Celebrating it’s centennial year, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a must see for any Coloradan or out-of-towner. It was the site of our last real “family vacation” as a Wisconsinite family of four when I was attending college. We rented a cabin, rode horses through the park, and watched the multitude of stars from the front porch, breathing in the Rocky Mountain air. I never dreamed that one day I would live in Colorado with my own family, and that Rocky Mountain National Park would be one of our favorite places to go.
Just a 2 hour drive from Denver (or at least from my house), Rocky Mountain National Park has a myriad of family friendly hikes, camping spots, and programs for families with kids. It’s a great place to go year round, but it really shines in the summer (especially for families). Annual passes are affordable–$40 for a year round pass or $20 for a one time pass. Plus, it’s so nice to beat the heat a little, up in the mountains. The Eastern Entrance of the park is through Estes Park and it’s definitely the most popular side. The Western Entrance from Grand Lake is less crowded and you tend to see more wildlife. Either way you go, here’s a list of some of the best things for families to do in the park:
Family Friendly Hikes
(Tip: Read here for how to prepare for hiking with kids!)
Bear Lake – Since this is one of the most popular trails in the park, you need to get to this one early! The parking lot fills up fast, but not to worry, a shuttle can take you to the trailhead from a second parking lot. From Bear Lake, you can continue on to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes, depending on how far you can handle. The total round-trip if you go all the way to Emerald Lake is 3.6 miles. This trail is also very popular for snowshoeing in the winter.
Sprague Lake – This trail is super easy and completely flat, making it a perfect first hike for your toddler or preschooler, once they are done with the hiking backpack. It’s about a half mile, but it probably takes us an hour to complete because our son is obsessed with throwing rocks in the lake (anyone else?). Sprague Lake is also the perfect picnic spot.
Alberta Falls – This is one of the easiest hikes that includes a waterfall in the park. Located at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, you get to see the beautiful 30 ft Alberta Falls in a little less than a mile.
Holzwarth Historical Site – located on the western side of the park, the trail up to site is very family friendly and even crosses the Colorado River. The Holzwarth historical site is a series of cabins that were originally built as a guest ranch.
Trail Ridge Road
This drive is a must. It covers the whole span of the park from the East side of Estes Park to the West side of Grand Lake, and IT IS beautiful! When you get above the treeline, there is a visitor center with a restaurant (bring your jacket, it gets chilly!). When we go, we usually start at the Eastern end, get to the visitor center, and then turn back around.
There are numerous companies that offer horseback riding into the park (here’s one). If you go, be sure to bring jeans and appropriate shoes for everyone!
You’re a braver woman than I if you have camped with young kids, so I don’t have any firsthand experience with this; however, I have it on good authority that Rocky Mountain National Park has great campsites. It’s $20/night, making it a cost effective (and fun) way to make a weekend out of your experience at RMNP. If you’re going to be camping, check out our post on How to Camp with Kids – the post has a free printable pack list!
The park’s Junior Ranger program is FREE for kids and runs four times a day from June 20th-August 16th. The kids earn a junior ranger booklet and badge at the end of the half an hour program. Suggested age range is 6-12 and the program covers various wildlife topics.
Tuck this tip away for the winter: Rocky Mountain National Park has a sledding hill! Located in Hidden Valley, this hill used to be part of the bunny hill (did you know RMNP used to have a ski area? I had no idea!) so it’s pretty gentle. On weekends, a warming station is available. Make sure to bring a thermos of hot cocoa, and call the number provided on the linked website above before you go to check weather conditions!
If you want to do more than a day trip, the Estes Park center of the YMCA of the Rockies has pretty much cornered the market on affordable family friendly stays near RMNP. They have numerous programs onsite (zipline, pool, climbing wall, etc.), and also offer guided trips into Rocky Mountain National Park. Even if you’re not staying there, you can purchase a day pass for all of their activities.
Our favorite way to eat when we go up to the park is to simply pack a lunch and picnic by Sprague Lake or Moraine Park, but if you want to eat in the town of Estes Park, I recommend Claire’s on the Park or Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ.
One last tip: on the way back to Denver, don’t forget to pick up some yummy cherry pie at the Colorado Cherry Company!