Visiting the Rockies with Kids (Rocky Mountain National Park)
The Rocky Mountains, often times called the Rockies, make up the largest mountain range in North America. The mountain range extends from British Columbia and Alberta in Canada, down through the US states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and down into New Mexico. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is one of the best spots along the mountain range to experience the natural beauty and wildlife of the mountains. Look no further for great reasons for visiting the Rockies with kids and discover everything you need to know when planning your visit!
***Like many other things, COVID has caused some changes to the entrance requirements for the park. For the 2022 summer season (beginning May 27th through October 10th 2022) timed reservation tickets will be needed and can be made at Recreation.Gov***
How To Get There
Because of its proximity to so many of Colorado’s main cities, Rocky Mountain National Park is a great additional to any family getaway to the area. You can add on a day trip from nearby areas like Colorado Springs and Denver, or do the opposite and build your itinerary with RMNP as your home base, with plenty of options for day trips nearby!
Rocky Mountain has two gateway communities that you could make your homebase and port of entry if you desire. Este Park is a small mountain town on the East, and the more well-known of the two. On the West is Grand Lake, which will see fewer crowds, especially in the summer months.
By car, RMNP is only:
- 1.5 hours from Denver. If staying in the Denver area you will want to fly into Denver International Airport. From Denver you will want to take I-25 until you reach exit 217 (Highway 36) that will take you into Estes Park. You could also follow I-25 and exit at 243 (Highway 66) to Estes Park.
- 1 hr. 50 minutes from Cheyenne
- 2 hr. 40 min. from Colorado Springs
- 4.5 hours from Aspen
- 5 hours to Grand Junction
Public Transportation Options
While we would highly recommended visiting RMNP by personal or rental vehicle for flexibility and having control, that might not always be an option for families visiting the Rockies with kids. There are some public transportation options available.
If you are flying into Denver International Airport, you could take a commercial shuttle from the airport to Estes Park (this can be pricey though!).
In the summer months, if your homebase is Estes Park you can take the free Estes Park shuttle service into the park and then get around in the park with the RMNP shuttle bus. Be sure to check their routes and any other restrictions before your arrival at the park. There have been changes made to due to COVID, and limits have been placed on the number of people allowed on the shuttle at one time, so be prepared for longer wait times. The shuttle service only runs in the peak summer months, usually from Mid-May to Mid-October.
There is no public transportation into the Western end of the park.
RMNP has four entrance stations:
- Beaver Meadows Entrance: the main entrance and the largest entrance station into the park. Located near Estes Park.
- Fall River Entrance: located on the Eastern side of the park.
- Wild Basic Entrance: located on the Eastern side of the park.
- Grand Lake: located on the Western side of the park.
How Much Does It Cost?
Rocky Mountain National Park has a vehicle entrance fee of $25 per vehicle or $15 per person if walking or biking in. A 7-day pass for the park is $35 for vehicles and $20 for pedestrians.
You can also purchase the America is Beautiful- National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass if you are planning on visiting other US national parks. The pass is $80, but gives you access to over 200 national parks and recreation areas.
When To Visit
Peak season for Rocky Mountain National Park is June through September. These months will see the warmest temperatures, but if planning on visiting during these months be prepared to experience some of the largest crowds. This is also the time when the most areas of the park will be accessible.
The fall months, especially Mid-September to Mid-October, are some of the best weeks to visit if you are looking for some cooler weather, before the frigid winter months hit. You will also catch stunning fall foliage and avoid the large crowds of the summer months.
How Much Time Do You Need?
A minimum of three days to visit Rocky Mountain National Park is recommended, but don’t let that deter you if you have less. There is still plenty you can see and do in one day’s time, especially if you have the flexibility of having your own vehicle to get around.
