How to Have the Best Wedding (Guest) Weekend in Estes Park
I have been spending so much time in Colorado that I am starting to feel like a part-time resident. There was my birthday trip in January, a girls’ retreat in Steamboat Springs for my bestie’s birthday, and now a wedding weekend in Estes Park.
It was a quick trip, made shorter by a small family emergency the day before I was supposed to leave, but I still had a blast. This will not be an in-depth guide, but rather some ideas for what to do on a very quick trip to Estes Park. I’m also going to be talking about my adventures as a solo wedding guest, a role I’m becoming more accustomed to and surprisingly good at.
Read on for how to have a kick-ass wedding (guest) weekend in Estes Park.
A Slight Delay
I was due to arrive in Denver Friday morning around 10am, where I’d rent my car and spend the day kicking it around Estes Park. The wedding was Saturday afternoon, so Friday was to be my free day. Surprise, surprise, the universe had other plans.
Two days before I was to depart, my grandmother went to the hospital and found herself in need of an important surgery right away. Unfortunately, the surgery was scheduled for 1pm on the day I was supposed to leave. Even the most routine surgery can be risky, and putting an elderly person under general anesthesia brings about risks that can’t be ignored. There was no way I could take the morning flight to Denver and go gallivanting around Estes Park with this looming over my head.
Luckily, there were plenty of flights to take, and I scheduled myself, instead, for the 8pm flight. I would miss the day in Estes Park, but I’d be able to see my grandmother after a (god-willing) successful surgery. I’d leave late but with a clear conscience. Worry is the worst carry-on.
I’ll take a moment now, as I do in almost every blog post, to plug how awesome my job is. The flexibility in my work schedule is something I talk about a lot, but the flexibility in travel planning is great, too. Most people would have to pay change fees in an instance like this, but I can book and cancel and change flights as I please. There is, of course, the issue of getting a seat to contend with, but I’ll be honest—it usually works out in my favor.
It would turn out to be a very quick trip to Estes Park. I landed in Denver at 11pm, instead of 10am, and after picking up my rental and hitting the road, arrived at my little roadside inn around 1:15 am.
The Dao House, where most of the wedding guests stayed.
The wedding I was attending took place at the Dao House Rustic Lodge, in Estes Park, and most of the guests stayed on property for the weekend. After calling the property to book—twice—and not getting a person to speak to or a callback, I decided to just book elsewhere.
I’m glad I did. Not only was everybody at the wedding complaining about the lack of cell reception at their hotel, but I like having a place of my own, being able to slip in and out of the crowd at will. Socializing is great, but I also love being able to escape, off-site, to recharge my battery.
I booked a room in a little inn, minutes from downtown Estes Park. The reviews said it was a great location, and I found that to be true. The place was called Columbine Inn and was your basic roadside motel, but with updates.
If the aesthetic on the outside was creepy roadside motel—made creepier by my pitch-dark, late-night arrival, the new tile floors, fresh paint, hipster lightbulbs, and comfy bedding, made the inside feel cozy, clean, and fresh. (More on the lightbulbs later) This was the cheapest option that had great reviews and looked stay-able in the area. It’s one thing to splash out on a fancy hotel room for yourself on vacation, but traveling for someone else’s wedding is not the occasion I personally choose for this kind of luxury.
I would probably pick a different hotel option if I went back to Estes Park for vacation, only because many of them had desirable amenities like free breakfast, pools, hot tubs, and cute outdoor sitting areas. If you’re only doing a 1-2 night quick trip to Estes Park, though, and especially if you’ll be out of the room exploring most of the day, this place will certainly do the trick. The mattress was comfy, the bedding felt soft, and I slept like a baby both nights of my stay. There was a Keurig machine in the room and plenty of coffee to get my day started.
