For locals seeking a bit of elbow room—and visitors hankering for an off-the-beaten-path getaway—load up the four-wheel-drive vehicle (and plenty of snacks) and head to Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. A 7.5-hour drive from Park City, this town sees visitation recede by nearly 90 percent during the coldest months of the year, and offers more than solitude to hardy adventurers.
Sled or slide
Here’s a fascinating tidbit: from 1955 to1991, there was a 1,200-acre ski resort in Estes Park, which accessed 2,000 vertical feet of terrain. Now, it is a haven for backcountry skiers and splitboarders—and the home to the only designated sledding hill in Rocky Mountain National Park. Beyond the boundaries of the now-defunct ski resort, Rocky Mountain National Park has a backcountry expanse of over 265,000 acres, and it’s one of the best places for touring newbies to learn the ropes because it has lots of lap-able, lower-angle tree skiing. It’s also a great spot to go on windy days and low-visibility days (always check avalanche conditions, before venturing out). If you’ve already mastered your uphill slide and aspire to swap your skis for a splitboard, or vice versa, this is the place to do it.
You’ll find the Tyndall and Glacier Gorge trails to the south of the Hidden Valley area along with premium views of the Continental Divide. This swath of land is equally pleasing for both those who have broken more trail than a mountain goat as well as those who are still perfecting their kick turns because there are heaps of intermediate and advanced routes. Blue square skiers and riders will enjoy the Banana Bowls, while those with more experience might try the nearby Dragontail or Notchtop couloirs.
Enlist a backcountry mentor
If you really want to maximize your touring experience, hire a guide from Colorado Mountain School. They specialize in custom backcountry skiing and splitboarding tours in Rocky Mountain National Park, and will show you where to find all of the powder stashes. It’s helpful to go touring with someone whose job it is to lasso you back on track should gale-force winds drag you willy-nilly across the frozen shores of Dream Lake. The folks at Colorado Mountain School are expanding their winter programming to include a multi-day backcountry development series. This course has a structured progression, great for travelers who want an immersive learning experience. Should you wish to pursue alternative outdoor activities, they also offer mountaineering, ice climbing, and snowshoe packages.
Snowshoeing and Shots
If you’re interested in exploring these lands sans skis and skins, sign up for the new Elkins Snowshoe Tour with Estes Park Rock Climbing. It’s a guided four-hour snowshoe tour of Rocky Mountain National Park, followed by an indulgent warm-up at Elkins Distillery featuring a whiskey flight. Elkins Whisky is made with one hundred percent, Colorado-grown grain, distilled at 7,522 feet, and proofed with water from Rocky Mountain National Park. Try “The Dude,” made with cold-press coffee, vanilla cream, and their proprietary white whiskey. For a behind-the-scenes peek, book a tour and they’ll happily give you the run-down on their process. Don’t be surprised if the mayor of Estes Park, Todd Jirsa, stops by to say hello and compliment you on your choice of cocktail.
Tour a historic, haunted hotel
Once you’ve summoned enough liquid courage, head over to The Stanley Hotel for an after-dark tour. Known as the muse for Stephen King’s “The Shining,” the hotel offers a night tour that includes a bit more about King’s stay in Room 217 and its inspiration for the fictional “Overlook Hotel” in the story. You’ll also learn about the history and architecture of the hotel as well as its paranormal guests. After the tour, stop by the Whiskey Bar for a Sm’oaked Old Fashioned or Redrum Punch.
The best way to cap off your adventures in Estes Park is to schedule a relaxing treatment at the Affinity Massage and Wellness Center. This retreat offers everything from couples massages to neuromuscular therapy, and is staffed by bodywork experts who help melt away your physical and mental stress. Try the special Raindrop Technique, which uses aromatherapy and Vita Flex to bring balance and harmony to your mind, body, and soul.