Estes Park (1875, 7,522 feet), at the main entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, is named for Joel Estes, who settled in this broad mountain valley in 1859. An abundance of game attracted sportsmen, most notably Irishman Thomas Wyndham-Quinn, fourth Earl of Dunraven, who attempted to make Estes Park his private game preserve. Local settlers frustrated these plans, and ultimately Dunraven sold his 6,000-acre spread. English world traveler Isabella Bird also fell in love with the mountain-rimmed park and described its spectacular scenery and rustic structures in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879).
By 1876 the village of Estes Park had emerged where the Fall and Wind rivers join the south fork of the Big Thompson River. A tourist town from the beginning, it blossomed with the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1916. By the 1960s Estes Park had become an ugly duckling among Colorado resort towns, a hodgepodge of candy and curio shops. Confronted by stiff competition from Aspen, Breckenridge, Telluride, Vail, and other mountain resorts, Estes Park belatedly reformed itself.
Urban renewal began on July 15, 1982, when Lawn Lake Dam on Fall River burst, inundating much of the town. It was the coup de grâce for many struggling creekside businesses. Survivors rallied behind the Estes Park Urban Renewal Authority to build Riverfront Plaza (1988) and Riverwalk (1990) along the Big Thompson and Fall rivers, adorned with well-landscaped parking lots, waterfalls, pools, native plants, boulders, and life-size outdoor wildlife sculptures. Elkhorn Avenue, the main street, underwent a $1 million streetscaping in 1987, introducing trees, rock gardens, Victorian lighting, and new patios and rear entrances on the Riverwalk. Some historic businesses remain, including Grubb's Livery (c. 1890), East Riverside and Elkhorn Avenue, and MacDonald's Book Shop, which started out as a family home and general store (1908), 152 East Elkhorn Avenue. The Continental Hotel (c. 1890), 110 West Elkhorn, has become Lonigan's Saloon, a romper room filled with electric games, pool tables, televisions, and even a basketball hoop. The Community (formerly Presbyterian) Church (1908), 157 West Elkhorn, has become the guiding light for the Old Church Shops. The Coffee Bar (1901), at East Elkhorn and Virginia Drive, began as a hay and grain barn and a general store. In 1986 the owner costumed the exterior with a gaudy, neo-Victorian frame facade in five pastel colors.
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