How to do Rocky Mountain National Park in summer with your kids

Last updated 15th April 2024

Even when the summer weather doesn’t play nice, Aaron Millar discovers magical things happen on family adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.


Cameron, Aaron and Elise, Rocky Mountain National Park

Magical things happen in the mountains. John Muir, the American environmentalist, and founder of the National Park service, said – “They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy [and] … set you free.” America is filled with beautiful ranges, from the Sierra Nevada of the west coast to Appalachia in the east. But the Rockies are special, and Rocky Mountain National Park is the crown jewel.

Located just two hours west of Denver Colorado, the park is home to 415 square miles of snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes and glacier valleys filled with wildflowers, elk and moose.

“We’re awe junkies,” Rocky Mountain Ranger Barry Sweet says.  “The feeling of being here takes over your whole body.”


Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

But awe doesn’t always come easy. The Rockies are home to mountain lions, coyotes and black bears. There are sudden lightning storms that deafen the sky and gusts of wind that could break a house. This is the real outdoors, a wilderness the comforts of civilization have not yet plundered.

But that’s exactly why you should come. Psychological research shows that adventure in nature can dramatically boost children’s confidence and self-esteem. Not to mention get them off screens. It binds us as a family and helps us remember what’s most important in life.

“People come to the park with dull grey eyes from their stressed-out lives,” Ranger Sweet says. “And leave with the sparkle back.”

There are many reasons you should come to Rocky Mountain National Park, but here are some that matter most. All you have to do is turn up, the magic will happen by itself.


Curious moose, Rocky Mountain National Park

Feel on top of the world in Rocky Mountain National Park

Trail Ridge Road is America’s highest paved road, topping out at a staggering 12,183 feet: almost three times the height of Ben Nevis. In 48 snaking miles, you will climb 4,000 feet in elevation through groves of aspen and ponderosa pine, to sub-alpine forests of fir and spruce, and finally ending up above tree line in wild alpine tundra. Numerous points along the way offer 360-degree views of the Rockies. It is breathtaking, but also surreal. This is an extreme landscape, usually reserved for mountaineers. Here you can see it – stereo playing, sipping hot chocolate – from the comfort of your car.


Cameron in the backcountry, Rocky Mountain National Park

Hear the call of the wild all year round

Rocky Mountain National Park has no fewer than 67 native mammal species; you’ll see Big Horn Sheep and Mule Deer; you’ll hear the cackle of coyote packs hunting through the night. Yellow-Bellied Marmots and Pikas will make the kids squeal with their almost unbearable cuteness. Moose are regularly spotted: an icon of the American West. But, if you want to hear the actual call of the wild come at the end of September for the Elk rut, or mating season, when male bulls show off their prowess by clashing antlers and calling loud wailing bugles into the mountains. Come the last weekend of September for Elkfest, a music filled celebration of the rut and the arrival of Autumn.


Perfectly framed views everywhere, Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is hiking heaven – even for kids

Rocky Mountain National Park is also home to 355 miles of hiking trails – that’s roughly the equivalent of walking from Brighton to Newcastle. Except here, all of the trails are filled with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on Earth. To see one of the most beautiful of the park’s 156 alpine lakes, try the six-mile hike to Loch Vale, a perfect cirque of 13,000-foot snow-capped peaks and mirror still reflections. For wildlife, the Big Meadows trail traverses the largest montane meadow in the park, an ideal habitat for deer, elk and moose. And if you’re truly brave, with older kids and a head for heights, try Long’s Peak. Reaching the 14,259-foot summit guarantees bragging rights for life, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.


