Rocky Mountain National Park has something for families of sizes and kids of all ages
Rocky Mountain National Park with kids?
It can be easy to think of one of the USA’s largest tracts of public lands as full of grownup-only rugged climbs and vertical hikes. Those adventures are certainly on offer at Rocky Mountain National Park (or “ROMO” in National Park-speak). However, family friendly adventure abounds too.
Most visitors enter ROMO from the Estes Park area to the east, and that’s where we’ll focus this wee guide. From stroller-friendly hikes to opportunities to safely spot wildlife, you can customize your time at ROMO for families of all sizes and kids of all ages. Here are 6 things you can do with kids to get the most out of your time at one of America’s most popular national parks.
Before you go to Rocky Mountain National Park
ROMO is a National Park, but much of it is a rugged wilderness area. While toilets (and sometimes drinking water) are available at parking areas throughout the park’s main roads, services are otherwise minimal. That includes cell service: Expect to be offline while in the park.
Your overall rule of thumb is, if you need it or think you’ll, plan to bring it with you. This guide focuses mainly on simple, family friendly excursions, where you can easily have supplies in your vehicle, and a few essentials in, say, a small backpack. Here are a few things you may want to include in your ROMO kit:
- Refillable water bottle
- Warm layers, such as a fleece or sweater
- Waterproof layers, such as a jacket and pants
- Hiking essentials, such as a map, whistle and compass
- First aid kit
- Change of clothes (especially for the kids)
- Sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen
Above all, water and food are essential. The dry, thinner air and more intense sunlight of the mountains can dry you out quickly. Stay hydrated, and remind your family to drink up and chow down regularly.
1. Wander 8 family friendly trails
When going to a National Park, it’s natural to think of hiking. Hiking gets you up close and personal with the landscape, the geology, and sometimes even the animals.
Hiking at ROMO doesn’t have to mean a hard scramble up crumbly mountain faces though. The park highlights 8 trails as being great for families. Four “stroller friendly” trails are each no more than a mile round trip. Another four “let’s take it easy” trails offer slight elevation gains, but even the longest trail is still less than four miles total.
2. Become Junior Rangers
For our family of four, adventures at any National Park begin with the Junior Ranger Program. ROMO Junior Rangers can take scientific measurements, match scat to animals, and even learn what, we’re pretty sure, is the official scat song.
We find that Junior Ranger programs are a great way to get the kids excited about nature and about exploring the amazing place around them. The program’s activities bring the park down to a child’s eye-view. Instead of a huge, vast place that can seem overwhelming, a kid can approach their park visit from a little side trail running along a creek, to measuring a tiny piece of scat and figuring out that it came from a mule deer.
Bonus points: If you happen upon the right ranger for the scat activities, she just might show off her mule deer scat earrings.
3. Explore accessible Alluvial Fan
Some maps or guides might list Alluvial Fan as a “hike.” If hiking intimidates you, or if you want a pretty easy way to see stunning park scenery and get near a mountain creek, Alluvial Fan is a great spot to include early in your day at ROMO, especially if you’re still getting used to the higher altitude.
After a full redesign in 2020, Alluvial Fan is an accessible trail. From the parking lot, kids can scramble along the large rocks that border the trail. Alluvial Fan is one of the more recent park features, created by a 1982 flood from a dam breach at nearby Lawn Lake. Today, white, pink, and yellowish-beige rocks and boulders cover Alluvial Fan. It’s as delight for kids to explore (and a great way to play finding games: “Count how many pink rocks you can find!”)
At the far end of the boulder field, your wanders take you to a wide, rushing stream. A nearby short, cascading waterfall is a great photo spot. Also cross the 56-foot wooden bridge, both to take in fine views of the stream and park, and to pass between the eastern and western segments of Alluvial Fan.
4. Picnic (and stream-romp) at Endovalley
A short drive from Alluvial Fan, the evocatively named Endovalley provides a serene spot for a picnic, a nap in the sun, and some romps in the cold, clear mountain streams that run through the former campground.
