Colorado is by far one of the most beautiful places you can travel to within the US. If you love the outdoors and can appreciate hiking and sight-seeing, fishing and kayaking, then I would highly recommend you go!
My fiancé Kyle planned a trip for us in October to visit Colorado. The first half of the trip we spent in Estes Park, hiking the Rocky Mountains each day. The second half of the trip we spent in Denver taste-testing our way through restaurants and local breweries. We both went into the trip with the thought (maybe fear is the better word) that we would love Denver more than we love Chicago, and that we would ultimately have to move there. Don’t worry guys, that was not the case as we quickly realized that Chicago is still the best city and we love to call it our home. Haha However, this trip is to date the most spectacular trip I have been on and you will soon read why….
We left Chicago first thing in the morning so that we could arrive in Colorado as early as possible. It was around 9am as we piled our things into our rental car and headed out of Denver. We purposely drove a little out of the way because we wanted to spend the afternoon in Boulder. Boulder is an eclectic town filled with shops and delicious dining. The University of Colorado is also located there and I have to tell you, if I could go back and have a college “do-over”, I would apply there in a heartbeat. The campus is photographic perfection and they somehow managed to ensure that each building on site blended into the mountain scenery as to not disrupt the natural beauty around it. I know it seems silly to visit a college campus on a vacation, but trust me it is worth stopping to see!
When we arrived in the quaint downtown Boulder, we opened our trusty Yelp app to find a rooftop spot for lunch and a drink with a view. We read some reviews and decided on The West End, where we requested a seat on the roof (although the inside of this bar and restaurant was pretty cool too). The views were amazing, and quite different than our concrete jungle views when dining the rooftops of Chicago! The service was impeccable and everyone was super friendly. Our server literally had to run up and down the stairs to wait on us because there wasn’t a server on the roof yet and she had other tables in the main restaurant. She turned on the outdoor fireplace for us as we sat alone on the roof, and she was extremely attentive despite the extra workout we were making her endure that afternoon. The food was also very delicious, and we consider ourselves to have pretty high expectations from all of the Chicago foodie spots we’ve dined at! I had my first ever Hot Toddy! Have you ever experienced this wonderful alcoholic tea concoction? I would highly recommend it, especially on a chilly day at noon when you want to pretend like you’re having tea when in reality you are secretly drinking whiskey.
After our lunch we wandered around downtown Boulder and went into all the little shops along the brick paved way. They have so many cool vintage shops and unique stores nestled into the cozy little area. We definitely could have spent a little more time there, but I don’t think you would need more than a day if you’re planning on stopping through. We left to head to Estes Park and check into the Rocky Mountain Park Inn. It was such an adorable room, and had an absolutely beautiful view! We purposely didn’t get anything super fancy, knowing that we would be out in the mountains from AM to PM, and man did we live up to that expectation! It was also fairly inexpensive, especially given that we were there the weekend of “Elk Fest” and many lodging options were completely booked! Not to mention it was right near all the action.
We quickly changed into our hiking shoes, grabbed our jackets and headed for the hills (literally)! We drove up Trail Ridge Road to get to Tundra Communities Trail. Our first hike of the trip wasn’t necessarily a difficult hike as far as terrain is concerned, but it definitely was tough in terms of altitude! As we hiked the trail, we realized why it is named “Tundra”. The terrain is flat and cold and there was not much in the way of plant or animal life, much like one would imagine a frozen tundra to be! As we followed the trail up to Rock Cut Overlook, we began to really feel the lack of oxygen. We were walking slowly and still were out of breath! Apparently, there is 35% less oxygen than at sea level! We made it through and sat on a rock at an elevation of 12,285 feet, overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park.
That night we ate some fast casual Mexican food at Peppers Mexican Grill. It was delicious, quick and easy. We called it a night after that because we knew we had an early wakeup call the next day. We double checked to see that dawn would break the next day at 5:30am. This meant we needed to be up by 4am to drive into RMNP and get high enough up on the trail before then. We grabbed Starbucks nearby and headed to RMNP. WHAT A GREAT IDEA. If you can be a morning person for one day, one time in your life, this is that time! First off, there is no one at the pay station to get into the Park, so you get to enter for free! Secondly, it will only be you and a few diehard photographers, so you will basically have the trails to yourself. Third of all, you get to watch a sunrise, from ABOVE the sunrise. And that is exactly what we did. We sat there looking down as light flooded the areas beneath us. I cannot even begin to describe how breathtakingly beautiful it was, and these pictures will not even do it justice…
We thoroughly enjoyed being the only ones out and about this early. It was so peaceful and relaxing to feel like it was just us two in all of RMNP. We continued down the trail to Bear Lake, which was absolutely beautiful. We took tons of pictures trying to capture the reflection of the trees in the water. Kyle took both of these and they are by far my favorites!
We forged on down the trail headed for Dream Lake. There was a tremendous amount of fog everywhere, and when we got to the lake we couldn’t see any mountains around us. Slowly as the fog moved on, the mountains began to appear and we were astonished that we were right in the heart of them!
Eventually, we made our way back to the car to drive over a little ways to the Deer Mountain trailhead to try and see some more animals! As we made our way up the trail, we found a flat rock formation, overlooking the valley and decided that on our way back down we would stop there to rest and have a snack.
This was by far my favorite hike we did. Not only because of the deer we saw, the difficulty of the hike itself and the strikingly colored aspen trees…but also because on this hike at that very rock formation I mentioned earlier (and pictured below), the love of my life got down on one knee and proposed! Swoon!
We sat for a while there, hugged each other, cried happy tears and just took in the moment before we headed back to the car to trek down Trail Ridge Road and have lunch. We stopped at an unassuming little joint called Baba’s Burgers & Gyros to grab lunch and enjoy mountain views (yet again). We relished in this time together, having lunch as a newly engaged couple, being the only ones who knew the exciting news! The food was great and we got to sit outside and watch some clouds roll in over the mountains. We finally called family and friends to tell them that we were engaged as we headed in to town to check out Elk Fest. Literally, a festival revolving around elk. Elk jerky, elk-themed everything, Native American performances and a beer garden! After the festivities were over we headed back to the room to change and go to The (haunted) Stanley Hotel for celebratory drinks!
The bar inside is so cool, the bartender was extremely knowledgeable and the drinks were stiff! The menu was extensive. Also, please note the “Redrum” cocktail listed under “Disturbed Spirits”! The Shining reference anyone?? The bar was cool marble and was lit up. Hard to capture through the lens but we did our best!
Estes Park will obviously forever hold a special place in my heart. But besides all of that mushy gushy stuff, it truly was one of the most beautiful places I have been. I would highly recommend taking a trip there if given the chance, Southwest has some super cheap flights into Denver! I’m talking anywhere from $50-$100 roundtrip per person!
Oh and if you do make the trip, I have two crucial tips for this vacation:
- Buy a selfie stick. You may feel silly, and you will definitely look silly. But I would not have been able to get some of the amazing photographs of us without one.
- Do not buy bear spray. Or a bear horn. I did. Apparently it’s not necessary and a park ranger laughed at us when I told him.
Stay tuned for part deux of this vacation, all about Denver and our self-created beer walk!