American or Canadian Rockies?
November 27, 2006 5:21 PM   Subscribe

Where is the most scenic part of the Rockies within 2 hours drive of Denver? Or should I consider flying to Calgary for Banff?

I want to surprise my wife on her birthday in mid-January with a long weekend in a majestic part of the country. We will depart Chicago and since we only have Friday a.m. to Monday, I need to minimize travel. We have been to the Breckenridge area before, but I am looking for something a little more scenic. Estes Park? We are not skiers but love to hike & snowshoe. Preferably not overly touristy (Vail,Aspen). I have heard many great things about Banff (more striking, alp-like), but I am not sure if it would be worth the extra time. Thanks for any suggestions.
posted by repoman to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Estes Park is very touristy, but you can't go wrong with Trailridge Rd. at dawn in Rocky Mountain National Park. The west side of the park is not quite as scenic, but great in its own way and hosts the small town of Grand Lake. Still touristy, but not as much as Estes Park. Shadowcliff is a really nice place with quiet rooms (also a hostel in the place, which makes it more livable). Though, you're not in the most scenic part of the Rockies in Grand Lake, it's only a short drive away.
posted by ontic at 5:27 PM on November 27, 2006

I live in Calgary, and I wouldn't do Banff in winter. It'll either be clear and bitterly cold (right now it's 10 below F in Banff with a windchill of -30F) or it'll be overcast and snowing, and if that's the case you won't be able to see anything.

I would **NEVER** hike in the Canadian Rockies in the winter unless I had years of cold-weather hiking experience. It's an unbelievably unforgiving situation. We're talking bitter cold, avalanches, etc.

Visit here in the summer. Banff is nice (although very touristy); the views in and north of Lake Louise are amazing.
posted by watsondog at 6:28 PM on November 27, 2006

A correction: I wouldn't do Banff *unless I were planning to go skiing*. The Banff area does have good skiing.
posted by watsondog at 6:30 PM on November 27, 2006

Well, the Canadian Rockies are often said to be the most beautiful part and more protected. I'm biased, but I do agree.

You pretty much couldn't go wrong anywhere in that country. Anywhere you go is going to be beautiful.

You might like Kananaskis Country -- it's not in the thick of the most dramatic peaks, but it's a gorgeous wilderness area.

Of course Banff National Park is totally gorgeous. Banff townsite would probably be too touristy for your taste, but Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, in the park, or Canmore, just shy of the park, might suit you.

Also, the drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks, the Icefields Parkway, is mind-blowingly beautiful, though you'll have to keep an eye on the road conditions because that road is sometimes closed during extreme weather. I would strongly encourage you to take the trip if at all possible. It really is amazing.

Here's a link for hiking trails and snowshoeing info for Banff. At this point in the year you'll need the snowshoes! In Banff you can't snowshoe on cross-country trails, but in Kananaskis you can, off to the side.
posted by loiseau at 6:36 PM on November 27, 2006

Just brainstorming here ... How about Taos, New Mexico?
You can experience rocky mountain, riparian, and desert scenery.
BiasFilter: I live in Taos :)
posted by allelopath at 6:37 PM on November 27, 2006

Maroon bells. The lake beneath these mountains is one of the most magical places I've ever been. If you can camp out there at night you can see the mountains reflected in the lake, along with the stars.

Even if Aspen is touristy, you don't need to stay there. Plent of small towns a small distance away.
posted by lalochezia at 6:43 PM on November 27, 2006

My opinion: Rocky Mountain National Park is the single most scenic part of the Rockies within the United States. The west side (Grand Lake) can't be reached in two hours, but you can get to Estes Park fairly easily. It's a mid-level tourist town (definitely not Aspen prices) that's crazy in summer but not bad in winter. To make it a special event, stay at the Stanley Hotel, which is where Stephen King got the idea to write The Shining, and the exterior was used in Kubrick's film. It was also used in the made-for-tv version. And other movies: they have a picture gallery in the hotel of all the films shot there. However: you probably won't be able to get into the heart of the true grandeur of the Rockies, because the single road across the continental divde, Trail Ridge Road, would probably be closed at that time of year. The snow plows just can't keep up. But you can certainly get into the Park and do things, you just can't go all the way in. The views are spectacular nonetheless. The town has a nice mix of restaurants and shops as well.
posted by bigmuffindaddy at 6:53 PM on November 27, 2006

I second bigmuffindaddy in regards to Estes. The area is amazingly gorgeous. Of course, I'm biased because I lived there for a few summers. Also, BMD is correct regarding tourists. In the summer it is crazy but the rest of the year is fine. When you add on the possibilities of spending some time in Boulder on your way up to Estes I think you could make a lovely trip out of it. But, be warned it could be quite cold. Stop by Estes Park Mountain Shop to rent snowshoes and find out where to go--good guys (full disclosure: I used to work there).
posted by fieldtrip at 7:12 PM on November 27, 2006

The Canadian Rockies are really amazing. Are you really a true hiker/snowshoer, or just like to find some stuff to do outside for a couple of hours?

I agree that Banff is a bit saccharine, but there is lots to do. A little bit beyond Banff Springs proper (yet still in Banff) is Lake Louise. Just like in Banff Springs there is a large chateau hotel (one of the old Canadian ones that Canadian Pacific Railways made so famous years ago - of course now owned by Fairmont hotels). There is skating (on the frozen lake), and I think there are some walking trails too, but don't hold me to that. Because Lake Louise is also a ski resort they probably have some cross country ski terrain where you may be able to horseshoe. The chill factor is one worth considering, but it's cold in Aspen too.