My only real gripe with this place was the lighting in the bathroom. Someone chose to install those hip-looking bulbs where you can see the light “vein” through the clear glass of the bulb. They look cool and everything, but they emitted an orange glow when illuminated. This makes me think it must have been a man who installed these. Women need a well-lit bathroom. I need to see my face while cleansing and lotion-ing, and, most importantly, while applying makeup. (For anyone who doesn’t know this—you need “Day Bright” bulbs or “Natural Light” bulbs for a basic bathroom fixture.) Luckily, the bulbs in the bedroom were light and bright, so I swapped them out for my stay and swapped them back before I left.
If you are interested in staying at Columbine Inn, check them out on booking.com.
Bulbs swapped & wedding ready.
The entire reason for my quick trip to Estes Park was to attend the wedding between my cousin and his new bride. The wedding was held at the Dao House Retreat and was simple, intimate and lovely.
The ceremony was supposed to take place outside, with the reception indoors, but mother nature had other ideas. As I was driving to the venue, the sky opened up and not only did the rain fall, but lightning lit the sky, and the thunder could be heard echoing between the mountains. I had heard that the bride was insistent on the vows taking place outside, but was so relieved, upon arrival, to find that the plan had been changed.
Apparently, the outdoor area used for weddings is a “brisk walk” away from the reception venue. Those who attended the rehearsal dinner the night before said it was a full 15 minutes (or more!) walking. I am never one to shy from a stroll in the woods, but decked out in wedding attire, this just didn’t sound fun. I came prepared with yoga pants, hiking shoes, a raincoat and umbrella, just in case the plan went forward. And though I was ready to go with the flow, I was happy to save the hiking for Sunday and keep my heels on, and intact.
Truthfully, I don’t know the couple very well. I’m just now, as an adult, beginning to form and strengthen the relationships with my cousins on this side of the family. We didn’t hang out a lot when we were young, but it’s been really nice getting to know one another, growing closer, and feeling like I’ve gained family where I didn’t have it before.
That being said, I was going to an out-of-state wedding, no date, and knowing only four people in total. I won’t go so far as saying I was “nervous,” but I wasn’t sure how it would feel to be there. I knew the groom, his sister, and their parents. (The levels of cousin—2nd, 3rd, etc.—are confusing to me, so I call both generations of the family my “cousins”.) I had met the bride once, on a flight, a few years ago, and though she seemed great, it was hardly enough time to form a bond. I knew my cousin and his wife (the parents of the groom), of course, but I assumed they would have parental responsibilities at the wedding—schmoozing, meeting people, posing for photos with every guest.
Apprehension formed a fine mist in the background, as I braced to attempt socialization—alone, in a room full of people I’d never met. I didn’t let it take over though; my excitement to spend time with family, to solidify the bonds we’ve been building, and my honor at making it onto the small guest list took up far more space than any social anxiety. I decided to go in with a positive attitude, ready to have fun.
And I did.
I don’t know if it is getting older that has made me more comfortable in my own skin, and therefore out in the world, or whether it is the not drinking—the confidence gained by learning how to socialize all over again, from scratch. Maybe it was the people at the wedding, perhaps they were especially nice and easy to mingle amongst. Or maybe it was a combination of all three. Either way, I had a great time, despite attending alone and despite being sober.
This was my third alcohol-free wedding, so you might think I’m a pro at it by now. But it still blows my mind that The Artist Formerly Known As ‘Three Drink Minimum’ is able to dance and talk to strangers and have actual fun doing it, without a drink in her hand. If you’ve never felt socially awkward and drank to counteract it, then good for you (weirdo). For those of you who have, you’ll understand why I feel so proud of myself for dancing at the wedding, talking to people I don’t know, and saying YES to the opportunity in the first place. We’ve come a long way.
I had such a good time that I stayed after the reception ended, and the afterparty began. I got up in front of the group to pantomime music and movies and celebrities in a raucous game of charades that took place before the great hearth in the rustic, high ceilinged lobby. I found myself in front of the crowd over and over, because, as it turns out, I am a shark at guessing movie titles in Charades. I ended the night with goodbyes and nice to meet yous and promises to “See you at brunch!”. I got in my 7-passenger Buick SUV and took the dark, winding road back to the little roadside inn, contented, flushed with how pleased I was, looking back on how well the night went, and looking forward to the unwinding and tucking myself in, to the waking up alone in my room.
