Family-friendly Colorado experiences to share with your own kids
When my oldest daughter graduated from high school in May, we made a collage of photos from her oh-so-fleeting childhood and hung it on the wall during her party for guests to peruse. One relative remarked, “This could be a travelogue for visiting Colorado.”
She was right. As native Coloradans and the offspring of a travel editor, my kids have been from one end of the state to the other — multiple times — literally from their first weeks.
They were infants in the mineral waters of Glenwood Hot Springs, the snow tickling their noses. We now visit several times annually, and the activities have changed with their ages — from lazily relaxing on floaties to frenzied laps on the water slides to massages at the spa.
They “bouldered” at Rocky Mountain National Park at ages 1 and 3, picking their way along the rocks at Bear Lake, and first rafted Bighorn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River at 2 and 4. From the time they were toddlers on, they explored the state on foot, bicycle and in various watercraft, swam in as many hot springs as we could get to and took all the trains the state offers.
Their favorites? Really, anywhere Mommy wasn’t working. “Are you taking your laptop?” they would ask, and when the answer was no, the smiles would widen.
Here are some top Colorado destinations to check out with your family — preferably unplugged, as well.
Raft a river, any river
Water level, schmater level. In the days before people could accurately measure such things, they just put the boat in the river and went, hootin’ the whole way down, every time, and of course, the saying still goes, “A bad day on the water beats a good day at the office.”
The great thing about taking kids on a rafting trip is that they don’t even know from water levels — all they know is that they’re on a boat, and there’s water, and it’s fun. In case you’re worried that you’re not going to have enough fun, some Colorado river outfitters have added even more to the experience – things such as moonlight trips on the Colorado River with Lakota Guides (970-845-7238, lakotaguides.com) or two-day llama treks following a trip on the Arkansas through Browns Canyon with Noah’s Ark (719-395-2158, noahsark.com).
In Colorado, there’s a commercial river rafting experience available within a short driving distance for every skill level, for ages four and up, beginner to advanced. Visit the Colorado River Outfitters Association at croa.org for descriptions of rivers, river ratings and outfitters.
Glenwood Springs: Bike or boat, lay low or go higher
Even the little tykes can hop on a trike and spend a few glorious minutes toddling along the Glenwood Canyon Recreational Trail, a paved, 16.2-mile (one-way) path with multiple access points, including Glenwood Springs. If you don’t want to haul a bike, you can rent one at Canyon Bikes, including kids, tandems or trailers ($20-$38 for full day, 800-439-3043, canyonbikes.com).
The Colorado River runs alongside much of the trail, which means watching the kayakers and rafters go by, which may even spur you to join them. Blue Sky Adventures (877-945-6605, bluesky adventure.com) can help make that happen. Or Rock Gardens Rafting (800-958-6737, rockgardens.com) at Glenwood Canyon Resort (glenwoodcanyonresort.com) — which is along the bike path at the No Name exit off Interstate 70 and has a zipline and other activities and a campground with RV spaces and cabins — is another option.
If you just want to kick back and relax, a day at Glenwood Hot Springs (800-947-7946, hotspringspool.com) might be in order. The water slides and mini-golf are a big draw for kids — they’re an additional fee, but keep in mind that if you stay at the lodge, the pool and breakfast are included.
For those with more energy, the country’s highest-elevation roller coaster is now open at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park (glenwoodcaverns.com), which also offers a giant swing that goes 1,300 feet out over the Colorado River at 50 mph. More for kids of all ages: an alpine coaster, a zip ride (like a zipline, except you are sitting), a bungee jump, a 4D theater, laser tag, a maze, a climbing wall and more — including cave tours.
Town mouse, backcountry mouse: Estes Park and RMNP
Downtown Estes Park is small enough to wander easily, with a variety of shops and eateries. You can fish on Lake Estes — only those over 16 need a license — or let young ‘uns blow off some steam at YMCA of the Rockies (800-777-9622, ymcarockies.org), which has a playground and swimming pool.
There are fishing opportunities in Rocky Mountain National Park, too, as well as endless places to explore. One of our favorite things to do when they were younger was walk up to and around Bear Lake (Gem and Cub lakes are other good options), climbing around the rocks and trying to identify plants and birds along the way. We would take a group of my daughters’ friends and camp in the park (which requires a backcountry permit), and in late July, try to catch the Estes Park Rooftop Fair and Rodeo in town.
Dinosaurs and dirt roads in Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade
There are so many fun things for adults in and around the largest city in western Colorado — mountain biking and winery-hopping are two top choices — that it’s easy to forget there are tons of activities for the whole family.
But over the years, we’ve camped at all of the sections of the unique James R. Robb-Colorado River State Park, rafted the Colorado River, biked on the road through the wineries of Palisade for the annual Tour of the Valleyand mountain biked the singletrack Kokopelli Trails near Fruita, and hiked and camped all over the Colorado National Monument.
We also dug the experiences inside at the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita (970-858-7282, museumofwesternco.com) and outside on the one-mile Dinosaur Hill Interpretive Trail in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, which is covered with stegosaurus and other cool bones.
It gets very hot in the summer on this side of the state, though, and our top pick for cooling off has always been on the bumper boats at Bananas Fun Park (970-241-7529, bananasfunpark.com), which also has go-carts, mini-golf and an indoor arcade.
Dude, where’s my ranch experience?
Colorado can give you a home where the buffalo roam right past the front porch of the place you’re staying, most of the time an all-inclusive deal where you pay one price for a minimum number of days (usually about a week), and then everything is taken care of from there: meals, horseback riding, fishing — sometimes even target practice with a .50-caliber muzzle loader, like our great experience at Sundance Trail Guest Ranch (800-337-4930, sundance trail.com) near Red Feather Lakes.
Over the years, we stayed at dozens of ranches, and each was unique. Sometimes the focus was the horses or the food — such as at Devil’s Thumb Ranch (970-726-5632, devilsthumbranch.com) near Tabernash, which recently also added a zipline — and some are especially kid-friendly, such as Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland (877-667-3999, sylvandale.com), whose location on the Big Thompson River also makes it a good place for fishing types.
Vail is for food and outdoors lovers
As much as we end up in Vail in the winter to ski and snowshoe, we seem to be there twice as much in the summer to bike, hike and, to be honest, eat.
Vail Pass is a throughout-the-summer constant bike conditioning ride, and the 3.8-mile, round-trip Booth Creek Falls is a moderately strenuous but worthwhile out-and-back trek that kids about 8 and up can usually take on (take Exit 180 from I-70 and head west .85 miles to Booth Falls Road; turn right and follow .25 miles to trailhead)
Even if we’re not actually staying in Vail, we stop there on the way to many of the other places I’ve mentioned, because it’s a convenient break point along Interstate 70. Our two must-haves? The first is Gohan-Ya (970-476-7570, gohanyavail.com), in the plaza just off the West Vail exit for Japanese-style noodle and rice bowls and a big smile from general manager Shin Yamamoto. The place is small and unassuming, but the food is big on flavor and reasonably priced, and few kids can resist a bowl of noodles.
The other is Vendetta’s (970-476-5070, vendettasvail.com), an Italian eatery and pizza joint that is always so packed we forgo ever thinking we’ll eat in and instead call from the highway to order the pies to go, picking them up at the bar, carrying the boxes through the village, and then slurping the cheese-drippy slices on the drive to…wherever.