Follow our St. Clair family summer road trip of 4 weeks, 5 states, and 3,851 miles: All posts
Rocky Mountain National Park. The US Continental epicenter of some of the country’s most iconic mountains. Full of looming peaks, a winding high-elevation road, clamber-worthy rocks, beautiful rivers and lakes—not to mention romantic, Tolkien-esque names, such as the “Never Summer Mountains.”
We left our Fort Collins motel and made our way to leave the camper with some friends nearby. Driving south down I-25, the mountains rode shotgun, far to the west yet never out of sight. Throughout Wyoming and Colorado, the mountains had been teasing us, with a view here, a crossing there. Soon we’d be heading to Estes Park, for the ultimate purpose of our entire trip so far: Explore Rocky Mountain National Park. Yet the funny thing was…
It didn’t matter.
Because as we started to detach the camper, the people we were here to meet pulled up in a big silver pickup. The people we hadn’t seen face to face in nearly two years.
The tears flowed like mountain streams, and the hugs were warm as sunlight.
And before we knew it, with our trusty inflatable kayaks loaded into the truck, we followed Jodie’s parents toward the town of Estes Park. The narrowing road wound through narrow, mountainous canyons, usually with a creek or river tumbling down. Even at midday, people stood in cold mountain water in their waders, fishing for trout. In the distance, the mighty Rockies rose dark gray and snowy white under darker gray—and even bigger, looming, thunder-filled—storm clouds. Always the road sloped upward, toward the massive mountains that rose, earth-solid yet haze-miraged.
The Rockies. Yet some things are bigger than mountains. Like love. And family. And finally, finally being together again with some of the people you love most.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park: Lakes, creeks, mountains, critters, and family
…What the colors of a mood ring mean…
…The official Junior Ranger “scat song”…
…That Sorry! is never sorry to ruin your lead in the game…
…How to play chess with a clock—and use it against your opponent…
…We are not sunrise people. We are Team Sunset…
…Waves as we kayaked across Colorado’s largest natural lake…
…Happy tears to see long-missed family again…
…Some delicious green chile cheeseburgers…
…A couple of proudly uniformed Junior Rangers…
…Enough leftovers to hardly need a grocery run the rest of the trip…
Directions to Rocky Mountain National Park
NEW family travel video! BREATHLESS at Rocky Mountain National Park
NPS Park entrance passes: A quick shout-out to America’s best idea’s best idea
Being an amputee has its challenges, but National Parks are not one of them.
As you’ve probably already guessed, we are big fans of America’s public lands. Our system of National Parks and National Monuments is something we love exploring with Connor and Aster. The parks inspire wonder and curiosity, and those qualities remind us to care about our world and one another.
The National Parks Service also has various entrance passes that make it more cost-effective to visit public lands. As an amputee, Jodie holds an Access Pass. This lifetime pass is available to people with a “permanent disability.” For us, it means free entry to many park properties, and discounts on other services such as camping.
From annual entrance to senior citizens, there are lots of different pass options. If you want to prioritize NPS destinations on your family travels, check them out. Odds are there’s a good fit for your trip—especially if you want to explore with a 4th grader.
How do you start exploring a park bigger than New York City?
Our first morning, aspirations of getting to the park early quickly faded. We lingered over coffee and conversation, time together, and an unspoken decision that we had all decided not to rush.
A later start did nothing to dampen our excitement or lessen our enjoyment of the park though. As we drove toward the park entrance, the kids talked about how big the mountains were, or wondered what animals we might see, or how cold the creeks would be. And there were so many places we might go.
The park has 124 named peaks, 147 lakes, and over 300 miles of hiking trails. Rocky Mountain National Park is big: 415 square miles. That’s 415 times harder to imagine than you might think.
Eugene, Oregon, the city where we live, is 41 square miles. From Staten Island to Queens, all of New York City is about 303 square miles (and of that, Central Park is a little over one square mile in size). Rocky Mountain National Park is so big, it’s one-third the size of the state of Rhode Island, about half the size of Tokyo, and a little bigger than Tahiti.
