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Fall foliage along the Peak to Peak National Scenic Byway near Estes Park, Colorado (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

Wild and Wonderful: Estes Park

You don’t have to dig too deeply into a top news story these days to figure out the impact it might have on the traveling public. The Arab Spring and mall shootings in Nairobi are two obvious examples.

Last weekend, I would witness the effect two recent front-page events are having on travel: The flooding in Colorado and the shutdown of the U.S. government.

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A bull (male) elk bugling to attract a mate in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

To mark our 20th wedding anniversary, my wife and I booked a trip to Estes Park, a popular summer resort town on the outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park, to get away for a long weekend — and to check out Elk Fest, an annual celebration that coincides with the advent of fall or, more specifically, the elk rut — i.e. mating season.

Two weeks before our scheduled flight, we watched in shock as unrelenting torrential rains devastated the area. I was convinced we’d be forced to change our plans.

Wrong. Elk Fest was still on!

What would normally be a 90-minute drive from downtown Denver to Estes Park is now almost three hours thanks to a washed out Route 34 that leads to town from the east. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the alternate route takes you through Peak To Peak Highway, one of America’s most scenic and historic byways.

We certainly didn’t mind taking a detour surrounded by shimmering golden fall foliage and snow-covered peaks, but apparently the locals do. What’s normally one of the busiest weekends of the year in this mountain village was now one of the slowest.

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The Stanley Hotel offers panoramic views of the Rockies (Photograph courtesy Visit Estes Park)

The month of September had been anything but normal around here. Just 30 miles to the south, we passed the exit for Jamestown, which just days before required the largest human airlift since Katrina in 2005. Luckily, the road leading to Estes Park had been cleared of rockslides and the streets of downtown, once caked with several inches of mud, had been power washed.

This was a town seriously determined to return to business, and we were more than happy to support their efforts.

The lobby of Estes Park’s landmark Stanley Hotel was buzzing with activity as we checked in. Locals from around the region were gathering for a chance to let off some steam.  “Mountain Strong” proclaimed the t-shirts and bumper stickers being sold to raise money for displaced residents.

Despite the raging party, we managed to take the 90-minute ghost tour the hotel offers nightly. Along with its rich history (Stephen King based The Shining on his stay here), the Stanley has become a well-known hotspot for paranormal activity. Even if you’re a non-believer, the tour was a great way to learn about the property’s illustrious past.

But we were here to see elk, not ghosts. The two-day Elk Fest, which admittedly wasn’t at full strength this year, included wildlife exhibits, street vendors, a bugling competition (bugling is what male elks do to attract the females), educational seminars, and Native American dancing and storytelling.

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Elk Fest is meant to be a family-friendly event. Here, a young boy participates in a bugling contest. (Photograph courtesy Visit Estes Park)

Sure, everyone seemed to have fun, especially the kids, but the main attraction is seeing the elk in action. (It’s rare to actually see the elk mating, so no worries there. You will, however, have to explain what it means when animals are in heat means … and why males make such a big deal over the ladies.)

Our host at the Golden Leaf Inn, a newly opened and quite charming little guesthouse just outside of town, suggested we pick up a packed meal from Picnic In the Park before taking off. So we followed her lead and arrived just in time for the evening “Elk Echoes” program led by a park ranger.

Because of the small crowds and unseasonably cool weather, the large tailgating parties that typically gather to witness the elk’s unusual courting rituals didn’t materialize. Instead, the few of us who were there were treated to quite a display of bull elks aggressively guarding their harems. Some even waged violent battles to fend off unwelcome suitors.

After our visit, reports of the government shutdown began dominating the news, along with word that the country’s national parks would remain closed until the situation was resolved.

That may be good news for the elk, gaining them some privacy, but for Estes Park, a community that relies so heavily on tourism to fuel its economy, this is just more salt in a wound that’s ready to heal.

Rainer Jenss is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel. Follow him on Twitter @JenssTravels.