One of the places everyone should see at some time in their lives is Estes Park, Colorado. I live in Fort Collins, which is just about an hour away from this scenic wonder nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Just a short drive away down Hwy 34 is the Big Thompson Canyon which flows in its twisting turning path. When I first heard about the “Big” Thompson I imagined this great big wide, deep river. Being from Alabama, rivers are big. The “Big” Thompson isn’t big. For most of it, you could hop across it with 3 or 4 good jumps. The “Big” Thompson, most everywhere else in the U.S. would be called a creek. When I first saw it I thought out loud, “If this is the “Big” Thompson, I wonder what the Little Thompson looks like”, not even knowing there actually is a Little Thompson. And... yes, as you might expect, it is even smaller.
But, what a beautiful river! Even though it may be small by some standards, it is a powerful river with clean pure water rippling laughingly over rocks worn smooth and lined on each side by yet more rocks. Most times you will find fly fisherman spaced out along the several miles this river flows from Estes Park toward the South Platte which ultimately joins with the Missouri, then the Mississippi, and on to the Gulf of Mexico.
I am told the river actually passes on quite a large amount of water. Because much of it flows at a rapid rate, due to the decrease in elevation travelling from the snow melt tributaries high in the mountains toward the prairies, that it moves forward as much water as some larger slower rivers. There are people in the Deep South that are swimming and fishing in “Big” Thompson water, they just don’t know it.
Anyway, the "Big" Thompson Canyon presents some of the most breath taking scenery in the world! You could travel all over the planet and see other famous places and this one is right up there with any of them. The Rocky Mountains are well named. The foothills are rocky too. In fact the “Big” Thompson Canyon is the rockiest place I have ever seen or probably ever will see. The road leading to Estes Park has many hairpin turns, so many and so tight that you can almost see yourself passing yourself on the way through. The walls of the canyon go up so steeply that you really have to crane your neck to see all the way up.
Finally, after making about a gazillion turns and passing all the little bridges that lead to all those little neighborhoods that have all those rustic cottages and cabins, you reach a place where the sky opens up again before you and there it is, Estes Park! There is this feeling you get when you reach this point. It is a mixture of relief to finally be away from the dizzying turns and elation at the beauty of this charming little town surrounded on all sides by spectacular mountains. Words cannot describe them. If you don’t see them yourself, no amount of talking about them or even looking at pictures will do it. You have to see them, in person, wide awake and preferably with someone else who is also looking at them. There is a feeling you get that few things in life can duplicate.
My wife and I have taken so many friends and family there that it has become almost routine. But when we see it all over again through the eyes of our guests, we feel a sense of pride that we could jump in the car, even with just half a tank of gas, and take our guests to such a place of beauty and be home later that day before dark. To live in Colorado is to be real close to amazingly spectacular scenery or to be right smack in it. Those who live in Estes Park are the latter. We can easily visit where they live. I suppose it is possible for those who live there every day to lose the wonder of it all but every sunrise, sunset, weather change, or location provides enough variety that I doubt any long-time resident ever gets bored with the views this place provides.
Once you arrive in Estes Park you may discover that there are a lot of other people who like the place too. They are everywhere, many of them looking for the same parking space as you are. But once you get parked, it is a walking town. There are little shops with every kind of souvenir you can imagine. T-Shirts with all kinds of humorous and wacky things silkscreened on them, jewelry, hats, nick-knacks, carved bears, almost anything you can make look like a moose, put a moose on, attach some moose theme upon it, or in any way shape or form identify the product with moosiness will sell like hotcakes to hungry lumberjacks. Of course once you have entered and exited about a dozen such shops they begin to run together into a blur of rustic overload and you want to do something else.
That something else, for me, is to visit the famous Stanley Hotel. The Stanley is a stately old building that was built back before power tools, back when real craftsmen took real pride in their workmanship. It is all of wood, ornate in every way, high ceiling, lush moldings, world class architecture, custom stairway bannisters, hardwood floors and the coolest looking old world elevator anywhere. It is built on a hill overlooking Estes and has the best view of the surrounding scenery anywhere.
I like to go to the hotel coffee shop, buy a pastry and a cup of joe, then go up the ornate stairs to take my place in a rocking chair on the large majestic porch overlooking the town and just sit there pretending I own the place and am so magnanimous as to allow all the others to visit my home and also enjoy the view. After all, what joy it is to have such a beautiful place and not share it with my fellow human beings?
Other things close by Estes are also must sees. Trail Ridge Road, the highest elevated interconnected road in America begins just west of town. You pay a few bucks, follow the road all the way over the Continental Divide, see huge elk herds, big horn sheep, marmots, chipmunks, and all kinds of other critters. You finally get way above the tree-line where the oxygen gets thin and you feel that high altitude dizziness that can be either euphoric or mildly nauseating depending on how acclimated you are to it. But this view of being “on top of the world” is worth the weirdness of it. I have found that chocolate fudge helps, and even when it doesn’t it is still tasty.
No matter how many times I take a guest to Estes Park I still enjoy it myself. I am thankful to be allowed to treat someone else to this place that is so close to where I live. Although, I suppose, I will always be a transplanted Southerner, I have been transplanted and now consider myself a Coloradoan. This is my home. When I visit my native city of Mobile, Alabama and get my annual fix of Southern cuisine, salt water beaches, familiar accents, and old friends and relatives, I am ready to come back HOME to Fort Collins, Colorado! I love being pastor of “The Bridge Church” which has some of the best people I have ever known as members, and feel blessed by God to live and serve in this place to which I have been called.
If you ever find yourself anywhere close and east of Estes Park, by all means find the time to take the drive through the “Big” Thompson Canyon and spend a few hours in this special place. If you want, go see the Stanley. It’s OK, you can tell them that Marc Leverett gave you permission to tour the place.