give it a shot.

We’ve been up Flattop Mountain and over to Hallett Peak numerous times, as its one of our favorite hikes (without carrying our children). 

Ftattop Mountain view
View near the summit of Flattop Mountain, from a prior trip

However, continuing the hike on to Grand Lake always seemed to be a bit of a stretch, both due to the distance, and just the logistics of arranging transportation back and forth over the mountain (at over 17 miles, it wasn’t a hike I wanted to turn around and repeat the next day). As we’ve had the truly immense joy of adding two beautiful young girls to our family in the past 4 years, some of these more difficult hikes had been shelved in favor of more kid friendly (or at least kid-carry friendly) destinations. Kelly is the best though, and after hearing me talk about this hike so much (probably to the point of driving her nuts), she finally told me that I needed to just plan the trip with some friends and make it happen. In August this year, we did just that.

A couple of general facts about this hike:

-Hike begins at the Bear Lake trailhead, which is extremely busy in the summer and fall months. Parking can be difficult to come by, but the early start required by this type of undertaking usually will guarantee a space.

-There are a few local shuttle services that will provide transportation back and forth from Grand Lake, but there are no park shuttles that go over Trail Ridge road, so individual arrangements must be made. We opted to drop a car off the night before over at the North Inlet trailhead (end of our hike) in Grand Lake. To leave a car overnight anywhere in the park, just make sure to get a free wilderness permit at one of the ranger stations (we obtained ours at the Kawaunechee Valley Visitors Center).

-As I’ll detail below, weather can be a wild card anytime you are heading above the tree-line, so a wide range of cold/wet weather gear is critical. Total elevation gain from Bear Lake to the summit of Flattop is roughly 2,850 feet, followed by a descent of roughly 3,800 feet to Grand Lake.

-Many people break this hike into a 2-day affair, camping at one of the numerous backcountry sites that are available on the second half of this trail, but we opted to travel more lightly and knock it all out in one day (which I honestly think is the easier approach given all of the elevation gain and decline involved).

-Though steep in a few places, this route is entirely a class 1 hike with no material amount of exposure to steep drop offs. Still, a poorly timed turned ankle 8-10 miles in would make for a rough day, so gear to survive overnight if needed is never a bad idea.

-We carried all of the water that we needed (roughly 3L per person) but there are plenty of places on the descent where a filter could be used to replenish supply.

On to the journey itself…

We set out for the trailhead at roughly 6:30am, hoping to get started shortly after 7:00. Everyone in our group had at least some high-elevation hiking experience, but you never know how altitude may impact aperson on any given day. After a bit of grumbling and the cynical remark “This is considered recreation, and fun, correct?” from one party member during the initial mile or so, everyone seemed to settle in to a comfortable pace.

hike begins at Bear Lake
Catching our breath early on the trail

Three of our group of five had been on the first several miles of this hike up to Flattop multiple times, so for us there were plenty of familiar landmarks along the way, but most notably the Dream Lake overlook at approximately 1.7 miles, and then the Emerald Lake overlook at roughly 3.5 miles in.

Emerald Lake lookout, on a clear day.
Emerald Lake lookout, on a clear day

Unfortunately, we did not have the best of luck with weather for the early part of our trip, as we were hiking through a dense fog and some mist for the majority of our ascent. At approximately 4 miles in, we reached the hitch rack near the summit of Flattop, and took a more extended break with some snacks and plenty of water, knowing that the conditions were likely to be less than favorable for the next several miles up on the tundra. A little over two hours and twenty minutes into the hike, we reached the “summit” of Flattop mountain

Final approach to “summit” of Flattop
Final approach to “summit” of Flattop
Clouds quickly rolled back in at the top
Clouds quickly rolled back in at the top

I always warn people that tell me they are heading up to Flattop, that as the name implies, the summit is very flat and thus the views are somewhat limited unless you make the extra .5 mile climb over to Hallett Peak. On this day, however, it would definitely not have been worth the extra work/scramble, as the fog was quite persistent. For comparison, here is a photo of the views that can be had from Hallett on a clear day—I took this picture just a few weeks before when I was training/researching the hike beyond the summit of Flattop.

Summit of Hallet on a clear day
Summit of Hallet on a clear day

From the summit of Flattop, we followed the clearly marked path to the North Inlet Trail Junction—which is identified with another sign and large cairn just a few tenths of a mile later. 