The wedding was a good time. The vows were beautiful, to match the bride’s dress, and the love of the couple, and the scenery outside. I ate, I shook hands, I danced my face off and felt like I left with something like new friends.
Congrats, Chris & Teresa!
Cheers to family, old and new.
Downtown Estes Park
Food, and coffee, and books, oh my!
Because of my delay in arrival, Saturday, the morning of the wedding, was the only chance I had to venture into downtown Estes Park. I didn’t have a ton of time, but managed to have a sweet little morning for myself. I met up with some family for breakfast at The Egg of Estes, a casual breakfast spot. The place was packed, as you’d expect of a breakfast place in a tourist town. I ordered the Athena Scramble, which was delicious and would also fit into my Greek-themed hike the next day (though I didn’t know it yet!) The Egg has lots of options available for those with dietary restrictions. We were a table of three vegetarians and one gluten-free, and everyone was happy with their choice of meal. This is a great breakfast spot to hit up on a quick trip to Estes Park.
Coffee, Books, & Little Treats
After breakfast, they went to get ready for wedding photos and I went to spend some time alone in town. First, I hit up Inkwell & Brew, a cute coffee & fine paper shop that sells artwork, small trinkets, and unique cards for all occasions. Greeting cards are my go-to item in cute shops when I’m traveling. I buy a few I like at each place, and when a card-giving occasion rolls around, I have one handy, usually picked out with someone specific in mind. (You won’t catch me giving a basic bitch Hallmark card for a birthday!) I browsed through the selection in Inkwell & Brew and purchased a few to add to my ever-growing (and ever-shrinking) collection. The shop also has an upper level with tables for sipping coffee and shelves full of board games to play while caffeinating. Some of the artwork sold here was very cool, too. I considered buying myself a print, but I’m on a bit of a budget so I refrained.
Next was a stop to Macdonald Book Shop. It was cozy with some cute merch, and I picked up a couple heavy-duty bookmarks with quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alice in Wonderland. Finally, my last stop was into Raven’s Roast Coffee Lounge, where I bought a raspberry fritter that was every bit as delectable as it was artery-clogging and blood-sugar spiking. Then it was back to the hotel to swap my lightbulbs and get wedding ready.
On Sunday, some of the wedding guests gathered at the famous Stanley Hotel for brunch. The Stanley is famous for being the inspiration for Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. The Shining movie was not, in fact, filmed at The Stanley, but another great film was—Dumb & Dumber!
The food was pricey, but the veggie burger with truffle aioli was filling and pretty darn delicious. The groom’s parents were sweet enough to treat all 20 of us to lunch and drinks at The Stanley Hotel, and it was a really nice way to wrap up a great wedding weekend in Estes Park. We caught up, filled up, and said our goodbyes before going our separate ways. Most of them were heading to the airport to fly home. I was heading to the trail to get my hike on and make the most of my quick trip to Estes Park.
I would have loved to try another restaurant or coffee shop in Estes Park, they seem to have some cute ones, and the giant marquis sign of the Sugar Shack was seriously calling my name. But I just didn’t have enough time. I think if I’d arrived Friday morning, when I planned to, it would have been the perfect length of time for a weekend visit to Estes Park.
This raspberry fritter was the stuff of dreams.
Hiking in Estes Park
You can’t not hike in Colorado. It simply isn’t allowed.
Estes Park is a mountain town that butts up against Rocky Mountain National Park. It is SURROUNDED by mountains, which makes the views stunning from every angle, and makes me want to walk amongst the alpines and catch a summit or two.
I won’t pretend to know the best hikes here, since I only had time for two on my quick trip to Estes Park. I’ll tell you about the two hikes I did, which were great, and then link to some other bloggers who seem to know what they’re talking about and can point you in the direction of “Best” hikes in Estes Park.
