Estes Park Golf Course: Welcome to the Rocky Mountains

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ESTES PARK, CO - The town of Estes Park lies at the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and is the symbolic portal to the Rocky Mountains of Northern Colorado. Its 18-hole golf course also serves as the gateway to mountain golf in Colorado. It is one of the oldest and the most accessible mountain course for those who live on the Front Range, and provides a tantalizing hint of what great mountain golf is all about.

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The course has a long, unique history. The original core of holes were laid out in 1917, though there might not have always been a full nine. The holes underwent several growths and alterations over the years but remained basically in tact until the mid-1950's when Henry Hughes was commissioned to expand the facility to 18 holes.

In 1956, however, nine of these holes were leveled to make way for an airport that operated on the property, which operated for approximately one year. In 1958 Colorado architect Dick Phelps was hired to redesign the course, making it once again an 18 hole layout. Estes Park played to this design until the early 1990's when Phelps was brought back to make several alterations to a design that needed updating.

From the tips Estes Park is a short and nifty par 70, playing 6,400 yards. The men get the course at par 71 and 5,869 yards, and women see it at 5,250 yards. The product of this brevity of length and the 7,600-foot elevation is a course that overpowers no one. Indeed for the longest of players most holes, even some of the par fives, play little more than a drive and a pitch.

The thin air at this high elevation accounts for at least a one-club difference compared to the Front Range, and those who have traveled from sea level will notice a two, maybe three club difference. Hitting a wedge 150 yards is an empowering feeling, but distance control is the key to scoring at Estes Park.

Though this course is old and short, lacking the glamour of the newer mountain resort-style courses deeper into the Colorado Rockies, do not overlook it. This is enchanting, intriguing mountain golf. There is something so undeniably life-affirming in golf in the Rockies, from a sleepy nine-hole track in an old mining town to the glamorous power-courses such as River Valley Ranch or Haymaker, that any course is worthy of a visit. Estes Park, despite its quiet nature, still weighs in toward the top end of the scale of mountain courses.

The crisp mountain air, the steady breeze, the scent of pine that never abates - these are what set the tone when stepping from the car and are the harbingers of a deep sensory experience. Though the course is adjacent to the southern edge of town, make no mistake - you are in the Rockies here. Pine trees and large rock outcroppings recur throughout the course and surround the practice area, and the log-cabin clubhouse, built in 1917, reflects the mountainous flavor of the region. Views of the Rocky Mountains surround the course 360°, highlighted by the bold Longs Peak to the south.

Most of the holes at Estes Park are interior - only a handful are located at the barrier of the property. This lends to the feeling of openness and serenity - homes and condos never crowd the fairways as is common with many mountain courses.

There is nothing tricky or inherently difficult about Estes Park; the course does not attempt to overwhelm. Its key defense is subtlety. The greens, having been constructed at different times through the years and designed by different architects, display variant features on each hole. Some, such as the fourth, have pronounced tiers. Several are relatively flat (9 and 18).

Several more, including the sixth and the seventeenth, feature maddening undulation. Others have severe slope, most notably back to front. On these greens, such as three, ten, and thirteen, getting down in two from above the hole is a murderous task. The only common trait to these greens is that the majority of putts break toward Fish Creek. After you've sucked in the beauty and the invigorating mountain oxygen, locate Fish Creek.

The greatest aid to playing Estes Park is probably a little local knowledge. For those who have total command of their game, those who can control it long and straight, the course can be simply overpowered. For the rest there are certain areas that are absolute jail. More subtlety.

At first glance, most of the holes seem to be there for the taking, but shots that are slightly miss-hit have a way of finding common trouble spots, black holes where escape is anywhere but toward the green.

These magnets look benign, but being in them is the surest way to elevate the score. An innocent appearing cluster of trees blocks approach shots to the green for anything left off the tee on the 409-yard third hole. At the 398-yard fifth hole, as tee shots play away from the OB to the right, the fairway kicks otherwise well placed shots left toward a grove of trees and a depression. The conservative play is to lay back off the tee.

