Imagine life in the Rocky Mountains around the mid 1800s or even a little later. It was pretty darn rugged. And when travelers set out–mostly to do some trapping or to move from one place to the next for other reasons–it could be very rough going. There were very few established places of lodging outside of big cities and folks often relied upon the benevolence of strangers to take them in for a night or two, particularly if they were caught out in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm.
This way of life and so much more is richly described in the highly revered memoir–a travel memoir of sorts–by Englishwoman Isabella Bird. Anyone contemplating a trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park should read her book “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.” One of the best scenes in this masterpiece of Western literature recounts her ascent up Longs Peak with her guide known as Rocky Mountain Jim. Clad in a skirt and weighed down with a heavy dose of determination, Miss Bird clawed her way up this renowned mountain with the same grit as witnessed with today’s climbers. Thank goodness she had a guide.
For anything even remotely off-the-beaten-path or particularly challenging, guides are essential in these parts even if you’re equipped with the most high tech equipment and gear. With elevations that can easily obtain 10,000 feet–Longs Peak actually measures over 14,000 feet–and mountain weather that can change as quickly as a bear’s temperament, it’s best to find yourself out in this wilderness with an expert. Thankfully there are many places to turn, including Estes Park Rock Climbing, KIrk’s Mountain Adventures, Kirk’s Fly Shop, Estes Park Adventures and more. For trail rides (on horses!), check out National Park Gateway Stables and Elkhorn Stables.
Fortunately life in Estes Park has evolved considerably since the days of Isabella Bird. In 1867, Griff Evans arrived in the area to do some care taking for a ranch. He soon saw an opportunity for tourism and began building cabins for the visitors; his place later became known as the first dude ranch in the area, since it arranged all kinds of outings for fishing, hunting and mountain climbing. This tradition of hospitality has grown exponentially since then and it comes as no surprise that Estes Park boasts one of the best selections of lodging in all of Colorado’s mountain towns. From cabins to resorts to motels to inns to lodges to hotels and surely some AirBnBs, there’s something for everyone and every budget in and around this glorious slice of the Rocky Mountain West.
Whether you stay there or not, two places of lodging warrant a visit for their historic and cultural significance. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Baldpate Inn started out as a homestead with a few cabins over a hundred years ago. This establishment became an instant success, so they built an inn on the premises in 1917 from hand-hewn timber cut from the property. Massive stone fireplaces completed this handsome mountain rustic interior, a look that still charms visitors today. A stay here offers a classic mountain getaway experience, one of great historical note as well, since the inn’s photography collection chronicles notable people that have stayed at the property as well as places of significance in Colorado. The Baldpate Inn’s key collection is considered to be the largest in the world. The origins of it are as fascinating as the pieces within it, an elaborate tale that you can find out about in depth when you stay at or visit this historic establishment.
By the early 1900s, travel to Estes Park was greatly facilitated by the opening of new roads and the creation of auto stage lines that featured steam busses for passengers known as Stanley Steamers. Wealthy easterners soon sought out the extraordinary beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the wondrous health benefits its fresh aired offered. (Many people traveled here, in fact, with the hope of curing themselves from tuberculosis.) Having seen the need to build a fine hotel to accommodate these travelers, Mr. Stanley embarked upon the construction of The Stanley Hotel on a site that furnishes magnificent views of the Rockies. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this grand Colonial Revival hotel continues to attract people today and once again, even if you’re not staying here, a visit to The Stanley is a must. Sip a drink in their renowned Whiskey Bar or take a guided tour of this storied property where you can delve into its rich history. Into the paranormal? They’ll explore that with you as well. The Stanley was after all featured in Stephen King’s epic thriller, “The Shining.” Remember “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Ok, maybe it’s time for another whiskey.
Know that there are many other wonderful places of lodging–and dining–in and around Estes Park. Long live their long history of hospitality. Long live magnificent Longs Peak.