Where to Stay
Depending on what kind of accommodations you are looking for, you can find plenty of options in and around Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are looking to fully experience the nature and outdoor wonder of RMNP, camping within the park is the best option! There are several campgrounds in the park to choose from. If you want more modern accommodations with a bed and bathroom, you can find plenty of family friendly options in nearby Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Best Camping Options When Visiting the Rockies with Kids
For campsites that accept reservations, these can be made up to 6 months in advance. It is recommended to do so as early as possible as they fill up very quickly! There are only 2 first come, first serve sites.
Timber Creek Campground– 8 miles East of Grand Lake Entrance Station along Highway 34. This location has 98 campsites and operates on a first come, first serve basis.
Moraine Park Campground– 2.5 miles south of the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. This location has 244 RV and tent sites. Reservations are required and recommended far in advance.
Glacier Basin Campground– 6 miles South of the Beaver Meadow Entrance. This location has 150 sites. Reservations are required and recommended far in advance.
Aspenglen Campground– West of the Fall River Entrance Station along Highway 34. This location has 52 RV and tent sites. Reservations are required and recommended far in advance.
Longs Peak Campground– 9 miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. This location has 26 sites. This location is first come, first serve.
Backpacking Sites: If you have a very outdoorsy type family you can find 120 designated backpacking sites throughout the park. You will need to obtain a $30 wilderness permit at the Headquarters Wilderness Office or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center.
During the winter months, the only campground open is the Moraine Park Campground, which is open on a first come, first serve basis.
Best Hotel and Vacation Rental Options When Visiting the Rockies with Kids
If you prefer not to camp (although I recommend that you do!) you can find plenty of family-friendly options nearby.
The Stanley Hotel: The inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining, The Stanley Hotel is a historic Estes Park hotel sitting at the foothills of Rocky Mountain National Park. There are four accommodation options at the Stanley Hotel, including the original historic hotel rooms, the Lodge, which includes updated historic rooms, Aspire which features modern apartment style rooms, and residences, which feature 1-to-3-bedroom rentals. The hotel offers tours and hiking trips in Rocky Mountain National Park. They also offer expert guided climbing experiences for all ages. Their “mini expedition” experiences include backpacking, canyoneering, ice climbing, skiing, and snow shoeing. You can find many dining options on site, eliminating the need to leave unless you want to!
YMCA: located in Estes Park just outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, the YMCA contains over 200 cabins, lodges, and vacation homes. The YMCA is one of the best places to stay when visiting the Rockies with kids. It includes several fun activities for the kids to enjoy, including roller skating, mini golf, basketball courts, hiking trails, biking trails, disc golf, and an indoor pool.
The Historic Crag’s Lodge: The Historic Crag’s Lodge offers studio, one-, and two-bedroom accommodation options for families visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. The lodge is located on the North end of Prospect Mountain, only 3 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park, making access to the park easy! The lodge is also within close proximity to many great outdoor activities, including golf, horseback riding, fishing, and hiking trails.
Gateway Inn: Gateway Inn is a rustic lodging option in Grand Lake, Colorado. The inn offers king and queen mountain view rooms and a penthouse option that sleeps up to 8. The Wild Bear Tavern is an onsite dining option that offers breakfast and casual dining in the evenings. The inn is within close proximity to many area activities, including boating rentals, hiking tours in Rocky Mountain National Park, fishing, golfing, ATV rides, horseback riding, and more!
Colorado Cabin Adventures: Colorado Cabin Adventures offers studio, 1 bedroom, 2 bedroom, and 3-bedroom log cabin rentals. On the grounds you can find grills, picnic tables, a volleyball net, bocce ball, and horseshoes. You can also find many nearby outdoor activities, including fishing, hiking, watersports, golf, horseback riding, ATV riding, mountain biking, and hunting. In the winter you can find nearby opportunities for cross country skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling.
Grand Lake Lodge: The Grand Lake Lodge has many options for rooms, from one room bungalows to four-bedroom cabins, and even an 8-bedroom, two-story cabin. You can find many activities at the Grand Lake Lodge perfect for kids, including an outdoor pool and hot tub, a picnic area, playground, basketball court, volleyball court, and horseshoe pit. There’s a front porch with wooden swings and stunning views! The lodge also has an onsite restaurant.
