Don't wait till winter, when you have to battle the crowds on the Colorado slopes.
With the leaves starting to change and summer crowds dispersed, locals know fall is the best time to visit the peaceful mountain village of Estes Park, situated in a high alpine forest at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park two hours north of Denver.
With 60 peaks rising higher than 12,000 feet throughout the 415-square-mile park, gawking at mountains is a snap along 359 miles of trails. Our favorite is the 3-mile Bierstadt Lake trail which offers massive views of glaciated peaks with a reflective alpine lake reward at the end.
Rocky Mountain National Park, 1000 U.S. 36, Estes Park (970-586-1206).
For those who prefer to let the car do the hiking, a drive along Trail Ridge Road is not to be missed. As the highest contiguous paved road in America, it's like driving your car up to Everest base camp as you check out native elk and marmots amidst snow-capped peaks.
Rocky Mountain National Park, U.S. Route 34 from Estes Park to Grand Lake (970-586-1206).
Perched lakeside in an open valley surrounded by mountains, Mary's Lake Lodge offers modern condos with in-room Jacuzzi and fireplace. Sit on the deck and bask in the sun or head down to the lively wood-paneled dining room for live bands and “one of the most outstanding wine lists in the world,” according to Wine Spectator Magazine.
$130 and up per night. 2625 Mary's Lake Road, Estes Park (970-586-5958).
A drive to the nearby Gold Hill Inn takes you to a converted mining shack serving up gourmet six-course meals that rotate regularly on the whims of the chefs. Whether it's smoked salmon, brisket, lamb shank or halibut, it'll be enjoyed amidst bearded mountain men and well-heeled locals who kick out the jams once the banjo bands begin.
401 Main Street, Gold Hill (303-443-6461).