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How to do Rocky Mountain National Park in One Day

How to do Rocky Mountain National Park in One Day

I know. There’s so much to do — you could easily spend a long weekend at Rocky Mountain National Park but sometimes you don’t have an entire weekend. Sometimes the washing, and packing, and planning for traveling with kids resembles a massive troop movement and you. Just. Can’t. You can do a day. That’s it. And I say it’s better to go for a day and see some of the stuff than not go at all and see none of the stuff.

So, in celebration of her 100th birthday, here’s how we do Rocky Mountain National Park in a day.

9 am.— We leave our Littleton-area home, headed towards I-70, Winter Park, and ultimately the western entrance to the park. We were supposed to leave at 8:30, but…again, there are kids involved. I’m lucky we made it and everyone had shoes.

11:20 a.m. — We stop just inside the entrance to the park, where we find a mama moose and her baby grazing and helpfully posing for pictures (tip: when looking for wildlife in the park, don’t actually look for wildlife. Look for cars pulled off to the side of the road. Stop, and then figure out what everyone else is staring at. Works every time.)

11:30 a.m. — We make our first planned stop, at the Coyote Valley Trail. It’s perfect for children — a flat, 1-mile loop near the start of the Colorado river that meanders through flower-strewn meadows, with views of the Never Summer Mountains in the distance. It’s honestly my favorite spot in all of Colorado. After our hike, we stop for lunch at the picnic tables near the start of the trail.

Coyote Valley Trail

Coyote Valley Trail

1 p.m. — After a 5-minute drive, we arrive at the Holzwarth Historic Site. John Holzwarth, Sr. was a Denver saloon owner who found himself needing a job during Prohibition. He came here, eventually turning the area into a trout lodge. The kids had a blast trying to rope a wooden calf, doing laundry on a washboard, and trying on the massive buffalo skin coat. There were plenty of volunteers on-hand to answer questions and lead tours of the “Mamma” House, showing the kids the 1920’s kitchen and rooms, and explaining the work of running the lodge. There’s a 0.8 mile walk to the historic site with a mild uphill slope where you’ll  cross a bridge over the Colorado River, with the source of the famous 1,400-mile river just 10 miles upstream. 

Laundry

Laundry

Calf Roping

Calf Roping

3 p.m. — Back in the car. The kids are happy to rest their tired legs while we drive over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the U.S. We stop at several overlooks along the way, and at the Alpine Visitor Center near the top. This is a great place to fill water bottles and use actual flush toilets, if you prefer that sort of thing. We take our time and don’t arrive at our final stop until…

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road

sprague

Sprague Lake

4:45 p.m. — We come to Sprague Lake, on the eastern side of the park. It’s a shallow lake, popular for fishing, and beautifully blue and sparkly. The walk around the lake is flat, and about a halfmile long. And the views from the far side of the lake, with the mountains reflected in the water…wait, this might be my other favorite spot in all of Colorado. The kids meander along the trail, climbing rocks and taking ridiculous pictures and watching minnows in the water. It’s a lovely way end to our trip.

 6 p.m. — And with that, we’re headed out the eastern entrance, through Estes Park, and home via Highway 36. It’s been a long day, but totally worth it — with breathtaking views, wooden calfropin’ buckaroos, and a baby moose. I can’t ask for more.

 A few additional tips:

Alluvial Fan

Alluvial Fan

 

  • There are a cafe and coffee bar next to the Alpine Visitor Center, but plan on bringing food. We always pack lunches, plenty of snacks, and water for everyone, and grab dinner in Estes Park before heading home. Also, make sure to gas up before entering the park.
  •  It may be warm in the metro area, but bring a pair of pants, a sweatshirt, and even winter jackets for everyone — the top of Trail Ridge is 12,183 feet up and you just never know.
  • Hiking. Honorable mentions on your itinerary include popular 3.5- mile round-trip trek to Emerald Lake from the Bear Lake Trailhead.  If you have small kids, the 1.7-mile round-trip hike to Alberta Falls is busy but worthwhile. Hiking the tundra is a fun and unique alternative and the Ute Trail or the trail above the Alpine Visitor Center are excellent options. Kids will also love climbing on the boulders at the Alluvial Fan and this is a great place for a picnic.
 Happy Trails!
 
If you want to stay more than a day in the region, be sure to check-out Amber’s guide to YMCA of the Rockies’ two Colorado locations in Snow Mountain Ranch and Estes Park that straddle RMNP!

 Laura lives in Littleton with her husband and four children, aged 4-12. She loves doing outdoorsy, mountain-y things with the kids, mostly because then they aren’t home messing with her stuff. She has been featured on Mommyish, PopSugar Moms, and Kids’ Activities Blog. Find her at Peace but Not Quiet.

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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8 Comments

  1. Great itinerary! We followed it during our visit to YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch and Estes Center. The kids’ favorites: calf roping and they had so much fun climbing the rocks at the Alluvial Fan.

  2. Caution, though: the Alpine Visitor’s Center gets CROWDED. Traffic was backed up trying to get into the parking lot and there was no way we’d find a space so we kept driving. That was the one thing I was sad about missing!

  3. We love to picnic in RMNP. Here’s a great list: http://rockymountainnationalpark.com/get-around/picnic-areas

  4. Have the kids become Junior Rangers. Programs are available throughout the park and cover a huge variety of topics, such as wildlife, plants and trees, astronomy, science and history! The park has a list of all available programs on their website, as well as details about weekly programs that are available at their visitor’s centers.

  5. Love this itinerary. We recently spent about four hours in the park. We entered through the Grand Lake Entrance and turned around when we got to the Alpine Visitor Center. We are planning to do a trip similar to yours when my mom is in town. Where do you usually eat in Estes Park? We are looking for recommendations.

  6. Jennifer– Snowy Peaks Winery does this great No “Wine”ing Zone, where they give kids organic juice tastings while the parents do a wine tasting. There are also games, activities, coloring sheets and other things to keep the kids occupied.

  7. For restaurants, Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Tap House and I love Notchtop Bakery & Cafe’s cinnamon bread French toast.

  8. Lynn — oh my goodness, I must go to there (the kid-friendly winery, I mean). Next time! We also love Kind Coffee — I always need a little caffeine on my way out of town.

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