North inlet trail junction

While I was disappointed for the group that we did not get to experience what I had anticipated to be sweeping views of the horizon as we continued onward across the Tundra on the North Inlet Trail, it was mystical in its own way to follow the seemingly endless trail through the fog with cairns marking the way in the distance. 

into the abysss
Into the abysss

We made relatively good time over this smooth terrain, as we were all a little chilly from the cold fog and mist. Thankfully there were no thunderstorms to contend with, as the time exposed dangerously above the tree line is significant during this portion of the trip. At roughly 6 miles / 3 hours into the hike, the terrain started to change slightly, as we got closer to the steeper descent down towards Grand Lake.

change of terrain
Terrain begins to shift

At approximately 6.8 miles, we crossed a stream and then began the section of the hike that I had been most anxious about: a mile of steep switchbacks. 

entering the switchbacks
Entering the switchbacks

I’d kept my trekking poles stowed thus far on the trip, but they were definitely a life-saver as we progressed through this somewhat more tedious but beautiful segment. Here we passed several other hikers carrying camping packs and heading in the other direction, which frankly looked brutal (all that weight and a quick 1000+ ft elevation gain). 

Looking down the switchbacks, hikers approach from the other direction
Looking down the switchbacks, hikers approach from the other direction

At approximately 8 miles in, we crossed Hallett Creek, now fully back under the protection of the tree-line. While it was damp, our weather generally continued to hold, so we paused again for a bit longer of a break/re-fuel.

Hallett Creek
Hallett Creek

I’d been keeping an eye on the time and our pace with my Garmin GPS watch, and knowing that it was “all downhill from here” gave me some relief that we would be able to complete the trip and arrive in town well before the evening. The lack of elevation gain made it a lot easier for ourgroup (who had been largely quiet due to either lack of breath on the way up or chattering teeth walking across the tundra) to liven up and have the sort of silly debates/discussions that you undertake when you are together for 10+hours without much else to do. We almost missed this majestic bull elk along the trail as we plodded through the miles of well-groomed trail. 

Elk in the meadow
Elk in the meadow

At around 6 hours/12 miles in, we stopped for our last extended break and got out “the good food” (apples, cheese, and summer sausage). At this point, all of us had tired legs but were generally in good spirits, even though we knew we still had another 5 or so miles to complete.

through hike Rocky Mountain National Park
An extended break

As we slowly descended into the valley, we ran into more and more day hikers, or others coming in to camp for the night. It was a pleasant leg of the trip, with the river running next to or near to us for much of the time. We passed Cascade Falls, a place I’d like to revisit sometime when we have more time to linger. At this stage, everyone was impressed, but not terribly interested in further exploration/deviation from the trail. Finally, as we neared the end of our journey and began seeing signs of civilization, we started discussing the most important part of the trip: where we would find the best pizza and beer in Grand Lake to celebrate.

Meadows open up near the trail’s end
Meadows open up near the trail’s end

My GPS hit 17 miles, and I’d hoped that meant we were almost finished. Unfortunately, between a bit of wandering and perhaps some inaccuracy, it was off by about a mile. 

17 mile hike in rocky mountains
False hope of the journey’s end

While that final mile was steady, easy terrain, it definitely felt like the most difficult of the trip, because even I was ready for this hike to be over. At last we emerged at the North Inlet trailhead, 8 hours and 28 minutes and (according to my watch) 18 miles later. 

North Inlet Trailhead, Grand Lake Colorado
North Inlet Trailhead, Grand Lake

We all piled into my Explorer and headed into town for that long-desired pizza and beer at White Buffalo. While our journey was complete, I knew I had to keep my head on straight, as I had to drive us back over Trail Ridge road to pick up the rental car at Bear Lake, before we finally made it back to the condo for our full celebration. This was an epic trip for me and my friends. While it wasn’t nearly has harrowing as an exposed scramble on Long’s Peak, it was a great endurance challenge and incredible way to experience some of the more remote areas of the park (at least remote and trail accessible). If you are like me and incessantly research hikes like this before you undertake them, and have any questions that I didn’t address here, please don’t hesitate to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them!

How to Survive a Long Family Road Trip

Tis the season for family road trips. If you are like many Midwestern families, you will be bundling up the kiddos and driving at least a couple of hours to visit loved ones this holiday season. How do you make this part of the holidays a little less stressful so you can focus on the festivities?

