Mountains are spectacular and stunning and Rocky Mountain National Park offers a beautiful and safe way to introduce family members of all ages to this incredible landscape. With scenic drives, accessible viewpoints, nearby lodging, car camping, countless family-friendly day hikes to alpine lakes and mountain peaks, and hundreds of miles of trails for backpacking, this park offers a lifetime of exploration options.
It’s worth noting that spending time at elevation can be physiologically taxing for some. Most of the park entrances are above 8,000 feet and the high point of the road connecting the two reaches 12,183 feet. While this needn’t really be a concern for passive activity like sitting in a car driving, it does need to be taken into consideration for more active hikers.
Unlike many of our national parks, there are no overnight lodges in Rocky Mountain National Park but there are lots of places to stay in and around the nearby towns of Estes Park on the east side and Grand Lake on the west side. Both sides offer the standard range of lodging styles, including bed and breakfasts, hotels, condos, lodges, cabins, vacation rentals and more.
The park itself has five campsites, one of which is for tents only (Longs Peak CG), and only one is open year-round (Moraine Park CG). Reservations are strongly encouraged for any kind of lodging in the peak summer season. There are also wilderness or backcountry camping opportunities (year-round) and for this a backcountry permit must be obtained.
The simplest way to enjoy Rocky Mountain National Park is to take advantage of the miles and miles of scenic drives available. The main road through the park, U.S. Highway 34, covers 42 meandering miles between the Fall River Visitor Center on the east side near Estes Park, over the famed Trail Ridge Road, to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the west side near Grand Lake.
There’s also the Alpine Visitor Center near the midway point at just below 12,000 feet. The Alpine Visitor Center is well above tree line and offers awe-inspiring views of the surrounding mountain peaks, valleys, and down to the plains. In the summer, year-round snowfields lay tucked in the shaded ravines and the massive spines and ridges leading up to the ubiquitous summits will hold your gaze. There’s also a small half-mile walk from the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot up the Alpine Ridge Trail.
There are many more family-friendly trails to hike, like the Bear Lake Trail, the Ouzel Falls hike, or the Twin Sisters Peaks hike (depending on the age set of your family). From the trail or the road, there’s always a chance to spot the park’s wildlife like Elk, Mule Deer, and Bighorn sheep, or a number of the 280 bird species or 142 species of butterflies. There are also ranger led programs to help spot these critters, among other family-friendly activities. For a little taste of European-style trekking, look into the Inn-to-Inn trek along the Walter Tishma Way. This is a great program for families looking for solid day hikes, but who aren’t ready for a multi-day backpacking trip. There are also two stables in the park offering horse-riding programs.
While personal vehicles are never restricted (except for winter closures), there are three shuttle bus routes that run from May to September/October and they’re all on the east, or, Estes Park side. One even provides access to the park from the Estes Park Visitor Center in town. During the peak season, parking can be limited in the park at trailheads and the shuttles provide access to those from a few of the campgrounds. All of the shuttle routes go to the Rocky Mountain National Park Park & Ride along Bear Lake Road, right across from Glacier Basin Campground.
Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker focused on family and adventure topics. He and his wife Jordan are based in Boulder, Colorado, and are parents to Rosie, 3, and Rey, 3 months. Visit Cameron’s personal travel page, offyonder.com.