71 miles NW of Denver, 42 miles SW of Fort Collins, 34 miles NW of Boulder
Estes Park is the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Grand Lake is the closest town to the park's western entrance. Of the two, Estes Park is more developed. It has more lodging and dining choices, as well as a few noteworthy sights that are worth a visit. If you're driving to Rocky Mountain National Park via Boulder or Denver, you'll want to make Estes Park your base camp.
Unlike most Colorado mountain communities where mining was the economic bedrock before tourism emerged, Estes Park (elevation 7,522 ft.) has always been a resort town. Long known by Utes and Arapahos, it was "discovered" in 1859 by rancher Joel Estes. He soon sold his homestead to Griff Evans, who built it into a dude ranch. One of Evans's guests, the Welsh Earl of Dunraven, was so taken by the region that he purchased most of the valley and operated it as his private game reserve, until thwarted by such settlers as W. E. James, who built Elkhorn Lodge as a "fish ranch" to supply Denver restaurants.
The growth of Estes Park, however, is inextricably linked with two individuals: Freelan Stanley and Enos Mills. Stanley invented the kerosene-powered Stanley Steamer automobile in 1899 together with his brother Francis, then settled in Estes Park in 1907, launched a Stanley Steamer shuttle service from Denver, and in 1909 built the landmark Stanley Hotel. Mills was one of the prime advocates for the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park. Although less well known than John Muir, Mills is an equally important figure in the history of the U.S. conservation movement. His efforts increased sentiment nationwide for preserving wild lands and resulted in President Woodrow Wilson signing a bill to set aside 400 square miles for Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. Today the park attracts some three million visitors annually. Estes Park, meanwhile, has a year-round population of about 6,000.