You’ve plotted your journey, filled the gas tank, and packed the luggage and kids into the car. Now you are ready for your family-friendly road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. But with so much to see and do, where do you start? How much time should you allow? Should you camp in the park, or stay in Estes Park or Grand Lake? Read on for my tips for visiting America’s favorite park: Rocky Mountain National Park.
Within two hours from Denver, your family-friendly road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park takes you to the top of the world! Literally…as those Rocky Mountain peaks rise over 12,000 feet. Drive Trail Ridge Road to discover the park’s alpine tundra, known as the “land above the trees.” Start your park adventure at either of its book-ending gateway towns: Estes Park (eastern) and Grand Lake (western).
Need more inspiration? Read on for tips on making your Rocky Mountain National Park family vacation the best ever.
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Before You Go to Rocky Mountain National Park
I’m a big fan of travel guides, because, let’s face it, no matter how familiar you are with an area, someone else has seen or did something that you’ve never heard of! Even living in Colorado, I can’t know EVERYTHING about our national parks. That includes Rocky Mountain National Park! I may have visited this park dozens of times over the years, but each time, I return I discover something new.
Looking for the best stops for a one-day road trip? Not sure where to find the best hikes to escape the crowds (and believe me with more than 3 million visitors each year, there are crowds!)? The best way to take advantage of your limited time or to not miss something on your bucket list? Buy the Moon Rocky Mountain National Park BEFORE you leave for your road trip.
This newly updated and re-released guidebook allows you and your family to discover Rocky Mountain National Park before you go. From its stunning and inspiring photos, detailed maps, and suggested itineraries, it’s a resource to help you plan your visit.
And don’t forget to pack your Moon travel guide as it also assists the traveler once arriving at the national park. Things happen that may change your plans. (Seriously Trail Ridge Road can close even in the summer due to snow or wind!) The Moon Rocky Mountain National Park guide can offer you quick alternatives while on your road trip too!
TIP: Even when your family-friendly road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is in the summer, pack for the elements. Some trails have snow well into June. Some are sunny and dry year-round. Pack layers including a warm coat and shoes (not just sandals!), no matter the season.
Tips for Family Friendly Road Trip: Rocky Mountain National Park
Shake out your map and grab your Moon Rocky Mountain National Park guide — you are in for a treat. With so much to see and do in Rocky Mountain National Park, you could spend your entire summer within its 415 square miles. But just in case you can’t get away for that long (or you don’t want to miss a thing!), we’ve put our tips for what to do and what not to miss for a family-friendly road trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
1. Take in the sunrise and the sunset.
Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day year round. Visitors can enter or exit at any time, although Trail Ridge Road is closed usually from October to May. Start your road trip early in the morning to avoid the most traffic, but don’t be afraid to stop and soak in the views.
Be sure to return to see a sunset. My favorite view of the sunset is over the Never Summer Mountains. If you don’t want to do this alone, take a tour with the Rocky Mountain Conservancy.
2. Treasure the Drive: Trail Ridge Road
Seriously, this will top your list as the most spectacular road trip scenery seen by your family. Highway 34 is known as the “highway to the sky,” and the highest continuous road in the United States. Travel the 48 miles and climb 4,000 feet in minutes across and through Rocky Mountain National Park. Fuel up in Estes Park, Colorado and head east to Grand Lake, Colorado in the west (or vice versa). Allow 3 hours or more (depending on how often you stop).
From forests of aspen and ponderosa pine to the subalpine forests of fir and spruce to the treelines with wind-battered trees to the wide open (and windy) alpine tundra, this road trip is a feast for your family. Enjoy the journey. Stop and take pictures.
3. Wildlife Watching
Wildlife watching is one of the top activities for any family friendly road to Rocky Mountain National Park. No surprise since the park has an elk herd of up to 800, while 350 bighorn sheep call this Colorado national park home.
Other popular wildlife include deer, moose, and coyotes, but according to the park stats, visitors can also find “nearly 60 other species of mammals; more than 280 recorded bird species; six amphibians, including the federally endangered boreal toad; one reptile (the harmless garter snake); 11 species of fish; and countless insects, including a surprisingly large number of butterflies.”
I was lucky enough to spot moose on in the Kawuneeche Valley near the Historic Holzwarth site near Grand Lake.
There are more than 350 miles of trails to hike, and the Moon Rocky Mountain National Park guide offers a great resource on how to choose one that best fits your family’s abilities.
My favorites are in Grand Lake, where some of the best and (to me) most family friendly hikes are located. One of the easiest and most popular hikes here is to Adams Falls, where even toddlers enjoy the scenery. Access the East Inlet Trailhead at the end of the West Portal Road on the east end of Grand Lake.
5. Attend a Ranger-led Program
Every day in the park, families will discover numerous educational programs for visitors of all ages, including the one at the Alpine Visitor’s Center. Kids age 12 and under can enroll in the Junior Ranger Program to complete activities about park preservation and its environment. Check the park’s newspaper for current listings. If you are camping in the park, attend an evening program at your campground!
6. Where to stay at Rocky Mountain National Park
This is where you’ll need to do your homework as all accommodations (camping, hotels, lodging) fill up fast in and around the park, especially during the summer. Be sure to check your Moon Rocky Mountain National Park guide for tips.
Want to camp? Choose from five drive-in campsites and over 200 backcountry campsites (permits required for overnight stays).
My favorite places include the family-friendly YMCA of the Rockies at either Estes Park Center (where my granddaughter caught her first fish) or the yurts at Snow Mountain Ranch (near Granby).
Make it a historic adventure with a (sometimes haunted) stay at the Stanley Hotel or choose a lakefront motel or cabin accommodations at Western Riviera in Grand Lake.
7. Visit the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake
These bookending towns are at the gateway of Rocky Mountain National Park, and both are worth exploring. Both Estes Park and Grand Lake are perfect base camps for exploring the park, but if you don’t want to miss a thing, perhaps stay one night at each of these beautiful mountain towns?
Estes Park is the eastern gateway, and a family-friendly destination with lots to do and see outside of the park. Here you’ll discover bicycle and hiking trails, shopping, restaurants, breweries and distilleries.
Near the headwaters of the Colorado River, Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest natural lake, the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Year-round activities include summertime fishing, boating, camping, rafting, and festivals. The kids will love a guided boat tour of Grand Lake or rent kayaks and explore the lake on your own while enjoying the view of the Rocky Mountains.