We’ve learned a lot from our frequent treks from our home town near Kansas City, MO to Estes Park, CO. This trip takes about 10.5 hours each way. One of the things we hear the most from friends with young kids is that they are intimidated to make long drives. We get it, driving all day is tough on us and really tough on the kiddos, but they usually do great.

Prepare for Traveling Day in Advance

The day before we go on our trip we make sure all of our electronics are charged, filled with downloaded content, and ready to go with car adapters. We recently bought the girls new Kid’s Kindle Fire tablets, but limit their use to road trips, so it feels like a special treat.

how to survive long car ride with family

We also stock up on snacks and drinks for the road. While we often still end up buying odds and ends at gas stations (we try to buy something when we pop in for restroom breaks), its great to have a cooler full of milk for the girls and water/Gatorade for us. While it’s a tough balance to avoid too many extra bathroom breaks, we’ve found it to be important to stay fully hydrated on the trip out to fend off altitude sickness at our final destination. For us, it helps driving in to Colorado rather than flying in because our bodies can acclimate a little more gradually to the change. Altitude impacts everyone differently, even those in great physical condition,  so we often advise family and friends who know that they struggle with the adjustment to stay near the Denver area for a night before going further up in the mountains.

Road Trip Backpacks with Activities

Each girl gets their own backpack filled with coloring, activity books and art supplies.  We often listen to toddler radio stations to sing along to before switching to relaxing tunes around nap time.

family road trip survival gear

  1. Amazon Fire with a kid-proof (pink!) case
  2. Our kids favorite books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See?
  3. Tracing books to practice our preschooler’s emerging writing skills
  4. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. You can’t have too many snacks
  5. Water Wow! this is a mess free art activity that the girls can do again and again
  6. Color Wonder Mess Free Coloring our girls love to draw and we love when we don’t have to worry about what they are coloring on because these markers only mark on the special color wonder paper.

Timing

We’ve tried several theories on the best way to time the long trip including leaving late and driving through the night or stopping half way and staying at a hotel. Surprisingly, we’ve found leaving mid-morning works best for our family. Here is our basic time-line:

7:00AM girls wake up, eat breakfast, play to burn off energy and we pack the car
9:00AM leave after making sure everyone has used the restroom and/or has fresh diaper
10:00AM we typically try to make it out-of-town before we start any electronics
12:00PM stop for lunch, bathroom and gas fill-up break
12:30PM get back in the car and hope for nap time
3:00PM stop for snack, bathroom and gas fill-up break
5:00PM we make a game time decision to stop for dinner or keep going
6:00-7:00PM estimated arrival. We gain an hour of sunlight when clocks change to Mountain Standard Time.

Route

Without traffic it’s just about as fast going through Denver and Boulder to get to Estes Park, but we typically take E-470 up by the airport to bypass most of the city. E-470 is a toll road and they will mail you a bill if you plan on going once, but if you plan on going to Colorado frequently, it might make sense to get an express toll pass.

Restroom Breaks

We bring along our own potty training toilet for the girls to use when we are in need of breaks between towns (which is common in the middle of Kansas and Eastern Colorado) or when we decide the toilets that are available are not clean enough to use.

Weather

We pay close attention to weather and road conditions using COtrip.org, KanDrive.org and our weather apps. In the spring and early summer we are concerned about pop up storms that can produce tornadoes. In the late fall through early spring we pay attention to icy roads and snow.

Whether you are going on a 1 hour trip or 10 hour trip, planning ahead, having lots of distractions including loads of snacks, and thinking through potential hiccups will help reduce the stress of traveling with young kids. We hope you enjoy happy and safe travels this holiday season.

We’d love to hear your opinion too. Do you have any road trip survival tips we missed?

Buying & Selling Property in Estes Park, Colorado

In honor of our six month anniversary of buying our vacation home at Solitude Cabins in Estes Park, Colorado, I’m sharing six things we learned during the process of buying and selling real estate in our favorite mountain town.

Location, Location, Location

I’ve been hesitant to talk about our decision to buy a vacation home because I was afraid our family and friends would assume that we had been watching too many episodes of HGTV House Hunters or that we secretly won the lottery and forgot to mention it.

I’m getting better at sharing our dream even when it seems a little crazy. We were drawn to the city of Estes Park because we love hiking. We aren’t skiers, so we don’t mind that Estes Park doesn’t have slopes and this fact seems to make it a more affordable option compared to other destination towns in Colorado. For an investment, we like that Estes Park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park which draws nearly 4.5 million visitors annually according to National Park Service statistics.  Estes Park is only an hour and a half away from the booming Denver, CO market.

