When planning this trip months earlier, we wanted to take advantage of our relatively close proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). We were spending the week in the Colorado mountain town of Steamboat Springs, about 2 hours from RMNP. Read all about our week in Steamboat here:
Since the mountain range runs mostly north/south, we picked a small town called Grand Lake, located on the western edge of the Rockies and near the park’s entrance. We found a relatively inexpensive motel on the edge of town called Black Bear Lodge that had good reviews, a pool, and was only a short drive into the national park. We chose to go mid-week during our stay since it gave us a few days before and after to enjoy Steamboat, but also have a few days to acclimate to the elevation before going even higher.
- Steamboat elevation = 6,900’
- Grand Lake, CO = 8,369′
- Highest peak on trail in RMNP = 12,000
On Tuesday morning, we drove 1.5 hours to Grand Lake, CO. After arriving and parking downtown, we walked around the area a bit and landed on lunch at Squeaky Bs It had a great outdoor dining space with mini-golf and lawn games to entertain the kids, plus our food was very good. After lunch, we had planned on relaxing at the Grand Lake town beach but found the water really chilly and nobody was in the mood to swim.
There were many marinas nearby so we decided to rent a pontoon boat and explore from the water. Grand Lake (the lake that the town is named after) is Colorado’s largest natural lake at 672 acres but was smaller than the two nearby bodies of water we passed on the way into town. In Wisconsin, many of our lakes feature a variety of bars and waterfront dining, which makes for a fun day on a boat. However, we didn’t see much on Grand Lake so decided to check out the other two bodies of water we passed on the way into town.
After a quick Google search, we landed on Trail Ridge Marina at Shadow Mountain Lake. This lake is actually a reservoir but it was bigger than Grand Lake at 1,337 acres and looked better for exploring. At this point, it was about 2:30pm so we only planned to rent the pontoon for two hours before the marina closed. As soon as we loaded up and took off from shore, some dark clouds came overhead. We swiftly pulled back in, tied up the boat, and waited out the storm inside Trail Ridge Marina. The employees made some fresh popcorn for the kids, opened up the little bar inside and served us drinks, while the kids played games and the adults played cards under the covered patio. After about 45 minutes, the storm was over (the kids were having too much fun at the marina and didn’t want to leave, of course) and we headed back out to the water for an hour of boating. It was a pretty drive around the lake but would’ve been more enjoyable had the weather been better. We ended up returning our boat after one hour and it was around $100.
The kids wanted to swim at the motel pool but it was a chilly evening. We were pleasantly surprised to find the motel pool heated to 92 degrees so it felt great. After swimming, we went to dinner at a small walk-up place called Miyauchi’s Snack Bar that we had seen earlier in the day. The weather was still not great but we something easy, inexpensive and to sit on the little boardwalk by the water. There were a couple tables near the restaurant, but we grabbed our food to go and ate on the benches alongside the lake. The food was good, but the homemade ice cream that followed was delicious! The kids had fun watching the ducks, running around on the (enclosed) boardwalk, and it was a casual and relaxed meal before an early bedtime.
We set early alarms the next morning, wanting to get into the park before it got too crowded. The eastern entrance in Estes Park, CO is much busier so we figured we had a few hours until people traveling from east to west would arrive. We entered the park around 7am after purchasing a 1-day pass for $25 (a 7-day pass is $35). Prior to our trip, I had posted on TripAdvisor in the RMNP forum about hikes to do with kids on the western side of RMNP and got some suggestions but was unable to retrieve this due to non-existent cell service inside the park.
- Plan ahead and download any necessary information to your phone before entering! Cell phone service is spotty at best.
After entering the Park on Trail Ridge Road, the first trailhead we had stopped at was Coyote Valley Trail. The parking was very limited and tight (especially with our large 15-passenger van!) but we had received tips to go early and were able to get a spot. It is a 1.1 mile out and back trail and was basically level, wide and paved. The kids were able to run and explore for themselves. This is apparently a trail where moose and elk can be spotted, but we didn’t see any wildlife. It was a beautiful open valley with a small river flowing through and the peaks of the Rockies in the distance. It was about 8am at this point and we all had pants and jackets on with the temperature in the low 50s. Highly recommend this hike for anyone!
After leaving the Coyote Valley Trail, everyone was excited to get deeper into RMNP. The mood was great – there is just nothing like being in the mountains! The drive up was not for the faint of heart – many switchbacks and the road runs just along the edge of the mountains with no barriers to keep wildlife out of the way. Drive slow and pay attention and it’ll be worth it. We pulled off the road at an area called Fairview Curve to get out and take in the views at the overlook. Words and pictures won’t do this justice but it was amazing and highly worth stopping for a few minutes.
We passed a few other trails along the way but wanted to get to the Alpine Visitor Center before it got too busy. The Visitor Center is the highest point in the park where you can drive. There is a large parking area but it will close when it reaches capacity and visitors will be unable to stop. After parking, we headed up the long set of steps to the overlook. At this point, it is reaching nearly 12,000 feet elevation so the steps weren’t easy but the kids and ourselves were able to do it with a little extra huffing and puffing.