Where to Eat
The secret to eating in Rocky Mountain National Park? Pack your own! There is only one restaurant within the park, but a picnic among the peaks and trees of Rocky Mountain National Park will leave you breathless! If you would rather purchase something in the park, you can visit the Trail Ridge Store during the summer season.
The Trail Ridge Store is the only dining option, located at the Alpine Visitor Center. There is a cafe offering sandwiches, soups, salads, and deserts. You will also find a small coffee bar offering a variety of coffee and tea, as well as snacks like muffins, scones, fruits, and smoothies.
Aside from eating in the park, you can also find plenty of dining options in both Estes Park and Grand Lake. In Estes Park, check out the Mountain Home Café, which offers a full breakfast and lunch menu. You will find plenty of options that will satisfy even the pickiest eater in your family, like French toast sticks, pancakes, eggs, burgers, chicken tenders, wraps, side dishes, and even many great vegetarian options. For pizza and traditional American food check out Poppy’s Pizza and Grill. Munchin House will be a favorite for the kids with handmade ice cream.
In Grand Lake, check out Sloopy’s Grill just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park for a menu that will delight any child, including burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders, sandwiches, and grilled cheese. You will also find a big selection of sides, including mozzarella sticks, onion rings, fries, and chili. For dessert enjoy a soft serve ice cream cone or float. The best part? The stunning views. Bighorn Bagels is a great option for a quick bite to eat before heading out to explore the park. You can choose from a wide selection of bagels, breakfast sandwiches, deli bagel sandwiches, and treats including banana bread, cookies, and chips.
Things to Do When Visiting the Rockies with Kids
Rocky Mountain National Park is a paradise for outdoor loving families! For starters, you will want to stop at one of the park’s four visitor centers for a map, information on road closures, full parking lots, and information on the park and its history. This is a must before heading out to explore the park because there are often frequent closures due to the weather and/or fires in the park. You can also find information ahead of time of the RMNP website.
Go For a Hike
You can’t visit RMNP without going for a hike! The Rockies are home to a wide range of hiking opportunities, making it a great national park to visit with kids. You can find plenty of options that are perfect for the little legs in your travel party!
Best Hikes When Visiting the Rockies With Kids
Easy Hikes (for kids):
- Coyote Valley: this trail is about 1 mile and is one of the best options for wildlife viewing. You will have the opportunity to see moose and elk, especially if walking the trail in the early morning or late evening. Another thing that makes this trail great for families visiting the Rockies with kids is it is both wheelchair and stroller accessible! Access to this trail is found about 5 miles from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. You will find gorgeous meadow views and a small stream to cool your feet off on the hot summer days.
- Sprague Lake Loop: an easy 0.5-mile loop trail around Sprague Lake that offers some stunning views of the Continental Divide. There are also opportunities for wildlife viewing, including moose and elk. The trail head is found on Bear Lake Road, one mile West of the shuttle stop parking lot. This trail is wheelchair and stroller accessible.
- Bear Lake Loop: an easy, flat 0.8-mile loop trail around Bear Lake. In the summer months, if you plan on doing this hike you will want to make sure to arrive early! This is a popular area, and the parking lot fills up quickly!
- Alluvial Fan: one of the best family-friendly hikes in RMNP, 0.2-mile trail that will take you past waterfalls
- Lily Lake Loop: a 0.8-mile hike featuring scenic views and wildflowers in Spring and early summer. Lily Lake Loop is stroller and wheelchair friendly.
Moderate Hikes When Visiting the Rockies with Kids:
- Holzwarth Historic Site: the trail to the Holzwarth Historic site is a 1-mile round trip trail with an elevation gain of 70ft. The trail takes you to a historic 1920’s ranch that you can explore. The trail is found 8 miles north of Kawuneeche Visitor Center on Hwy 34.