Haunting view of The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park

Find accessible outdoor adventures in Estes Park

This is the gateway town to the park, located right at its main entrance, and it’s almost as much fun as Rocky Mountain itself. There’s mountain biking, horse riding and rivers to run. Festivals and events happen throughout the year, including an annual rodeo in summer. If you don’t feel like camping, this will be where you stay and there’s everything from glamping cabins to luxury hotels to choose from. But if you want a story to take home, spend a night in The Stanley. This ornate mansion hotel has towered above the town for more than 100-years. It was here, in 1974, that the novelist Stephen King, found himself the only guest in the 140-room hotel, forced to wait out a winter storm. That night inspired his book The Shining, and let’s just say its ghostly reputation has only grown since.


Elise and Cameron with Ranger Betsy

Now about those best laid plans…

This was not how we planned it. There should have been sharp granite peaks dabbed in the warm amber of sunset, pine forests chirping with chipmunks and the tiny drum roll of hummingbird wings. When you bring your family to Rocky Mountain National Park for their first camping trip you expect Disney conditions: blue skies, wide smiles and roasted marshmallows. What we got was wet. But here’s the amazing thing. We still loved it. Sometimes a disaster on paper is a triumph in spirit.  Even with two kids and one tiny tent …

Rocky Mountain National Park needs Junior Rangers

It started so well. We roasted sausages on a stick, saw a deer skip across our path and watched our kids – Cameron 5 and Elise 2 – sworn in as official Junior Rangers. “Do you promise to protect the wildlife,” Ranger Betsy asked. “Mummy will,” Elise replied. But this was drive up and park ‘car camping’. We longed for the real thing. I wanted us to experience, as a family, a world our kids had never seen that unpopulated, feralness of the real outdoors. We decided to head into the backcountry for a night on our own – relying on nothing but our wits and what we could pack on our backs. But herein our troubles began.

As it turns out one can carry an awful lot on ones back. The problem is moving at the same time. And then the rain started – a drenching so severe that only a submarine would have kept us dry. There was tension, grumpiness, and tears – we are a family after all – but through it we somehow climbed to 10,000ft, erected our miniscule two-man tent and crammed five bags, four people and eight muddy boots in.


Deer, Estes Park, Colorado

Turns out we love backcountry camping, in spite of everything

Then what? Too wet to cook, too small to move around. Nothing for the kids to do but bounce that beam of boundless bored energy against their trapped and helpless parents.

But gradually, one by one, the amazing thing happened. We started to drop that incessant need for entertainment, that relentless list of chores. There was, literally, nothing to do but be in the moment. And that simple fact, somehow, cleared an enormous blockage of mental fuzz. There was only us. In this vast, bear ridden wilderness, there was only the four of us. We savoured the last of our snacks; cuddled in for warmth; and shared the dark press of night. This was what real camping is about, we decided. Roughing it, surviving, being together. It wasn’t how we planned it, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


Bear Lake Trailhead, Rocky Mountain National Park

More Rocky Mountain National Park hikes for kids

Hallet Peak Trail

Starts with a short stroll round Bear Lake and then up towards Flattop Mountain. The trail takes you to Emerald Lake Overlook, the summit of Flattop and finally to Hallet Peak. Teens love this trail, but the distance and terrain are a bit tough for younger kids. Starts at Bear Lake Trailhead. Distance 17km

Fern Lake Trail

Park up at the Fern Lake Trailhead and take the shuttle to Bear Lake. Most hikers follow the popular Dream Lake Trail, but you’ll leave the crowds behind on the Bear Lake route to Fern Lake. Not steep, so a good hike for kids. Starts at Fern Lake Trailhead. Distance 14km

Gem Lake Trail

Gem Lake is only fed by water from rain and snow in Rocky,  Mountain National Park, making it a bit of a natural phenomenon. This trail is uphill but the views of Estes Park, Longs Peak and the surrounding mountains are more than worth the legwork. Starts at Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. Distance  8km

How to plan Rocky Mountain National Park

How to get there

Direct UK flights to Denver from 9 hours, 52 minutes

Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park from 2 hours

Where to stay

The Stanley Hotel, Family Suites (2 adults, 2 children) from £244 per night

The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park 

Good to know

For information on Rocky Mountain National Park

US National Park Service