Estes Park and Boulder are both in the state of Colorado, located approximately 58 to 94 km apart, depending on what route is driven.
Estes Park is known as the base camp for the Rocky Mountain National Park. Sitting at almost 2,300 meters, the mountainous village boasts picturesque views as well as a plethora of outdoor adventure activities.
Boulder is the 12th most populated city in Colorado, with a population of 102,034 people as of 2023. It also has a relatively high elevation, sitting at 1,655 meters above sea level.
If you are planning a trip to Estes Park and Boulder, this article will give you important information to help decide your itinerary. The article will discuss:
- The 3 best routes from Boulder to Estes Park
- Things to see and do along the way
- Public transportation options from Boulder to Estes Park.
The Best Routes from Boulder to Estes Park
There are 3 main routes from Boulder to Estes Park. The US-36 West Route, the CO-7 North Route or Peak to Peak Highway, and the CO-119 to CO-72 to CO-7 Route.
Each route has its own positives and negatives which are discussed below. Regardless, the Colorado Department of Transportation urges drivers to always check road updates before embarking on a trip.
The US-36 Route is the fastest way to get to Estes Park from Boulder. It leaves Boulder to the North and passes through Lyon before heading straight to Estes Park. This route takes around 1 hour and is 60.5 kilometres in distance.
Of the three routes, it has the lowest elevation so is likely to be the least affected by winter conditions – a positive if you are traveling at this time!
The drive between Lyon and Estes Park contains views of unique rock formations, but this route is definitely the least scenic.
As the US-36 is the main route from Boulder through the Rocky Mountains National Park it can get busy. Congestion at peak travel times should be expected.
Traveling from Boulder to Estes Park on the CO-7 North will take around 1 hour and 15 minutes over a distance of 52 miles. The route starts on the US-36 before joining the CO-7 at Lyon to head through South St. Vrain Canyon.
This route is comparatively more scenic than just driving the US-36 and will reward you with brilliant views of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Congestion should be expected on the US-36 leaving Boulder.
One negative to this route is the major plan to develop the CO-7 by 2040. Significant road works and increased congestion are to be expected.
CO-119 to CO-72 to CO-7 Route
The route to Estes Park is the longest of the 3 with 1 hour 25 minutes of travel time and a distance of 59 miles. However, it does include some cool and quirky little towns and picturesque mountain roads.
This route is best if you are under no time pressure to get to Estes Park. The CO-119 and CO-72 will have significantly less traffic than the US-36 out of Boulder.
Things to See and Do Along the Way to Estes Park
There are many things to see and do on your journey to Estes Park from Boulder, and they vary depending on which route you take. Below is an overview of some interesting locations along the CO-119 to CO-72 to CO-7 route:
1. Chautauqua Park
Chautauqua Park is the perfect start to your trip to Estes Park, located on the outskirts of suburban Boulder. It is an iconic park full of history.
The Chautauqua movement started with the inception of the Chautauqua Institute in 1874. It was the first adult educational assembly that focused on teaching Sunday school teachers about scientific and cultural topics.
An intersection of religion and science, it expanded at a rapid rate and many Americans embraced the idea.
“Chautauquas” were born all across the United States, especially in places where secondary education opportunities were limited.
In 1898 Boulder residents approved a bond issue to purchase 80 acres of land, including what is now known as Chautauqua Park.
The land was originally bought as a “Chautauqua”, and is now a place for people to interact with nature in an unstructured way.
2. Flagstaff Mountain
Located on the way out of Boulder just 10 minutes from Chautauqua Park, Flagstaff Mountain is a go-to spot for any outdoor enthusiast.
The summit can be accessed either by driving up Flagstaff Road ($3 for parking). Alternatively, if parking on the CO-119, it’s a short 2.5-mile walk up the northwest side of the mountain.
Deer and many bird species can be seen on the trails up, and upon reaching the top you will be rewarded with breath-taking views of Boulder.
3. Boulder Falls
If you are looking for an easy walk with spectacular results, Boulder Falls is the place!
Pull off on the CO-119 approximately 16 minutes from Boulder and walk up 100 meters of stairs. You will be greeted with a beautiful 65-foot waterfall cascading down through a rocky canyon – the perfect place for a picnic!
