We absolutely loved visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with kids and now I can share a comprehensive post sharing our itinerary, thoughts on the YMCA of the Rockies, things we wish we’d known, and tips for visiting! We originally went in late september-early october for our first, four day trip and then again in July for a one day visit out of Denver. Rocky Mountain National Park in October was my favorite, keep reading to find out why. This is a fantastic national park for families and I hope I can make your planning easier!
This post focuses on this specific trip we took, but be sure to read about the more general top 10 mistakes to avoid when planning a national park trip, too!
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RMNP is in Colorado and one of the most popular parks in the nation. Estes Park is in between Denver & the park, acting as the main gateway town, with lots of cute touristy shops and streets. There is one main road through the park, leading to the other main gateway town in the west, Grand Lake. You get to see several different ecosystems in the park at different altitudes, and there are lots of active wildlife!
Pin this post about the Rocky Mountain National Park with kids using this link or collage photo:
Tips on visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with kids – what I wish we’d known (or was glad we did)!
- The park is split into two parts by the continental divide. I don’t have data to back this up, but the east side feels much busier. The above graphic is an interesting illustration of some differences between them.
- Weather closes major roads and attractions! It’s hard to plan with hard dates since the weather is unpredictable, but generally speaking the main road connecting east and west, Trail Ridge Road, usually opens in early June and closes in mid October due to snow. Some of the higher altitude trails follow similar guidelines, so I recommend researching trails & plans before deciding on a time to visit.
- A few things to consider in addition to the weather; visiting in spring means you get to see wildflowers and baby wildlife, visiting in summer means beautiful weather but lots of crowds, visiting in fall gives you the chance to see the yellow aspen trees and hear the elk rut, and visiting in winter means you see a lot of snow and very few other people. You can see visitation stats here in terms of crowds; it’s an easy day trip from Denver so weekends are exceptionally busy as well.
- From roughly May-October, there is a shuttle you can ride to the trailheads. Generally speaking, parking lots fill up before 8 AM during busy times and even earlier at the most popular trailheads, like Bear Lake. See the shuttle route here.
- Altitude is no joke! It’s impossible to predict how your body will react depending on where you’re coming from, but it is highly recommended to plan hardest hikes for the tail end of your visit. Drink lots of extra water, bring chapstick, and don’t push your body.
- There are several visitors centers and they all have different things on exhibit; the biggest are Beaver Meadows, Fall River, and Alpine. I wouldn’t go out of your way to visit all of them, but they’re worth a stop if you aren’t in a rush and nearby.
- Afternoon storms are common! Be prepared not only with rain gear but by hiking early and being safely back in your car, not up above the treeline.
- Phone service in the park is very spotty; you need to have researched trails ahead of time.
- The visitor centers all have snacks, and there is a proper cafe up by the Alpine visitor center on Trail Ridge Road, but when traffic is thick it could be hours between centers so come prepared with water & food.
- Steer clear of wildlife! They are big, fast, and can hurt you. There will be signs and notes in the newspaper you get when you enter the park advising you of safe distances, take it seriously and abide accordingly.
- By the same token, don’t steer clear of cars parked on the side of the road. That usually means someone spotted something! Even if it feels awkward, and trust me it did for us, hop out and ask what’s the word. That’s how we got to see the moose up ahead, it was amazing!
- Bring binoculars – but practice using them ahead of time! We really like the kid ones that all the visitor centers seem to sell, or a little more advanced, this small pair for both kids & adults. If you spot wildlife while driving, think twice before telling your kids! If the wildlife is moving too quickly or positioned in a way they can’t see from their car seats, don’t bring it up because they’ll just be bummed.
- Do the junior ranger program! Pickup a booklet at a visitor center and work through it while you’re in the park, then take a pledge and your kiddo gets a fun little badge and the booklet to keep. We love this program – see ideas for how to display the badges here.
YMCA of the Rockies Resort – where we stayed
There are no lodging options in the park save campgrounds, so we opted for the YMCA resort next to the park. It feels a whole lot like a summer camp and we loved staying there! It was affordable and a great place to kill time after dinner before bedtime. The cabins are clean and sparse; we used the indoor, heated pool as well as the college-dorm-esque game room (pool, foos-ball) and the putt putt golf course. There is a cafe and a full dining hall, the food was pretty much what you’d expect from a camp facility and serviceable.
My favorite part was how the elk just wandered through! This was right outside our cabin. They have a bunch of other on-site activities available seasonally like campfires, rock climbing, horseback rides, etc. but we spent the bulk of our time in the actual park instead. This is a great option for anyone but in particular for large family groups or reunions.
I never focus on food when we travel and don’t remember most of the places we ate with one exception, Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ! It was very, very good, the kids liked their selections, and we went twice while we were there and again when we visited the next year. Everyone knows it is good and waits are long, be forewarned!
