Colorado’s Top 20 Family Vacation Ideas for 2014
posted by: Amber Johnson
If there’s anything we love at Mile High Mamas, it is family travel. Living in Colorado, you don’t need to go far to experience world-class destinations in our own backyard. We have rounded up 20 of our top family vacation ideas for spending summer 2014 in Colorado.
-Amber Johnson and Julie Bielenberg
It may be summertime but Snowmass has returned to the Ice Age with the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center that features the most significant Ice Age ecosystem find in Colorado history (and it’s free). Touch a mastodon tooth, marvel at a half-sized 6-foot Wooden Mammoth Skeleton, do a dig of your own or a daily hike. Visit the Snowmass Rodeo on Wednesday nights (June 11- August 20) and sign your kids up for the Calf Scramble and Mutton Busting. Every Thursday (June 19-Aug. 14), the Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center at the Base Village offers a free craft hour from 4-5 p.m. to make mementos such as hats, backpacks and picture frames. Ride the Elk Camp Gondola up Snowmass Mountain where the Elk Camp Restaurant has activities including downhill biking, dinner, campfires, live music, movies, a Stryder Park and a kid’s playground on Friday evenings. Try your hand at some slopeside bowling at Slopeside Lanes that features eight full-sized lanes, a lounge area with full bar, wood-fired oven pizzas and upscale bar food. Or, there’s nothing quite like stand-up paddleboarding the Roaring Fork River. Then get inspired at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, a stellar place for kids of all ages to take workshops in sculpture, photography, painting, beading and mask-making. (AJ)
Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Denver, Boulder is surrounded by a greenbelt of city trails and open spaces. Chautauqua, a National Historic Landmark, is our favorite stomping ground with charming rental cottages, 48 miles of hiking trails, a dining hall with the best patio dining around and thousands of acres of natural lands. The Ranger Cottage at the Chautauqua trailhead offers free guided hikes or for something new, Theater-Hikes Colorado will be performing “Alice in Wonderland” while you hike. If biking is more your speed, cruise the shady 7-mile Boulder Creek Path that runs through the center of town. On Saturdays, we love to explore the Boulder’s Farmer’s Market for eclectic and delicious offerings. Not to be forgotten are Pearl Street Mall’s restaurants, shops, people-watching, the Pop Jet Fountain (between 13th and 14th Streets), the climbable animal structures (between 15th and 14th Streets) and the rock garden play area (between 13th and Broadway). The newly-renovated Fiske Planetarium, the largest planetarium west of the Mississippi, is now one of the most sophisticated planetariums and multimedia centers in the world with a cool laser light show. Take a free tour at Celestial Seasonings or the National Center for Atmospheric Research where a new exhibit teaches kids about the ingredients of weather while they play with clouds, make a tornado and steer a hurricane. (AJ)
Breckenridge is a gorgeous mountain community 1.5 hours from Denver where we will build our cabin someday (dare to dream, right?) Peak 8 Fun Park at the base of the resort just got a lot more fun with a two-stage zipline that soars 50 feet above the ski slopes at 45 miles per hour with a dual span of 392 feet and a second quad span of 1,095 feet. Be sure to also do the Fun Park’s Gold Runner Coaster, climbing wall, Alpine Superslide, Superputt Mini Golf and free scenic gondola rides with spectacular views of Cucumber Gulch. If you want to explore the great outdoors even more, local fan favorites include fishing the Blue River, a scenic drive over Boreas Pass road accessing 1,000 miles of mountain biking across Summit County, hiking countless miles of trails or climbing a nearby “14er.” Grab your bikes or strollers and explore Breckenridge’s extensive paved trail system that connects to mountain towns Frisco, Dillon, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Vail. Once upon a time, the Country Boy Mine was one of the largest and most famous gold mines and today, offers family-friendly tours where you can actually pan for real gold. The Kingdom Days/Outhouse Races June 14-15 are a must. It’s not every day that the star attractions are Outhouse Races, old-fashioned games like potato sack races, magicians, blacksmithing demos, gold panning and historic hikes.
