There is no single best way to get to Estes Park. But, if you are starting the journey from Denver, Colorado, get on I-25 and head north. Unless, of course, you are on a bicycle, in which case a less highway-centric route would be advisable. Exit the Interstate at Highway 34 and head west. This will take you through the town of Loveland and into the mountains. Stay on Highway 34 through the canyon, and eventually you will drive right through the town. You can’t miss it. Estimated travel time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours, unless your girlfriend/wife/significant other/life partner/pet has a hankering for cherry-rhubarb pie. (But more on that in a minute.)
From a geological perspective, the most interesting aspect of the ride to Estes Park is Big Thompson Canyon. Despite stunning views of the high canyon walls, the area, much like the Bubonic Plague, is best known for its history of death and destruction. The date was July 31, 1976. The nation as a whole had just finished cleaning up all the fallen ticker tape from its bicentennial celebration when a sudden rainstorm drenched the area, causing a massive flash flood. When all was said and done, 146 people died in the canyon that day, and countless homes and businesses in the canyon were destroyed.
Authorities in the area used the natural disaster as a catalyst for change. Bridges in the canyon were rebuilt, roads were improved, and the, “In case of flood, burrow to safety” road signs were replaced with a more effective campaign recommending that people instead climb out of the way of flood waters. In addition to these infrastructure changes, the receding waters provided a fertile environment for various tourist-oriented operations to blossom. Businesses in the area tend to focus on such niche markets as cherry-rhubarb pie and high-volume discount T-shirt sales.
While the drive up the canyon is chalk full of visual stimulation, anyone looking for even more colorful scenery might want to consider taking Devil’s Gulch Road instead of the main highway. Located about ten miles up the canyon, this slight detour adds a few miles of twisting road to the journey. In exchange for a reduced average velocity, this route goes through remote mountain areas and the small rustic town of Glen Haven. To get an idea of how out of the way this road is, the Starbucks corporation hasn’t even begun to attempt replacing the general store with a coffee franchise.
The main street in Estes Park is a pedestrian friendly series of shops. Being a secluded mountain town, many of these stores focus on specialized candy and dessert items. This phenomena can be traced back to the spring of 1910, when the state legislature passed a law limiting where certain types of food can be produced and distributed. As a result, you can’t buy fresh-pulled taffy anywhere on the front range or eastern plains. In Estes Park, however, there are no fewer than seventeen stores that produce this delicacy on a daily basis. In the slower winter months, groups of candy thugs meander through town threatening violence to anyone even thinking about making a purchase in the wrong taffy store.
Despite this minor turf war, the area is quite family-oriented. During the warm summer months children can be seen enjoying themselves on just about every sidewalk, often times with their hands, mouths, hair, and clothes enveloped in a sugary, gooey, slobber-laced mass of pulled taffy. When they finally surrender to the sticky force of the candy, these kids inevitably head back towards their parents for assistance. Mom and dad stop their window shopping, smile at the display of childhood innocence, and watch as their offspring try to outrun the pack of local domesticated canines focused on scoring their next hit of refined sugar. The slower children generally come out unharmed, except for the severe psychological damage associated with being stuck at the bottom of a taffy-induced dog pile.
One of the most well known landmarks in town is the combination Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Following at a distant second is the Stanley Hotel. While the Hotel’s fried chicken is mediocre at best, this location is what comes to mind when recalling the movie, “The Shining.” The classic horror film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson, and based on the Stephen King novel, has almost nothing to do with the physical building. The book was only loosely based on the hotel, the hotel in the movie doesn’t look anything like the real one, and high-profile movie stars hardly ever rampage through the building with a fire ax while possessed by evil demon-spirits. In fact, the hotel sports a light, open, and refreshing architectural design.
In an attempt to “make it real,” the Stanley Hotel was used in “The Shining” miniseries. Like most other Stephen King made-for-TV specials, the final product received poor reviews and, based on the Nielson television rating system, was watched by fewer people than it took to film the show. To date, revenue from the miniseries trails behind “The Shining” book sales, “The Shining” movie DVD rentals, and even advertisement proceeds from The Simpsons’ “The Shinning” Halloween special. The Stanley Hotel was briefly featured in the full length motion picture, “Dumb and Dumber” as Jim Carry pulled up in a Ferrari at the Hotel’s main entrance. It wasn’t the Stanley Hotel in the movie– it was, according to “the script,” supposed to be a glitzy hotel in Aspen. Despite intense and continued efforts, the Hotel has yet to make it to the “A list” of motion picture locations.
So there you have it– Estes Park in a nutshell. While this chapter is not designed to be a complete history and travel guide for the area, it should help casual visitors understand the overall character of the city. For more detailed information, as always, please refer to your local library or pulled taffy Mafia connection.