Sharing how we spent our visit! We spent time in Denver before & after our trip, but I’ll write that up in a separate post some time.
Visiting at the tail end of September, we knew it was our last chance to drive Old Fall River Road before it closed. We did not prepare mentally for just how rugged this drive is! Our Honda Odyssey made it but there were lots of gasps. The road is long and slow, full of narrow steep switchbacks and no vehicles over 25 feet are allowed to attempt it. We stopped off for the short Chasm Falls Trail, taking us to the waterfall shown on the left, and lots of the jaw dropping drop-offs to the right.
It connected us to the main Trail Ridge Road, where we got to experience some of the highest altitudes in the park!
It goes without saying but it was so cold and windy up here. This was just a little foot trail off the road that we explored for a while. We drove all the way over Trail Ridge Road over to the west side of the park, hoping to see some wildlife.
On the west side, we hiked the Coyote Valley Trail. Just barely over a mile long and flat gravel, this is a great one for strollers. We were a little underwhelmed, not spotting any wildlife to speak of, but it was peaceful at least. We then stopped into the Kawuneeche visitor center, which had a ton of fun hands-on antlers and horns for the kids to play with.
On our second day, we were up as early as possible so we could hit Bear Lake Nature Trail for sunrise! This parking lot is notoriously packed, I think we parked just a little after 6 am. Having the place mostly to ourselves was peaceful and lovely.
This specific loop is .7 miles long and very easy, nice and flat, with beautiful views. A great way to start the day but we had bigger plans!
You can continue off the Bear Lake Trail and head towards Emerald Lake Trail as your final destination! This was a fun rocky outcropping along the way, perfect for climbing.
First up, we hit Nymph Lake! Serene and quiet, all those lily pads were pretty even in fall.
I love creek crossings like this!
Next up was Dream Lake, it was nice and clear.
Last and actually also least, Emerald Lake was a bit of a bust for us. It was the most crowded and there were very aggressive chipmunks trying to steal our snacks, running over our feet, etc. We enjoyed the hike even if the end destination was our least favorite, and I was glad to be headed back as the crowds got heavier going the opposite way. The whole day was probably a bit over 4 miles round-trip.
Our last full day hiking with the kids took us out on Ouzel Falls Trail! Located in the less popular Wild Basin area of the park, we loved this hike. It was a bit over 5 miles with a few steep hills, and had absolutely breathtaking displays of the yellow aspens.
On the way there, you see some pretty cascades and Copeland Falls.
Then you hit the main event! There are lots of huge logs and babbling brooks along this trail and we enjoyed the tall waterfall at the end. The trail does continue on from here, but we turned back for the parking lot instead.
Our last day, we left the kids with Grandma and headed out early to tackle a challenging trail by ourselves, Sky Pond. A little over 8 miles, we kinda thought we should’ve brought the kids until almost the very end when you go up a very wet rock scramble. At the tail end it’s easy to get confused about where to go – read trail reports before you head out, look for cairns, and stay safe! We really enjoyed this hike and I’m so glad we went.
Once we got back and had lunch in Estes Park, we grabbed the rest of the family and headed up for one more time on Trail Ridge Road, stopping off to explore the Tundra Communities Trail. We were hoping to see pika with no luck, but did get to see these cool rock formations and eat lunch again at the cafe near the Alpine visitor center.
Can’t beat those clouds! That was the end of our trip and a great amount of time to visit, in my opinion. If we’d had an extra day, I think we’d have spent more time in Estes Park proper.
The next summer, we stopped back briefly after visiting Yellowstone National Park so I’m going to throw in the other hike we did as well!
Located outside the main park boundaries in the Lumpy Ridge area, we took off for the Gem Lake to Balanced Rock trail. A little over 7 miles with a decent amount of elevation gain, we all enjoyed this one! The mountain views are breathtaking.
Here’s Gem Lake! It had a beautiful reflection.
Not very many people kept going on to balanced rock so we had a very quiet trail with lots of woods and wildflowers. It was an easy trek over to the rock, which was perfect for exploring. We did see some trail rangers with llamas, which was fun but all in all it was a great morning hike without running into a ton of people! After that, we went over to the Sheep Lakes area in the hopes of spotting bighorn sheep with no luck.
So, between the active elk fighting and wandering around and the bright yellow aspens, I loved October in Rocky Mountain National Park! Crowds were low and the beauty was high. We did hit hail/snow on our last day, but turns out we also did on our last day when we visited in July so stay flexible.
Things we didn’t do/visit but I considered:
- Visiting Big Thompson Canyon outside Estes Park to see sheep
- Ziplining outside but near the park
- Lake Haiyaha hike
Have you been to Rocky Mountain? Did I leave you with any questions about our trip? Leave a comment!
Can’t wait to visit one day!
These photos are amazing! What a great option for social distance travel.
Those photos are amazing. I love the itinerary. I never know how to tackle national parks.