Once we decided on Estes Park, we did a lot of research on the local housing market on websites like Zillow and signed up for local realtor e-newsletters. You can get a lot of information on the listings but we learned the most from walking through properties. One tip is to check your phone while you are touring to make sure you have reliable cell/data reception especially if you need to keep up with work. Reception in town is generally pretty strong, but more remote locations can get spotty.

purchasing a condo in estes park colorado
Views from our old back deck at Mary’s Lake Lodge

Financing

The condo we owned for a couple of years and the cabin we now own are both classified as condotels which means they can be rented out like hotel rooms with on-site management. We live out-of-state so having on-site management is a good fit for us. Condotels typically do not qualify for traditional home loans so we worked with a local lender who is familiar with the properties. When you are selling, this is something to make sure the potential buyers are aware of before accepting their offer.

buying a condo in Estes Park Colorado
Lobby at Mary’s Lake 2015

Rental Permits and Zoning

Understanding zoning in Estes Park can be a challenge. Our first condo was zoned so that we could rent out the unit for short-term or long-term rentals. An owner could also live there full-time. Our new cabin can only be rented out for short-term rentals. Even as owners we can’t stay at the property for more than 30 days at a time. The town of Estes Park has also put a cap on the number of homes which are located in a residential zone that can be rented out on a short-term basis. This does not affect our property, but it was helpful to understand during our home search.

vacation rental in estes park colorado
View of Longs Peak from our new home away from home at Solitude Cabins

Ongoing Additional Costs

Home Owners Association (HOA) fees and how they are legally managed is a detail that can be easily overlooked when you are staring out the window at your dream mountain view.  The good thing about HOA’s is they often pull together money from all the residence to pay for common amenities and services such as trash, internet, maintenance projects and community swimming pools. Depending on how the HOA is structured, owners might be responsible for the expenses related to exterior items like roof damage or deck maintenance. Interior updates are typically handled by owners individually as well.

Another cost to consider is insurance. If you are renting out your property, you will need liability insurance. Property and income taxes as well as qualifying deductions are things we discussed in detail with our accountant. Some HOA’s have restrictions that do not allow short-term rentals which is important to know if you are hoping to offset costs with rental income.

amenities at properties in estes park colorado
Our toddler loved swimming at the pool at Mary’s Lake Lodge

Furnished vs Unfurnished

Our first condo came unfurnished. I remember sleeping on a blowup mattress the first night before heading to American Furniture Warehouse the next morning in search of the most petite pull-out coach we could find. Our big splurge was on our outdoor furniture. We wanted something comfortable and durable to enjoy the breathtaking views. When we sold our condo we sold it furnished which is an option that buyers appreciate in this market.

Our new cabin was furnished. We had to purchase a new queen-sized couch to qualify the cabin for the rental program, but we didn’t need much else. This time we splurged on local art (found on clearance!) and a nice outdoor grill.

Delivery and shipping items to your new home might be slower and more complicated in Estes Park compared to larger more accessible cities. For example, if you pick out a couch and want to get it delivered, don’t expect next day delivery. The furniture company might have a regular delivery day scheduled 1-2 times per week. We have the same expectations for FedEx or Amazon shipments.

cabin in estes park colorado
We love our new cabin – it’s a great fit for our family

Noise and Amenities

One of the biggest reasons for our switch to Solitude Cabins was the desire for more peace and quiet. We love that the cabins are all free-standing with no shared walls. The previous condo we owned was located in a historic lodge that books many weddings and special events. The bookings are great if you are looking for rental income, but it wasn’t the best fit for our young family. We sometimes miss the amenities the lodge offered including an on-site restaurant and pool. However, we are excited about the proximity we now have to Lake Estes, the Estes Valley Community Center, the community bike trail and Stanley Park. My girls are in heaven!

stanely park in estes park colordao
Stanley Park is one of the local attractions within walking distance of our cabin

If you aren’t sold on buying your own vacation home in Estes Park, we hope you consider staying at Solitude Cabins. It’s truly our dream and we are excited to share it with other people who love Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park as much as we do. 

*Disclosure – I’m not a realtor or real estate professional. This post is only based on our personal experience and shouldn’t be taken as real estate, financial investment or legal advice. Think of it as a friend giving you the scoop. Thanks 🙂