Where in the world, then, does a family start its journey?
Junior Ranger programs help families make sense of even the biggest parks
We’ve figured out a natural starting point for any National Park or National Monument we visit: The nearest Junior Ranger program.
Junior Ranger programs have given us a lens through which we can experience the park not just for the kids, but for the adults. We explore together as a family, and all of us learn so much from the activities and searches the kids lead us on, using their wee free Junior Ranger booklets.
We started our Rocky Mountain Junior Ranger adventure on the east side of the park, at Hidden Valley. Out front of a shelter with restrooms and drinking water, rangers and interns chatted with kids, answered questions, and, most importantly, distributed some pretty awesome Junior Ranger loot.
Well, some of it we had to give back when we were done. But even loaned loot was amazing loot. Usually, Junior Ranger programs entail getting your activity book, doing what you need to do, and then reviewing everything with a ranger. Then the kids get a wee wooden badge, and they say a pledge. They pledge varies park to park, but it’s usually on a theme of how the park needs care and protection, how nature is awesome, and that everyone will continue to learn. (And they always make Anthony tear up a little.)
During the COVID pandemic, some parks, like Rocky, gave out badges and pledges along with the booklets. (Rocky’s pledge centered around not feeding the animals, leaving the plants alone, throwing away trash, and taking care of the park.)
Junior Rangers start the day with scat and song
The rangers also handed Connor and Aster something else: a bag full of scientific instruments. Soon the kids were dashing up paths, looking at the mountains through binoculars, taking the temperature of soil and creek water, and examining the ground for critter footprints with a magnifying glass. Now and again they would huddle over laminated sheets of paper that broke down the the differences between forest and alpine areas, types of scat, and animals common to the park.
And then there was the song.
Up one path, a ranger chatted with kids about animals. What they eat—and what they poop. She opened up a plastic tub of dried scat. Together, the ranger and the kids talked about different pieces of scat, and identified which animal left which bit of scat (3 inches long, studded with bits of aluminum foil and paper wrappers: coyote; 1/2-inch long: mule deer).
Then the ranger showed the kids her little dangly brown earrings: also, she said, made of mule deer scat.
As a finale, the ranger then led Aster and Connor in what we hope is truly the official NPS anthem about poop, or, as Anthony calls it, “The Scat Song.” Here’s the end of it:
“Some might call it this,
Some might call it that,
But let’s be scientific,
And call it scat!”
It’s a good reminder, yall: We can all be a little more scientific sometimes.
Walking Alluvial Fan and wading Endovalley
Rocky Mountain National Park has some of the most strenuous, demanding, challenging hikes in the country—and, um, no. We opted instead for something more kid-friendly and accessible.
One of the ranger interns suggested Alluvial Fan. The rock-strewn flood wash gave the kids boulder after boulder to romp across. Aster and Anthony rocked up to a nearby waterfall. Connor cooled his feet in the tumbling creek waters, then soaked his and Anthony’s hats to help cool them down in the hot sun. The kids and their aunt and uncle turned over and discussed rocks, pondering the whites and pinks and dusty golds.
Ready for some downtime and a bit of lunch, we made our way down the road past Alluvial Fan, to Endovalley. Designed as a picnic loop, the area looks like a campground, with picnic tables, fire pits, and parking, but it’s for day use only. We found a shady spot where the creek made a lazy, loopy diversion from its main channel. We ate in the sunshine, while the kids waded in the loop’s calm waters and clambered over a thick fallen tree, and breathed the thin yet fresh mountain air.
Junior Rangers go full uniform, or, how we brought home an elk and a fox from a National Park (ssshhhh!)
Ah, the fresh air. The hiking. The splash of water. The gleam of sun on rock.
And the joy of the gift shop. (This is also the moment when, once we walk through the door, Anthony puts on his Doctor Who geek hat and says, “I love a little shop.”)