If I had a surprise weekend to plan, I would think a nice weekend at one of the old CP hotels would be stellar. Check it out, . Have fun.
posted by commissioner12 at 7:13 PM on November 27, 2006

Oh yeah, and getting there is really easy. Fly to Calgary, rent a car and drive West on the Trans-Canada for 1:45.
posted by commissioner12 at 7:15 PM on November 27, 2006

Buena Vista, Colorado. Small town, awesome views, and almost no tourists in January. It's been said that we'll someday be the next Aspen/Vail (shudder) - but we're far from it now. Bonus: there is a resident MeFite (me) that can give you all sorts of info; or I can refer you to my friend who provides all-inclusive packages (B&B, recreation, whatever you want, all through one person). This is the Chamber of Commerce website, look for the "video slide show" link to see some local views. Email is in my profile.
posted by attercoppe at 7:40 PM on November 27, 2006

I second Buena Vista. rustic inns with hot springs are perfect after exploring ghost towns on cross country skis.
posted by hortense at 8:20 PM on November 27, 2006

Canadian Rockies are much, much less heavily developed than anything within two hours of Denver. ( lived in Denver for a couple years as a kid and learned to ski in the Colorado Rockies, was back there this summer and stunned by how overdeveloped the I-70 corridor had become, and I now live in Calgary, FYI.)

It will likely be colder up here, but I don't agree with watsondog that it's unbearable - it could be, if it's a -25C cold snap, but even -10C or so is bearable for a day-hike or snowshoe if you dress for it.

A couple of further notes/suggestions:

- Banff is gorgeous, but without a doubt the most touristy part of the Canadian Rockies, with high-end retail and tour groups galore. If, however, you want to be able to hike by day and have a wide choice of eating/nightlife options at night, Banff might be your scene.

- Canmore is just outside the park gate from Banff. You're a 20-min. drive from Banff townsite, but it's much cheaper, and a little less overtly theme-parkish (though it's heading that way). Still good nightlife options, and there's some great hiking, the Olympic cross-country ski trails, and top-notch ice fishing (which is more fun than you'd think, and I know the guy in the left-hand pic of this link personally if you are at all interested; my email's in my profile).

- The Chateau Lake Louise is one of the most romantic settings on the planet if deluxe accomdations in a storied locale are your bag. Great hikes around the lake, and you can skate on the lake itself in front of the hotel. And a warm drink in front of the great window of the lobby bar is one of the finest ways there is to end a winter's day. About 45 min. past Banff (i.e. about 2.5 hours or so from Calgary airport on clear roads).

- Emerald Lake Lodge is another old CP hotel, more of the private-condo/chalet village style, with a lovely old woodbeam main lodge. Another half hour's drive from Calgary past Lake Louise, but less heavily travelled by the ski crowd.

- Num-ti-Jah Lodge: On the way to the Columbia Icefields. More rustic and isolated still than the other two. Great snowshoeing. Nowhere near as fancy as the Chateau, but definitely has as much of a back-country lodge vibe as you can get and still be car-accessible.
posted by gompa at 8:30 PM on November 27, 2006

I have lived in Colorado my entire life. If you are looking for a great mountain for skiing or snowbaording Keystone I would say is your best bet. On top of the mountain, as soon as you get off the Gandola, there is a view of about 200 miles of valleys, rivers, moutains and forest. My girlfriend and I were there over the weekend on a snowboarding trip for the day. Keystone is adsuletely stunning. A river runs throguh the town making it that much better. If you aren't into skiing or snowboarding its still a great town to stay in for the shopping, nightlife (music, festivals, and food), and of course one of a kind rocky mountain atmosphere.
posted by Justin Ryan at 10:48 PM on November 27, 2006

I live fairly close to Rocky Mountain National Park and spend many a weekend bumming around the place. It's pretty much your best bet as far as locations within a couple hours of Denver. Note, however, that mid-January isn't exactly the best time to be up there. The aforementioned Trail Ridge Road is indeed amazing... but it's been closed for the season since early October, and won't re-open until late May.

Assuming you're not arriving immediately after a snowstorm, however, the rest of the roads in the park *should* be open. Most hiking trails at higher elevation will be snowpacked, but that just makes for good snowshoeing. Estes Park sits just on the eastern edge of RMNP, so it's a pretty good staging area. And since there aren't any ski resorts up that way, it's not all that crowded during the Winter.

Honestly, though, in mid-January, outdoor recreation opportunities can be somewhat limited in the Colorado Rockies. You can ski (cross-country or downhill), snowshoe, or... well, that's about it. The weather is generally pleasant that time of year (not many snowstorms), but it's going to be cold and there's going to be a low of snow sitting around. A lot of the scenic spots and backroads simply won't be all that accessible, unfortunately.
posted by jal0021 at 3:20 AM on November 28, 2006

I ... third?... Canmore as opposed to Banff, if you're thinking the Canadian Rockies. It's by far less touristy, just as much to do, cheaper. Also very close to Banff if you really want to experience the mad holiday rush, there.
posted by drycleanonly at 12:29 PM on November 29, 2006

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