4. Nederland: A quirky mountain town
The next stop on this scenic route from Boulder to Estes Park is a quirky little town called Nederland. Nederland is half an hour from Boulder on the CO-119 and an hour from Estes Park via CO-72 and CO-7.
It is recommended to stay a night or two here in order to really make the most out of the place!
Nederland was established in the 1850s as a trading post and mining town, and it flourished until about 1890 when profitable mining ended. Nederland is now known for its outdoor recreation and a strong sense of community.
Nederland has strong historical traditions to learn about, as well as many events running regularly.
Indulge in some theater or delicious dining, support the local farmers’ market, or spend time shopping up a storm in the many retail stores.
5. Carousel of Happiness (in Nederland)
While in Nederland, there is one must-do experience. The Carousel of Happiness is a restored 1910 Looff carousel with 57 hand-carved animals incorporated into the design.
A US marine named Scott Harrison found a tiny music box during the Vietnam War and would play it in his ear to drown out the horrors of war.
Upon returning home, Harrison bought an abandoned Looff Carousel and spent the next 26 years carving animals for it despite never having carved before!
The Nederland community raised $700,000 to build the completed carousel home, and it is now proudly displayed for all to enjoy. Definitely take the time to have a ride and appreciate this masterpiece!
6. Eldora Mountain Resort
If you are driving from Boulder to Estes and fancy some snow sports, Eldora Mountain Resort is the perfect place for both beginners and advanced.
Located close to Nederland, Eldora Mountain Resort is very family-friendly and is known as the best place to learn how to ski in Colorado.
7. Brainard Lake Recreation Area
Between Nederland and Estes Park is the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. Popular activities in the area include hiking, biking, fishing, and cross-country skiing.
If you are planning to visit, make sure to check and follow the Indian Peaks Wilderness regulations and permit requirements!
8. Peaceful Valley Ranch
About half an hour north of Nederland lies the Peaceful Valley Ranch, adjacent to the Peak to Peak Highway.
Peaceful Valley’s 300 acres of land hold a great deal of history from the cattle ranching era of the 1880s. The ranch, including many historic buildings, has been preserved for people to appreciate – so be sure to pay a visit!
9. Wild Basin Area of Rocky Mountain National Park
Another popular hiking area on the CO-7 between Boulder and Estes Park is the Wild Basin area of the Rocky Mountain National Park. There are many short out-and-back or loop tracks to subalpine lakes, waterfalls, and more.
The scenery is breathtaking but the area is mountainous and the weather can change quickly, so make sure you are well prepared for your visit.
As the Wild Basin Area is part of the RMNP, you will also need a pass, which costs $30 for one day.
10. Chapel on the Rock
An unusual but exciting attraction on the CO-7 is the Chapel on the Rock, located about 20 minutes from Estes Park.
This Catholic church with over 100 years of history was built on top of a rock formation in 1916, and is still a functioning chapel!
The official name is the St. Catherine of Siena Chapel. It has survived fires, landslides, and other disasters that have affected the surroundings.
Visitors are allowed at any time between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to explore the church. However, keep in mind that Mass is held every Friday at 8:30 a.m. You can either wait outside during this time or participate!
11. Lily Lake
About 15 minutes from Estes Park, you will come across the beautiful Lily Lake.
This scenic 0.8-mile handicap-accessible loop trail winds around the foreshore and wetlands, and is a popular place for bird watching, fishing, and hiking.
Lily Lake was integrated into the Rocky Mountain National Park in 1992, so you’ll need a pass to visit Lily Lake (which costs $30 for a one-day pass). Dogs are also not allowed.
Public Transportation Options
There is only one public transport option to travel from Boulder to Estes Park. It involves two buses with a self-transfer in the middle and takes approximately 2 hours and 43 minutes.
There are four departures a week, two on a Saturday at 0734 hours and 0834 hours, and then another two on a Sunday at 0712 hours and 0812 hours. There are no buses that run during the week.
In terms of cost, the first bus with the Regional Transportation District costs anywhere between $1 and $9, and the second bus with the company Bustang costs anywhere between $8 and $54.
The departure location is Broadway and 20th, followed by 12 minutes to self-transfer from Mesa Station Gate A to Mesa Station Gate B and Estes Park Visitor Centre as the arrival location.
The bus route is along US-36, and once it leaves Mesa Station it does not stop!
Therefore, if you want to see some sights on the way to Estes Park, it is better to have your own transport than to use the bus service.