- Nymph Lake: Nymph Lake trail is a 1-mile round trip trail with an elevation gain of 225 ft. The trail will treat you to views of the 12,731 ft. high Hallet Peak.
- Alberta Falls: The Alberta Falls Trail is a considered a moderate level hike for kids in RMNP that is 1.6-miles round trip. The hike has an elevation gain of about 160ft. and will treat you to views of Alberta Falls. Access to the trail can be found at the Glacier Gorge trailhead or the Bear Lake trailhead.
- Tundra Community Trail: This trail is found near the highest elevation point of the Trail Ridge Road. The trail is 1.1-mile round trip with a 200 ft. elevation gain. While this trail is not exactly difficult, the elevation makes for a more difficult hike.
Difficult Hikes (for kids):
- Deer Mountain: The Deer Mountain hike is a 6.2 round trip hike with an elevation gain of 1,083 ft. The hike is uphill and will lead to views of the Moraine Valley and Longs Peak. The trailhead is found on 3 miles west of the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station on Trail Ridge Road.
- Bierstadt Lake: this trail is a 2.8-mile round trip trail with an elevation gain of 566 ft. up a glacial moraine. The trail takes you to Bierstadt Lake and stunning views of the Continental Divide.
- The Loch: the hike to the Loch passes by Alberta Falls but continues on for another 2.3 miles, for a total length of 5.7 miles. The trail has an elevation gain of 1,040 ft. The trailhead is found at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road.
- Emerald Lake Trail: a 3.5-mile round trip hike along the edges of the park’s alpine lakes, past some of the parks high peaks including Longs and Hallett peaks, and to Emerald Lake, which is surrounded by the 12,000ft. mountains of the Continental Divide. The trailhead to the Emerald Lake Trail is found near Beaver Lake and is reachable via the park shuttle service.
Join the Junior Ranger Program
The Junior Ranger Program is perfect for families visiting the Rockies with kids from kindergarten age through 8th grade. You can pick up a junior ranger booklet in the visitors’ center that will help guide your kids through RMNP’s nature, flora, and history. You will find three different options, based on your child’s age (5 and under, 6-8, and 9+). After completing the booklet, the kids can turn it in at the Junior Ranger Headquarters (in the Hidden Valley area of the park) and receive a badge.
If you have a family of fishers, you will find opportunities for this within the park. Be careful, not all lakes are open for fishing! Some lakes that are open for fishing are Sprague Lake, Lily Lake, Fern Lake, and Loch Vale. Fly fishing is a top form of fishing in RMNP.
Before fishing in RMNP you will need to obtain a Colorado Fishing License. You can do this on the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife site. A license is required for anyone 16 years of age and older.
Cycling is another way to explore the park. Trail Ridge Road is a popular road in the park for bicycling up, although it will be difficult for younger children. You can also bicycle on the other roads in the park (except Grand Ditch Road), but bicycles are not permitted on any trails. Some roads will be closed during the off seasons, so it is always important to know which roads you can access before going.
Drive the Trail Ridge Road
The Trail Ridge Road is a 48-mile-long drive that goes from Estes Park to Grand Lake, connecting the park’s east and west sides. It is also known as one of the most scenic drives in America. The drive reaches 12,000 ft., taking you across the park’s treeless alpine zone. We all know that kids are not always going to be up for a hike, so scenic drives are always very welcomed on our family getaways.
It is important to know that Trail Ridge Road is only open during the summer and fall months, so be aware of this when making your plans. Driving the Trail Ridge Road takes about 2 hours one way if you don’t make any stops. Of course, you will want to stop at the many scenic overlooks, and you will want to leave extra time to account for traffic, so leaving a half day to a whole day to experience Trail Ridge Road is best!
Drive Old Fall River Road
Old Fall River Road is a one-way, uphill gravel road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The 11-mile-long road stretches from Horseshoe Park through the wilderness of RMNP and to the Fall River Pass where it joins the Trail Ridge Road. This drive is more of a secluded drive through nature that takes you past the trees and natural flora of the park.