Had I arrived as planned on Friday morning, giving me three full days in Estes Park, I probably would have picked one of them to spend in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve been to the park before, years ago, but would love to visit again. The more national parks you see, the more you realize you’ll never be able to fit all the hikes you want into one trip. There is always more to see and do! That being said, my plans changed, and I was left with one half day, before the wedding, and one full day, Sunday, to explore the area.
You already know I spent Saturday kicking around downtown Estes Park, so Sunday became my designated hiking day. It wasn’t a fully-free day, though. As mentioned before, we had a pre-scheduled 12:00 wedding bunch brunch at The Stanley Hotel. Because of this, I wasn’t able to do a long day hike, and instead had to split my hiking activities into two parts. I decided to do an easy morning hike before brunch and then a more strenuous one afterward (to burn off the parmesan fries!)
The two hikes I decided on were Lily Lake and Mount Olympus. Read on for more info about both of these Estes Park hikes.
Lily Lake, Estes Park, CO
Lily Lake is more of a mild stroll than a true “hike,” and apparently it is popular. I found it on more than one list of “Best Hikes in Estes Park” and it’s rated highly on Alltrails. The .8-mile loop circles Lily Lake, hence the name, with views of mountains from all sides. It’s a good pit-stop if you’re only making a quick trip to Estes Park.
-Easy to get to. The parking lot is right off Route 7, a main thoroughfare in Estes Park, across the street from the Twin Sisters Peak Trail parking lot.
-Good for families and those with some physical disabilities. (It is very easy and flat.)
-There are off-shoot trails that can be added on to make this hike longer, and more interesting. Lily Ridge Trail is one that I took, and the views were stunning.
-There are several other trails that begin here, so Lily Lake can be a starting point to a full day of hiking, or a picnic spot after one of the more challenging hikes. Storm Pass, and Twin Sisters Peak Trail are both highly rated.
-If you’re looking for a physical challenge, this isn’t it. Keep moving to one of the harder hikes.
-Popular trails mean more people. (This can be a pro or a con, depending on who you are and what you’re looking for.)
Easy morning hike in Estes Park
View from Lily Ridge Trail
View From the top of Mount Olympus
Don’t confuse this Mount Olympus with its namesake in Greece, nor the other one in Utah, which apparently exists.
I found this trail on AllTrails and was thrilled with its name and designation as a “Hard” trail. The app told of stunning views and a challenging up-hill climb, and I was sold. Mount Olympus Trail is a 2.5-mile out and back trail that summits at, you guessed it, Mount Olympus. This is technically located in Drake, Colorado, inside Roosevelt National Forest, but it was a minutes’ drive from my hotel in Estes Park, and I think it counts. Reviewers talked about ‘bang for your buck’ because of the incredible views for such a short hike, and they were right. Less than halfway through the trail you come to clearings where you can see snow-capped peaks off in the distance. It gets better of course, and the views from the summit are well-worth the sweaty ascent. This is a great choice for a challenging hike if you’ll be taking a quick trip to Estes Park.
-Breathtaking 360-views of Estes Park Valley, and the mountains that surround it. Catch a view of the white-topped Rocky Mountains, all the deep-green peaks of Roosevelt National Forest, and basically everything else in the area.
-Burn, baby, burn. This trail is challenging, and if you’re looking for a workout, you’ll get your money’s worth here.
-Speaking of money, this trail is FREE. Of course, most trails are free to hike, but in Estes Park, many of the hiking trails are within Rocky Mountain National Park, which has a $25 entry fee, or Hermit Park Open Space, which comes with a $9 entry fee.
-Poorly marked. There are no trail markers on Mount Olympus Trail. For much of the trail, the path is obvious, a well-trodden dirt path showing the way. But in some sections, especially where it was rocky, it was impossible to discern which way the trail was going. I had to keep opening my Alltrails app to follow along with the in-app navigation to ensure I stayed on the trail.