The kids found Junior Ranger vests and hats, and held them up with pride. And from there on out, wore them with pride. From this day onward, anytime we were going to a visitor center or exhibit, Aster and Connor would gear up in their hats and pocket-strewn vests. Connor further customized his new uniform with carabiners, a notebook, and a pair of binoculars. Even playing board games later, the kids sat together in their wee uniforms, Junior Rangers at work and play.
And then, of course, there were the cozy friends. When we travel, the kids understand they are allowed up to three cozy friends, but we gave their grandparents a nod that it was all right to increase their personal zoos by one animal per kid.
No wonder, then, that we found ourselves bringing home an elk and a fox from a national park.
“Antlers” soon found himself hanging out with Connor’s large plush Minecraft Creeper; Hissy, the shiny wee snake; and Fish, the blue sea dragon.
During bedtime, we overheard the kids deliberating what to name Aster’s new fox.
”How about ‘Fur?’” said Connor, which Aster immediately rejected.
“Ruby,” she said at last. “My fox’s name is Ruby.”
Slow and scenic drive on Trail Ridge Road
The big day began, and it truly was a day full of highs and lows. We began driving from east to west along Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road. This narrow ribbon through the Rockies is only 48 miles long. But the way road winds and climbs up to 12,000 feet, and in some areas the going is pretty slow. It took us about 2 hours to drive from the Estes Park area, to the southwestern corner of the park, where we’d make our way to nearby Grand Lake.
“This drive is amazing,” said Aster. And we talked about how special it was that they were getting to do this amazing scenic drive so high up, along the nation’s highest paved road.
Driving slow is a chance to appreciate the road and the trip in a different way. As you drive higher along the narrow two-lane road, there are some hold-your-breath turns. More than a few sheer drop-offs can make you evaluate how afraid of heights you are.
At the top, road work meant we had to wait a few minutes—at a red stoplight. Even at the top of the world, you just might have a traffic jam.
But the views kept us plenty occupied.
Fragile and tenacious life high up at Rocky Mountain National Park
Driving Trail Ridge Road is about vastness: Big mountains, wide gray rock spaces in between, and a dense blue sky that feels both wide yet compressed, as if the peaks were squeezing and condensing the airspace.
Considered “the highest continuous highway in the United States,” the road itself is winding, but not very steep. Built between 1926 and 1932, designers and workers endeavored to minimize the road’s impact on the land, scenery, and wildlife.
That’s why driving Trail Ridge Road can be about smallness too. From the high, wide vistas, you might see animals grazing, or birds flying. The treeline gives way to small plants, some of which can endure over a century in the tundra environment. Grasses, lichens, and flowers brought greens and pops of yellows and pinks to the sparse reddish-grays of the tundra. Beyond, we could still look higher, to the sharp ridges and bare peaks, where even small plants didn’t seem to want to set up shop.
We talked about life’s fragility—and it’s tenacity. We talked about beauty—and how we looked forward to taking breaths that actually felt like they were full of oxygen again.
Coming down, we passed mile after mile of burn scars. Recent wildfires had burned so hot and blown such blazing winds, in some places the skeletal, bare trees were bent over and looked like scythes. The kids had loved watching the scenery change, from the forests to the bare high rocks, the drama of the big mountains and the sheer slopes. Yet this part of the drive was a sad one, and we talked about fire, and changes in the world.
And how, in time, the forest could come back.
Kayaking Grand Lake
Fire-blackened hills gave way to healthy forests again. Against the late morning light and a clear sky, the trees were almost blue-black. Tucked into the high hills just outside Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado’s largest natural lake, Grand Lake, glowed a deep, sapphire blue.
Jodie’s family rented kayaks, and we got out our trusty IKs. Soon, four boats made their way across the lake. Around us, other paddlers piloted their kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. Along other stretches of the deep, wide water, the high sun glinted on motorboats.
“Daddy,” said Aster, “what are those little things people are on?”
“Those are jet skis,” said Anthony. “They’re kind of like motorcycles for the water.”
“Can we try one sometime?”
“Oh, I’m counting on it.”
A little later, she asked, “Daddy, what is that person doing behind that boat?”
Looking around, Anthony realized she was talking about someone who was water-skiing.