Some of the most common wildlife sighting in the park include moose, bighorn sheep, and elk. Other wildlife species you might see include otters, mule deer, bats, marmots, pikas, white-tailed ptarmigans, and a variety of other bird species.
Springtime is a great time to see the bighorn sheep starting to come out and be more active. If you are visiting in the fall months, you may be lucky enough to spot the elk rut. During the time starting in mid-September male Elks will start fighting each other to earn the affection of female elk. This is best seen at the Horseshoe Park area at dawn and dusk.
Spend the Day at the YMCA
The YMCA of the Rockies is a fun-filled destination for a day trip and/or overnight accommodations when visiting the Rockies with kids. If you are staying offsite, you can still enjoy the activities at the YMCA with a day pass. Activities include roller skating, mini golf, basketball courts, hiking trails, biking trails, disc golf, and an indoor pool. Other activities, that require registration and additional fees, include archery, axe throwing, arts & crafts, escape room, horseback riding, skiing, and sledding. Advance registration is not available for day pass users but may be made the day of if there is availability.
The YMCA also offers day camps for kids from kindergarten to 8th grade, so if you are looking to explore the Rockies for a day without the kiddos, this may be a great option! Camps are from 8am to 3pm and focus on different outdoor activities.
Go Horseback Riding
Another fun way to hit the trails of RMNP is on horseback! Jackson Stables located in Estes Park right outside of the park is a great option for families! For younger children who may not be ready to hop on the back of a horse, Jackson Stables does offer pony rides. The horse-drawn hayride wagon tours are another great option for families and includes a bonfire and roasting marshmallows. For those up for more of a challenge, you can find, 1 hour, 2-hour, 3-hour, 4 hour, and 5-hour trail rides. You can also choose an all-day ride.
While the roads in the park are generally closed for driving in the winter months, you will find them opening up for winter activities, if that is your jam! You will see parts of the Trail Ridge Road and other smaller roads like Old Fall River Road open up for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter months.
On the Western side of the park, you will find the Grand Lake Nordic Center, which contains 22 miles of trails for snowshoeing and skiing. In Hidden Valley, on the East side of the park, you can enjoy sledding. Ranger-led snowshoeing tours are available in the park.
Tips For Visiting the Rockies with Kids
- As with most other national parks, you will want to plan on arriving early to avoid the long lines at the entrance stations.
- Altitude sickness can be a real concern when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Symptoms of altitude sickness can include minor symptoms, such as headaches, or more severe symptoms like disorientation and vomiting. If you have the time, schedule your first day or two with less strenuous activities. Driving the Trail Ridge Road is a great way to start your trip, while saving the more difficult hikes for later in the trip when your body has had time to adjust.
- To avoid the larger crowds, you can enter at the Grand Lake entrance side of the park. The majority of visitors enter through Estes Park, so you will save yourself from running into those crowds.
- There is no wi-fi or cell phone service in the park, so having an idea of where you are going and what hikes you want to do ahead of time will help to make your day go smoother. It is also a good idea to let someone know where you are going and what you will be doing.
- Do not approach wildlife and leave distance between you and them. The NPS recommends 75 ft. between you and elk and bighorn sheep, and at least 120 ft between moose and bears.
- Always follow the Leave No Trace guidelines.
What to Pack:
When visiting the Rockies with kids, you will want to make sure you pack for the weather (and unexpected weather). A visit to RMNP and expose you to warm weather or bitter cold winds, depending on the day. You may even find snow during mid-summer at the highest elevations. You will want to be prepared for both! It is best to bring layers, so that you can remove something if it is too hot and will have the extra padding in case of the cold.
You also won’t want to forget the sunscreen and bug spray! A hat would be a good thing to have as well to shield yourself on a bright, summer day. Other essentials include sturdy hiking boots, plenty of water, snacks, a child carrier backpack if visiting with young children, a rain jacket, and of course your camera!
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