Colorado Springs may be only an hour south of Denver but it feels like a world away. We love local staples like hiking Garden of the Gods, the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway that climbs to 14,114 feet, tours of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, exploring the fascinating Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s newish $13.5 million exhibit Encounter Africa. For a thrill, check out the Cave of the Winds’ new “Terror-Dactyl” zipline and the Wind Walker Challenge Ropes Course that is located on the rim of a 600-foot drop into Williams Canyon. Colorado Wolf Adventures offers 1-hour educational programs with their ambassador wolf or you can actually go for a walk with a wolf! It’s Christmas all summer long at Santa’s Workshop, a 25-acre theme park built on the slopes of Pikes Peak. Or venture out to the 4,400 square-foot Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument’s visitor’s center with exceptionally preserved fossils and interactive exhibits. Following Colorado Springs’ devastating floods, the Royal Gorge Bridge has plans to reopen their brand new park late this summer or early fall. Popular attraction Seven Falls was recently purchased by The Broadmoor but sustained significant flood damage and will reopen in 2015. (AJ)
Crested Butte may be a four-hour drive from Denver but the drive is worth it—it’s my favorite destination in Colorado. In addition to world-famous mountain biking and hiking (the views from Snodgrass Mountain are second-to-none), don’t miss the five-week-long Crested Butte Music Festival (with the free Divine Family Young People’s Concerts on select Saturdays) and the Wildflower Festival (kicking off July 7) where you’ll swear you climbed onto a Monet canvas of mad, extravagant colors. At the base the resort, get airborne on the Coke Zero Gravity BagJump a 50 feet by 50 feet bag of air for guests to tube and ski and ride into. For younger kids, check-out the Trailhead Children’s Museum and big kids (must weigh at least 70 pounds) can try the Crested Butte Zipline Tour, which includes five zip lines ranging in length from 120 – 400 feet connected by features or “events” such as suspended wood bridges and towering platforms. P.S. A few years ago, my kids did Kids Nature Camp at world-renown Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in nearby Gothic, Colo. and still rave about it. It is truly one of the prettiest drives in Colorado. (AJ)
Whether you’re from out-of town or staycationing, the Mile High City is fabulously kid-friendly for summer! If you love museums, the already impressive Denver Museum of Nature & Science added 126,000 square feet and five levels of discovery including the new exhibit Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed. Travel around the globe in the Wildlife Experience’s 3-D exhibit that features animal animatronics and eight different habitats or if you want the real thing, you’ll love the Denver Zoo’s 80-acre facility with Toyota Elephant Passage as its crown jewel. The Children’s Museum of Denver’s interactive playscapes are great for kids under 10 and next door, the Downtown Aquarium houses over 500 species of animals. Outside of the Children’s Museum and Aquarium you’ll find the multi-use Platte River Trail that is perfect for biking or stroller walks. Hitch a ride on the Platte River Trolley that runs Friday-Sunday along the South Platte Greenway, being sure to stop at Confluence Park to watch the kayakers and get your own feet wet. Cool down at nearby Little Man Ice Cream, Denver’s iconic shop in the shape of twenty-eight foot tall, 14,000 lb. cream can. Red Rocks is not only a world-famous concert venue but also boasts fantastic views, a visitor’s center and trading post, not to mention classic films at Film on the Rocks. Find out where kids eat free any day of the week and don’t miss our Denver summer activity guide with 100+ suggestions.
I secretly fantasize about teaching at Fort Lewis one summer as an adjunct and living downtown Durango. This is one cool town, and everyone who visits usually gets it right away. The town is rooted in railroads and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad is iconic, scenic, memorable and still a huge attraction. While my boys took the train up to Silverton, my daughter and I visited James Ranch, just 10 miles North of Durango en route to the remote town of Silverton for a rendezvous. They have a great farm with a cheese making shop, tons of livestock and great stories. The tour wraps with an opportunity to snack and some delicious farm fare. Once back in Durango, there’s a fabulous little children’s museum, Durango Discovery Museum, that is heavy on the science exhibits, and truly appealing for most pre-teen children. The Animas River Trail runs through town and gives to access to gold medal waters for fishing and a white water park for water enthusiasts. My kids also enjoyed the Durango Wildlife Center and Fish Hatchery. Whether you want to wander a great downtown with brews and burgers, hike the gorgeous San Juans or drive along the awesome scenic byways, Durango will certainly be your kind of town the second your arrive. Also check out Durango Mountain Resort for their summer programming and outdoor adventure. The famous Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings are also only an hour away from Durango and the opposite direction towards Pagosa Springs is Chimney Rock, a great center with hiking trails. (JB)
The iconic entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park needs some extra love and attention this summer. Hit hard by Mother Nature in 2013, this resort town is ready for the visitors! We were up in early November last year and had a blast! You go to Estes to visit The Park, and it never disappoints. Bear Lake Road is a brand new road, was never impacted by the flood and it leads to great family hikes including Sprague Lake, Bear Lake and Nymph Lake. Regardless of your destination in the Park, the wildlife abounds and brings laughter to all generations. Downtown has your quintessential tourist candy and ice cream shops, boutiques and burger joints, but speckled in there are goodies like the Estes Park Brewery, Snowy Peak Winery (that has a juice tasting area for children), Mary Jane Boutique (fabulous home decor and lifestyle store), Ed’s Cantina and many more. Miniature Golf, the classic and affordable, Tiny Town is a throw back to yesteryear, including prices. For a more supped miniature golf experience head down the road to Fun City, it includes the giant Rainbow Slide, bumper boats, trampolines and more. The Bielenbergs hit up the YMCA of the Rockies and this place is Disneyland in the wilderness. You name it, they got it from swimming, horse back riding, roller skating, arts and crafts studio (it’s huge!), rock climbing, zip lines and DAYCAMP for children while adults go play, there is everything. The teenagers even came and played BINGO with my little ones, it was darling. There are over 250 cabins with multiple bedrooms, lodge rooms and multi-family lodges. This resort is over 860 acres, so you cannot even pack everything in during one trip, especially since you can hike right into the park from the property. There is a real adventure element, especially for the older children in Estes Park as well: The Open Air Adventure Park, Off-Road Tours with Green Jeep Tours or Rocky Mountain Rush, guided fly-fishing and classes and adventures and classes through the Rocky Mountain Nature Conservancy.