“They’re skiing,” said Anthony. “Not on snow, of course. This is skiing on water. It’s pretty fun.”
“I thought you hadn’t skied.”
“I haven’t gone skiing on snow,” said Anthony, “but I was a decent on water skis when I was a teenager.”
She thought about that for a little bit, then said, “Daddy, water skiing and riding in a motorboat are on my to-do list.”
Passing under a bridge, we paddled up a channel lined with homes that connected the lake and a reservoir. Between a small island and a local park’s parking lot, we beached up in the shallows for snacks and drinks.
On our return paddle, Connor and Jodie raced her sister and brother-in-law as we neared the launch. Aster giggled as we bounced head-on through the wake from larger boats.
Team Sunset finale at Rocky Mountain National Park’s Sprague Lake
On our final day at Rocky Mountain National Park, we spent the day relaxing together as a family. Then, that evening, we made our way into the park’s Bear Lake area. Even better? The kids rode with their grandparents, and we got a wee driving date.
While often popular and crowded during the day, as we came into the park after 8 pm, crowds were sparse. Even at Sprague Lake, a small lake with a short, family friendly waterside loop hiking trail, the parking lot was full, but there was plenty of room on the paved trail for everyone.
Silky, silvery-gold evening light brightened high puffy clouds and the distant dark gray mountains. The calm of sunset, along with the light on the Rockies and the general serenity of our final evening with Jodie’s parents, also set officially something we’d always figured.
Part of the mythology of being outdoors is rising early, getting the sunrise, all that sort of, well… rubbish. We are not sunrise people. And on this trip, we fully embraced that self-understanding. We like our mornings to be slow, and together. But sundown? We are Team Sunset. That is a time where we love to explore, wander, and wonder.
Evening is when we shine, and when the day’s end shines in its own soft, beautiful way. Does early morning have its own beauty and special quality. Sure. But we’ll pass. The travel that we enjoy is the travel that we go with.
As we made our way around the loop, we caught word that people had spotted a moose and a baby moose somewhere in the Sprague Lake area. We kept an eye out, but the reports never came to anything. Instead, we enjoyed our walk—much better, after all, than a wild moose chase.
Making our way out of the park as the last of the daylight waned and faded, the occasional deer hopped on the slopes to the side of the road. And, at one spot, we stopped: A large elk grazed, slow and massive, regal as it munched and walked its slow, powerful way down a slope and out of view.
Back at our house, Connor’s grandparents, clearly inspired, taught him and Antlers how to do an elk call.
Upside-down thoughts in an ice cooler
With the pandemic, it had been nearly two years since Jodie had seen her parents and since the kids had seen this set of grandparents. Meeting at Rocky Mountain National Park gave all of us a chance to just be together, out of our day-to-day routines. The open spaces of the outdoors opened us up, so we could play, romp, explore, and relax, together, as a family.
The pain of time apart gets so quickly remedied simply through the joy of being together again. Yet it doesn’t come without work and effort.
This part of the trip reminded us of how hard we strive to balance work with lots of time with both Connor and Aster. After all, on the cusp of 10, Connor’s childhood is on the wane, and Aster’s isn’t far behind. It’s so crucial to make time with kids while they’re kids. They are children for so very short a time, and adults for, hopefully, so very long. We hope the time we put into being with our kids now helps ease those bonds and together times as they get older. But whatever happens, we focus on being with them, showing them the world, and giving them as much time as we can with the other people who love them.
At least, that’s the sort of thing Anthony thinks about when he’s upside-down in a store’s ice chest. He and his father-in-law had to caveman-style bash at frozen-together bags of ice at the very bottom. (Speaking of bottoms, Jodie’s mom later said she wished she’d gotten a photo of our “heinies” hanging out of the cooler.)
Finally, heinie in the driver seat and ice in the cooler, we left Rocky Mountain National Park behind us. After hitching up the trailer and sharing tears and good-byes with Jodie’s parents, we set out toward Denver, and I-70 westbound, to make our way through the Rockies and then back north, to camp at Steamboat Springs.
Or so we thought.