- Even for those who are physically limited and unable to climb the steps, it’s still a great stop to take in the views from the buildings and parking area
Upon reaching the top, there were again some indescribable 360-degree views. The rocky cliffs at the top provided some fun for the big girls, who played a game of hide & seek. (Contrary to what these pictures depict, they aren’t dangling at the top of a mountain – there is actually a big grassy area on the other side before anything drops off).
The Alpine Visitor Center is at the junction of two roads – Trail Ridge Road, which we traveled on, and Old Fall River Road, a one-way road leading from the eastern entrance to Alpine Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is open daily from 10:30am – 4:30pm when Trail Ridge Road is open (*note: due to the elevation, snow often remains on this road so it’s only open during a very short window of the year – usually late May through early October so check before you go!). The two buildings at the center offer restrooms, a snack bar (the only restaurant in the park), a bookstore, and a gift shop. We bought some souvenirs here, along with getting the kids’ Junior Ranger badge and National Park passport stamp.
We spent about 2 hours here before deciding to head back west and check out a few more trails before leaving the park. The Continental Divide runs through this area of the Park, which has a small stop to get out at Milner Pass. Shortly after leaving the Divide on the western side, you’ll be driving right along the edge of the road and mountains. The views are spectacular but also a bit terrifying and you’ll heavily on your vehicle’s brakes while driving downhill most of the way.
We stopped at the Timber Lake Trail to get out and let the kids explore some more. This is a 9.9 mile out and back trail that is rated as moderate difficulty. Timber Lake is 4.8 miles from the trailhead so we did not get that far, but would’ve gone if it were just the adults. We hiked a narrow, sometimes rocky trail through the woods that reached a waterfall about 1 mile in. The kids were all able to walk this trail easily and the youngest child, age 1.5, was in a hiking backpack.
Another trail along the way out that would’ve been good with kids / physically limited persons was the Historic Holzworth Site Trail, but the parking was full so we kept going. There are some old cabins and a historic homestead called Never Summer Ranch at the base of the Never Summer Mountains and features flat, paved trails. There are also apparently volunteers to give short guided-tours here and explain the history of the homestead. We would’ve stopped here had there been parking available.
On the way out of the park, near the Coyote Valley Trail where we had first hiked that morning, we were able to pull over off the road and get out to watch a couple moose cows and calves in the distance. The road here was lined with people doing the same and was getting to be very busy, since this was now about 2:00pm. The Coyote Valley Trailhead parking lot was full at this time when we passed by.
Another stop on the way out of the park that would’ve been nice to check out is called Adams Falls, just near the town of Grand Lake. It is described as a 0.7 mile trail loop that features a waterfall and good for all skill level hikers, although rocky and uphill in areas. At this point in our day, the kids were ready for a car nap and we still had 1.5 hours to drive back to Steamboat Springs, so we reluctantly ended our time in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Knowing what we know now, we would’ve arrived in Grand Lake earlier on the first day, purchased the week pass into RMNP and spent two days exploring. We all agreed that Grand Lake was pretty but would’ve rather spent our time in the Park. We didn’t feel like we had enough time to check out all of what the western side offered, and would’ve considered going even further into the eastern side towards Estes Park, CO. From everything we read, the eastern side has even more impressive views and trails, so we would have loved to see this. It is apparently about 2-4 hours round trip, but knowing our group it would’ve been much longer with stops.
On the last evening of our trip on Colorado, it was collectively decided that Rocky Mountain National Park was one of our favorite parts of the week. Until next time…
Know before you go – RMNP:
- Plan ahead. This means downloading all your maps and information into your phone before you leave, as cell phone and internet service will be spotty at best. You’ll want to check that Trail Ridge Road is open ahead of time, along with the park entrance hours and visitor center hours. Gas up your vehicle and make sure you’ve got good brakes and strong stomachs 🙂
- Pack everything you’ll need, especially lots of water. The best way to help with elevation sickness is to stay very hydrated. There are plenty of bathrooms at trailheads, although most are outhouse/vault toilets. There is only one restaurant in the park, at the Alpine Visitor Center, so pack a cooler and lots of snacks. Check out our blog post on how we pack for a day outing.
- Arrive early! Plan ahead your highest priority spots and go there first. The popular spots had full parking lots around mid-day, so you’d be out of luck.
- Plan more time than you think you’ll need. We left that day feeling like there was so much more to see. We all had a great time exploring, but were left wanting more time and wished we’d had another day.
- Check out what else RMNP has to offer. There are many resources, maps, guided tours, and suggestions on the internet that it can be overwhelming. Besides this post (shameless plug for our blog), we found the following sites useful when planning our day:
Comment below with questions or to share your favorite spots within RMNP! Also see our Instagram account for videos from our trip.