~8-8.5 miles, 3.5 hours, 2000' gain
"It just seemed like a ListsOfJohn sort of day." -- DPage, and wife Karin, at the summit of Panorama Peak; the only other people we saw all day after beginning our hike.
"This was the best day ever in Colorado"
"The view from the old lookout tower made for a lastiing memory. This trip is a must when in EstesPark."
"Everyone in the family agreed this was one of the best things we did while in Colorado."
-- Various online tourist reviews, after paying $60/piece to rumble through the woods in a Hummer
It was indeed a ListsofJohn of sort of day: blustery, high winds above treeline, some trails on fire, some trails under snow, some trails under avalanche warning. J and I were looking for a mellow Sunday morning hike, one that keep us mainly in the trees and sheltered from the wind, and gave us an easy walk so J could recover from a solid 5k effort the day before.
Panorama Peak and "The Notch," reached via a series of Forest Roads off of Pole Hill Road and Hwy 36 outside of Estes, fit these criteria nicely.
"It was an exciting ride in a Hummer H1 along Pole Hill Rd in the Roosevelt National Forest."
This area is popular with off-roaders and organized tours. For able-bodied folks, one advantage of hiking here between December 1 and May is the NFS gated closure which keeps motorized traffic out. This would also be a fantastic ski or snowshoe immediately after a snowfall, as well as a fun mountain bike loop (could combine with other nearby areas like Piersen Park). Motorized traffic notwithstanding, there are enough aspen groves here that would make it a great autumn destination as well.
As it was, it was a pleasant walk for us, through quickly-changing blue skies; clouds and snow and socked-in views; and then sunshine up in the higher mountains again. Shaded aspects of the road had boot-deep snow, while sunny areas were either dry or had spots of mud.
"We did the spicy roller coaster Land Cruiser tour and I would say it is a must see and do!"
There are also short opportunities for bouldering and scrambling, which led to better views.
On the way up, we stayed on the southernmost roads, eventually losing one on a dead-end spur, but following the terrain upward through sparse brush and along bundled piles of timber.
Generally, the best scenery is on the northernmost roads, which circle around parks and meadows, which was our return route.
As it is, then, the private tower on NFS land is reserved for those who pay for one of the tours. Fair enough.
After meeting Derek and Karin, we headed back down to the meadow; up and down the wrong spur of the NFS road to the east; and then around the loop to the North that leads up to "The Notch," which is a rock cut in the road.
"Everyone agreed that it was the most fun we've had in Colorado."
The terrain near the notch was the best of the day, with minor scrambling and great views.
In that regard, an even shorter family-style hike that just did the notch loop would be well worth it, while the Notch plus Panorama peak nets 7+ miles of hiking on easy terrain.
Or you can combine with a few other nearby peaks, although my suggestion is checking out the views from the Notch as well.
As it is, I'll put it down on the list as another easy "alternative" hike not bogged down by the masses. Although I can't clean all the rock scrapes and undo the wide swaths around puddles and makeshift turnarounds, I did pick up a few relics, including a couple minor car parts, soda cans, shotgun shell, and a Colorado Rockies hat. It actually wasn't that bad, just that I'm fairly certain it wasn't a hiker or cyclist that left those things. So if you're into that sort of anthropology, bring a container for easy collection.
"That off road Land Cruiser could go places we thought weren't possible!"
My slight disdain towards the rumble machines isn't a reflection on the tour guides, which do generally seem enthusiastic toward sharing the scenery with tourists. I appreciate the enthusiasm for this fantastic scenery we live in. Mostly, I have a bit of melancholic sorrow towards someone a a decade or two older than myself is absolutely blown away with what they saw through a windshield. A slight improvement over a TV screen, sure, but what could have been!
For the kids, though, let it be a gateway: we promise you, your legs and heart and lungs can really take you places you never thought possible!
And it's not like I walked all the way from my house, or don't use electricity.
"If you are ever in Estes Park, make sure to fit this one in."