-Parking was just a pull-off on the side of the road. It could be difficult to find a space on a busy morning. I hiked this in the afternoon and did not have trouble finding a space.
Mount Olympus, Drake, CO
Hiker notes found atop Mt. Olympus. (Of course I added!)
“Best Hikes” in Estes Park
If you’re going to be in Estes Park for more than a day, I highly recommend checking out Rocky Mountain National Park. The hikes will be gorgeous, and the views will take your breath away. Always check trail conditions before starting a hike, as the snow lasts well into late spring or early summer. My bestie Corey recommends the Sky Pond Trail via Glacier Gorge, an 8.6-mile hike in RMNP. But even if you’re not doing a long hike, you’ll have access to stunning snow-capped mountain views by driving the scenic byway.
If you’re interested in researching the best hikes in Estes Park, check out these posts:
Feeling good after a day of friends, food, and mountain views in Estes Park
Detour in Boulder
Those of you who have been following along know that one of my best and oldest friends lives in Colorado, a short drive from Boulder. That’s why I spent my birthday in Colorado in January and a long weekend getaway in Steamboat Springs in April.
As luck would have it, her house is basically halfway between Denver and Estes Park. After my day of brunching and hiking, I hopped in my giant Buick and headed to Corey’s house for some bestie time. I washed away the day with a glorious hot shower, then we sat in our pajamas, had takeout Thai and ice cream, and watched a show on Netflix that was so bad I had to google whether it was satire. (Missing: Dead or Alive—see for yourself!) As we get older and busier and more bogged down with bigger responsibilities, it gets hard to find the time for simple things like this. Sitting on the couch with a friend, catching up—in person, not over text or DM, sharing laughs or a carton of black raspberry ice cream. It’s the sweetest way to end a trip.
Best friends are the best.
I never feel closer to divinity than when I’m in the mountains. Organized religion, as a concept, escapes me, but here I know I’m a part of something bigger. Connected to every tree and stream and snow-capped peak. Each deer and marmot, the sun itself. I’m a tiny piece of a vast puzzle, and in the mountains, I see just how well it all fits together. How lucky I am to be here, a part of it.
This is why I love hiking alone. Taking solo trips to national parks. Walking through the steep, green, uphills of the Pyrenees, blustering winds so loud I can’t hear my own breath, on day 1 of a 500-mile walk across Spain. Being alone, outside, allows me the time to reflect on things far bigger than my day-to-day life. Bigger than myself and everything I’ve known.
But being encompassed in a room bursting with love and celebration, hearing the most intimate reasons spoken aloud—a crack through which you can peer in, and almost feel it yourself—is really something, too. And sitting across the couch from your oldest friend, who knows all your secrets, and has watched you grow up, and change, and stumble, and falter, and rise, and who loves you despite and because of it all, must be some kind of divine.
It is easy for me to forget, sometimes, in my quests for solitude and my love of independence, and my need for time alone, how much I need my people, too. How energized I am from spending time with family—old and new. How grateful I am to have the deep, long, protected friendships I have. How good it feels to be accepted and loved and cherished in all your flaws. How connection is not just a concept, but a feeling—a charge of current that runs through your body, that opens your mind, that makes life worth living.
My quick trip to Estes Park was just the little getaway I needed to quench all my cravings. Solitude and physical work in the mountains. Witnessing love, so sweet and tender. Familial bonds strengthened. And the comfort of home that a best friend brings.
Go to Estes Park. Hike the mountains, mosey through the shops, eat your face off downtown. Drive carefully and take in the vast, wonderous views. And when you do, and you know more than I do, come back to give me your recommendations. Let me know what I should do, and see, and eat, on my next quick trip to Estes Park.
Hey you. Yes, you! Thanks for stopping by! I’m Toni and I run the show here at A Wheel in the Sky. Here we talk all things travel, flight attendant life, and secrets too juicy not to share. I hope you enjoyed this post about my quick trip to Estes Park.
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