Now only for day use, Endovalley contains 32 picnic tables at spacious, shady sites with individual parking and lots of trees. Listen to the breeze rustle through the branches and needles. Feel the summer sun warm your face—or feel the cold streams pucker your skin. Before letting the kids wade, check the flow for speed, and remember, these mountain streams are lovely with a side of holy-crivens-that’s-chilly.
Keep an eye out: Some sites have areas of shallow, slower streams, or little loop channels off the main flow. These calmer areas can be great for supervised kiddo splashing time. After a good morning’s explorations, we found Endovalley to be a wonderful way to relax for lunch, some early afternoon romps, and a nap in the mountain air.
5. Drive the ups and downs Trail Ridge Road
While the narrow, winding ribbon of Trail Ridge Road is only 48 miles long, it can take hours to drive from end to end. The highest road of its kind in the lower 48 US states, Trail Ridge Road tops out at 12,000 feet. Your scenic drive includes incredible views both down into the mountain hollows and valleys, and up toward the gray and brown alpine zones where clouds sweep the summits. With the windows down, you can almost hear the soft scrape of cloud on mountaintop.
We devoted an entire day to Trail Ridge Road. For our own adventures, we were crossing from Estes Park, at the eastern side of ROMO, to Grand Lake, just beyond the park’s southwestern corner. Taking the drive slow helps you take in everything from spotting rabbits to raptors, as well as the subtle changes in plant life as you gain elevation.
As you build out your park adventure plans, Trail Ridge Road is also the main access point for many of the park’s trails, waterways, and scenic areas. There is also the occasional parking area with toilets, but typically you’ll want to make sure you’re well stocked on water or other beverages.
6. Hike the Sprague Lake Loop Trail
A half-mile, wheelchair friendly and stroller friendly hike? Around a small lake that also gives incredible panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains?
Located in ROMO’s popular Bear Lake area, the Sprague Lake Loop Trail is an accessible way for any traveler to enjoy some of the park’s best sights and scenery. The kids can climb up boulders. Regular benches and lake lookouts give everyone a chance to catch their breath or enjoy the view from a different angle.
We especially liked Sprague Lake in the evening. Daytime crowds had cleared out, and the soft sunset light brought a gentle glow to the surrounding mountains. The lap of lake water on the rocky shore calmed us. Wide rays of sunlight cascaded from the summer clouds and inspired us. And as we wandered the loop trail, the park brought us closer together as a family.
BONUS 7. Look for wildlife in the evening
Many National Parks are renowned for the opportunity to see wildlife, and ROMO is no exception.
From raptors to waterfowl, deer to moose, you can keep an eye out for animals big and small (while, of course, respecting laws and regulations about keeping your distance and not feeding the animals).
Typically the best times to see wildlife are very early in the morning and around sunset. Campers and hikers in the park may have an edge here too, as additional time in the park or being in more remote areas can give you more opportunities to see animals.
Even when driving the Trail Ridge Road or wandering a trail, though, you can still have a moment where you get to marvel at the park’s wildlife. For us, we caught sight of a big horn sheep as we made our way along Trail Ridge Road one morning. After our evening hike at Sprague Lake, we spotted deer on the roadside—not to mention a bull elk, pausing to graze on the grass growing by the side of the road.
The best way to find animal spotting opportunities? Ask park rangers for their suggestions on where to go and when. They can give you the most up-to-date ideas based on weather, time of year, and that day’s overall conditions and reported animal sightings.
Kid friendly adventures await at Rocky Mountain National Park
Accessible hikes, scenic drives, calm picnic spots, and marvelous wildlife: Rocky Mountain National Park is full of opportunities to inspire your kids and get closer as a family. Where will you go and what will you do during your family vacation to ROMO?
Want to know more about visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with kids?
Check out our Rocky Mountain National Park family vacation
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