A forest of pines awaits everything right all the way to the green on the 540-yard sixth. The short par four 11th slopes right toward Fish Creek, slinging balls into a no man's land of brush, scrub, and water - the proper play high up the left side. Going right on the 13th is death, one of the most un-recoverable regions on the course. In fact, almost every hole has an x-factor, a place it is necessary to steer away from. But you might not know it by looking.

The back nine at Estes Park measures only 2,976 yards from the championship tees, but it might be the most enjoyable sub-3,000-yard nine you'll play. There is tremendous opportunity to make up strokes and play some thrilling, adventurous shots.

The tenth is a downhill par three of 175 yards that plays in front of the gallery of the clubhouse. It is protected by a pond short and left, and balls seem to hang in the air forever, posing in front of the backdrop of the mountain across the valley, before descending rapidly to the green. There is really no place to miss here but short right.

The next four holes are what golfers look forward to, the make-or-break time in the round. They are all short par fours, reachable to long hitters, and great chances to make birdie.

Eleven is 332 yards. The fairway rolls and cants, dangerously tossing shots to the right, and the green sits slightly elevated on a shelf. Twelve is a 352-yarder where the fairway descends abruptly then rises again just as quickly, so the tee shot plays more or less level. Balls that are not hit toward the upslope across the nadir will have a blind, uphill second.

Thirteen is the climactic visual hole of the round. This is a tasty looking treat that plays 312 yards, all downhill. The tee shot from this launching pad is majestic. Drives are pounded out toward the dramatic vistas beyond; white orbs rocket in silhouette, pristine, cannoned weightlessly into the high American west, beautiful. Beautiful, that is, as long as they find the fairway: right is jail, left is OB.

This reachable green is very slick and guarded right and left by bunkers. And finally this exciting quartet of holes finishes with an uphill par four of 269-yards. The fairway is wide and with a straight drive this is the best chance for birdie in the entire round.

The personality and mountain atmosphere of Estes Park will have charmed most golfers by this point in the day. So many of the holes are quietly impressive, memorable far beyond the end of the round. The 17th, a warping, downhill, 541-yard par five with an approach across Fish Creek can yield dozens of experiences, all different.

The sixteenth, a dogleg right of 361-yards, offers a chance for bravado if the player is willing to cut the corner over an out-of-bounds area. Every hole here seems to have a character unto itself, which is more than can be said for far too many layouts in the area.

It is pure pleasure to play a course so thoroughly self-possessed and fun. There is something for everybody at Estes. Low handicappers will find excitement in the scoring opportunities. Some will love its benign nature and accessibility. High handicappers will feel they are playing like the big boys. Everyone will enjoy the views. Estes Park is an utterly enjoyable, refreshing round of golf.

While in town head to the downtown area and stop in at The Wheel Bar, an Estes Park institution for more than half a century. Enjoy their great Colorado steaks, beverages, sports, and a lively bar atmosphere. The Stanley Hotel is another Estes landmark. This large, stately hotel overlooks the town and Lake Estes and was the inspiration for the hotel in Stephen King's The Shining. Stay there while visiting, brunch there, or simply drive up to take a look around the grounds at this impressive landmark.

Estes Park Golf Course is generally open from April to October. Depending on the season and the time of day you play, you might be accompanied by a herd of elk or other mountain wildlife. It all adds to the experience of the gateway course to Colorado mountain golf. Summer green fees are $33 and carts are $22. Call to inquire about fall rates.

To get to Estes Park Golf Course turn east at the golf course entrance from Highway 7, 1 mile south of the Holiday Inn off US 36.

Estes Park Golf Course
P.O. Box 1379
Estes Park, CO 80517

Tees Blue: Rating 69.0 Slope: 121
White Rating: 66.8 Slope: 112
Red: Rating 68.3 Slope 125

Green Fees:
open April 14th thru October 30
$36.00 for 18 holes for non-resident
$27.00 for 18 Holes for Resident

Power Carts:
$12.00 per rider for 18 holes

Lake Estes: Nine-Hole Golf Course

Men: Rating: 60.2 Slope: 96
Ladies: Rating: 61.6 Slope: 105

Green Fees:
$11.00 - 9 Holes $16.00 - 18 Holes

$13.00 - 9 Holes $18.00 - 18 Holes

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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