Fort Fun or Choice City, whatever you want to call it, Fort Collins is the perfect urban getaway for Denverites. Just an hour jaunt up I-25 and you are in an agricultural, bicycling, beer-brewing, coffee-grinding, farm-to-table wonderland. Visit the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery and don’t miss out on the Tornado Tunnel, it’s a kid and adult favorite. More kid fun includes wandering through the Gardens at Spring Creek loaded with kid’s activities. Certainly book a trip on the Magic School Bus offering up kid tours, farm tours and history tours, all around the city and even Horsetooth Reservoir. Want to do a brewery tour with kids, head to the third largest craft brewery in the nation, New Belgium. Stick through the entertaining 90-minute tour and take your turn down the slide. This brew tour is loaded with strollers and families. Stroll down Main Street (College Avenue) near the CSU Campus and take in the coed culture and the blooms at the Annual Trial Garden. The Farm at Lee Martinez Park is an agricultural oasis smack dab in town. And, to top off any day, had to The Colorado Room for some of my favorite local eats in town, may I recommend the bison poutine? My daughter LOVED it! (JB)
Take the world’s largest outdoor mineral hot springs pool (Glenwood Hot Springs), add an adventure park built on top of a mountain (Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park), sprinkle in the Roaring Fork Valley’s crimson rocks and emerald forests and you have a memorable family vacation just a few hours from Denver. Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s thrill rides Glenwood Canyon Flyer, Giant Canyon Swing and the Cliffhanger Roller Coaster are perched on the edge of Glenwood Canyon. For fun without fainting, try the zipline, alpine coaster, laser tag, Music on the Mountain’s free concert series and the Historic Fairy Caves tour. Local rafting companies annually guide thousands of visitors down the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers through rapids with names like Upper Superstition and Tombstone (consider yourselves warned). Even if you’re not a kayaker, you’ll love watching the the daredevils at the Glenwood Whitewater Activity Area or have your own adventure by renting a Segway and glide through downtown Glenwood Springs, up Red Mountain or along the river trails. Head outside of town 7 miles to Hike the short, steep mile-long trail to Hanging Lake, a crystal-clear, turquoise blue lake. Grab your bikes and take the paved Rio Grande Trail, which winds along the Roaring Fork River from Glenwood to Aspen. (AJ)
The Western Slope town of Grand Junction has truly transformed itself in recent years. The Grand Valley, surrounded by three very distinct mountain ranges: The Book Cliffs, Grand Mesa and Colorado Plateau, is bustling with young families. Kids might love the Main Street splash pad in downtown best. The never-ending water spout entertainment gathers tourists and locals alike. The Bielenbergs went bananas at Bananas Fun Park (go carts, bumper boats, arcade games, etc) what a gem so close to the downtown. The Thursday evening farmers market throughout summer is a great way to sample the Western Slope culture, eat, dance and relax. Just a few miles down the road from Grand Junction is Fruita, home of the Colorado National Monument, an over 100-year-old designated region for families, bikers, local and even international tourists to view and experience some of the Western United States’ most remarkable sites such as Independence Monument or Balanced Rock. Head to downtown Fruita for a quaint downtown and lovely food and beverage options. The Dinosaur Journey Museum is also tucked off Highway 340, right off of Interstate 70, and is a small, yet, immensely important dinosaur museum with an interactive collection known throughout the world as well. And, new to Fruita is the Children’s Nature Center. (JB)
This funky historic town 100 miles west of Denver is surrounded by high-alpine forests, glacial lakes and boasts a backdrop of the Sawatch and Mosquito ranges including 14,440-foot Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. Camping, hiking and mountain biking are king, as are several unique activities such as free tour of the Leadville National Fish Hatchery where kids can feed the fish and do 1-mile Evergreen Trail with educational signs and access to the Colorado Trail. If your family loves trains, the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad’s 2.5-hour ride is not only scenic but chock-full of historical gems. Speaking of scenery (it’s tough not to in Leadville), Interlaken Boat Tours were introduced last summer at Twin Lakes. Be sure to bring your bikes and cruise on the paved 11.6-mile Mineral Belt Trail that loops Leadville through aspen groves and wildflower meadows or drive serpentine Independence Pass with oodles of hiking options and a ghost town on the Aspen side. Reward your efforts with Leadville’s Cookies with Altitude with fresh cookies, breads, fudge, sandwiches, soups, breakfasts and whoopee pies.
It’s going to take most of you mamas a good drive to get to either of these destinations, but this is for superb reason, Ouray and Telluride are noted as some of the most beautiful mountain towns in Colorado, and quite honestly, all of America. The remote mountain hamlets are surrounded by the massive San Juan Mountain Range. In Telluride, ride up and down one of the only free gondolas in America connecting downtown to Mountain Village. In downtown walk the streets made famous by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Head to nearby Bridal Falls for views and history. There isn’t anything in or around Telluride that isn’t beautiful or secluded.
Just an hour or so drive from Telluride is the town of Ouray, loaded with hot springs, so take your pick, many are even offered at hotels and motels in town. Ouray Hot Springs is the most popular choice. Ouray is also world famous for it’s climbing, both summer and winter. Take it a bit easier with the wee ones and visit Box Canyon Falls. It’s an easy boulder hike with water and you can always go further up the rocks. Stroll down the idyllic downtown and stop in one of my favorite kitchen stores, Khristopher’s Culinare, it’s perfect for finding the unique gifts for foodies. We in Ouray for the 4th of July, and it’s memorable. The town parade, BBQ, water fight and late-night Torch Light Parade (lighted Jeep parade descending from Red Mountain Pass) certainly takes advantage of the surroundings for an all-American holiday. (JB)
Palisade is just East of Grand Junction and is the true sweet fruit capitol of Colorado. You take your family here for one reason, to experience orchards and groves of produce that is rare for many in and around the metro area. First up, the famous peaches. Those orchards offering tours are Aloha Organic Fruit, High Country Orchards, Clark Family Orchard (who does a tour with a wagon and team of horses), Kokopelli (who does a tour on their hoopie) for an up close and personal view of the fruits. Second up, visit multiple other producers for grapes, pears, apples, apricots, cherries and plums. Next, visit my personal favorite, SunCrest Orchard Alpacas and say hello to some of my favorite furry, quiet, and sincere creatures on this planet. I even wrote a MHM blog on about this farm and why these darling buddies would make great husbands back in 2010. The Fruit and Wine Byway intersects through Palisade and is a must for every generation. The highway winds by over 20 farms, and just take your pick (literally!), you can’t go wrong. (JB)
The last “bigger” town South on I-25 before New Mexico is Pueblo. The Historic Arkansas Riverwalk offers shops, restaurants loads of . . . surprise, history! Try and plan a trip to Pueblo to coincide with one of their many festivals: Loaf ‘N Jug Presents Boats, Bands & BBQ, Bands In The Backyard, 30th Annual NSRA Rocky Mountain Street Rod Nationals Plus, Rollin’ On The Riverwalk, National Little Britches Rodeo Finals and the grand daddy of them all, the Colorado State Fair. Lake Pueblo State Park is one of the state’s most visited parks with 60 miles of shoreline for lots of “beach” family time. Endless water recreation awaits all including sailing, motor boating, waterskiing, river tubing and prime fishing. And, if animals are on the mind, located in City Park is the Pueblo Zoo, home to more than 140 species of animals! Kids really clamber for the shipwreck journey in the Islands of Life building. For evening, try the City Park Rides for only 25 cents. Established in 1904, every ride ion this carousel is specifically tailored toward younger children. (JB)
Salida / Buena Vista
Salida is one of my favorite “destination” towns in Colorado for many reasons—the non-tourist appeal, the home of the Sawatch Mountain Range that contains 15 14ers (14,000-foot peaks), the great restaurants and secretly, the shopping. Only 12 blocks in from Highway 50, is historic downtown Salida. This charming, recently designated, creative district is only 3-4 blocks in length, but it’s packed with some of the best boutiques, shops, eateries and artist-owned galleries in Colorado, and a riverfront that makes many other mountain towns jealous. Salida also ranks as one of Colorado’s best beach towns. There is a whitewater park downtown, on the Arkansas River and a great spot to put your feet in and let the kiddos splash around. My kids’ favorite entertainment was the fetching dogs and the kayakers, SUPers and white water rafters going by—it provided MORE than a couple hours of entertainment. If you’re a thrill-seeker, Captain Zipline Aerial Adventure Park is an interconnected network of 120 different combinations of swinging bridges, catwalks, ladders, platforms, nets, rope and cable swings, obstacles and flying elements. Mount Princeton Hot Springs, a full service resort just 15 minutes north of Salida, is one of the most popular attractions to Chaffee County with constant additions, lots of lodging, oodles of pools and springs, a brand new spa and our favorite hot springs directly in the river.
Chaffee County also houses Buena Vista, which is about 20 minutes North of Salida off 285. The town has its own White Water Park on South Main and a charming downtown from yesteryear; however, this new park is part of South Main’s new urban development. A new hotel is also on tap so check back. For big mountain biking families, attempt the world famous Monarch Crest Trail. Buena Vista has less tourists than almost any other place on this list and also access to Crested Butte via the popular summer-only Cottonwood Pass. For big mountain biking families, attempt the world famous Monarch Crest Trail via shuttle from Poncha Springs. Both Buena Vista and Salida have mountain bike trails adjacent to their downtowns and many other great trails within minutes of town. Friendly bike shops in both towns can direct you to the trails that are perfect for all abilities. (JB)
In the winter, Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado is famous for its champagne powder; in the summertime the Yampa River Valley, Steamboat Lake and Zirkel Wilderness Area become a veritable outdoor wonderland with boat rentals, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, SUP, swimming and camping. Hike to Fish Creek Falls or wind along the paved 4-mile Yampa River Core Trail on your bike. Or better yet, grab a tube and cruise down the only free-flowing river in the Colorado River Basin (grab your tube rentals or arrange a shuttle from Backdoor Sports or One Stop Ski Shop). If you just want to soak, do the short, scenic hike to Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs (warning: clothing optional at night) or the more family-friendly yet less inspiring geothermal springs at Old Town Hot Springs with waterslides and a climbing wall. Getting there is half the fun with Del’s Triangle 3 Ranch, which offers hourly horseback rides (kids need to be at least 6 years old) and summer pack trips. During the half-hour shuttle ride from town to their 6,000-acre ranch in the Elk River Valley, fourth generation Steamboat native, Olympian and cowboy Ray Heid delights guests with stories of his family’s colorful history in the valley. The Coca Cola Adventure Zone at the base of Steamboat Ski Resort includes ropes course, slingshot bungee jump, climbing wall, mini-bounce, mechanical bull, human gyro and t-shirt spin art. If you love hot air balloons, pilots let spectators help inflate the balloons at the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo July 11 and 12. The Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo runs every Friday and Saturday mid-June through mid-August. Once upon a time, my daughter won the Ram Scramble and still raves about it. It’s not every day grabbing a ribbon from a sheep’s rear counts as a win. (AJ)
Aptly named, Grand County is, indeed grand. Located about 65 miles from Denver in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, family-friendly activities abound. Winter Park boasts Colorado’s longest alpine slide, a climbing wall, free Friday movie nights and the Trestle Bike Park, which has over 40 miles of lift-serviced mountain bike trails perfect for riders of all ages and abilities. Take a one hour educational walking tour of the kennels at Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park or a 45-minute cart ride through the forest. Grand County has five mountain lakes popular for fishing and boating and 7,000-acre Grand Lake is one of Colorado’s largest bodies of water. Known as the “Western Gateway” to Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake’s historic boardwalk has more than 60 shops, restaurants, and galleries including the new Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater. The national park has more than 350 miles of hiking trails and the western slope trails in Grand County are much less frequented than those on the eastern slope. In nearby Granby, YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch offers an affordable and wholesome environment where friends, families and groups enjoy everything from roller-skating to zip lining to swimming to a new Snowflex® tubing hill that is the first of its kind and only the third in the United States (opening July 15). -AJ
-Amber Johnson and Julie Bielenberg
Do you want to have even more fun? Check-out these 2014 Colorado Summer Escapes!