Trail Ridge Road – Drive into the sky in Rocky Mountain National Park

Park Entrance Sign

One of my favorite places to visit is the Rocky Mountains. With scenic vistas and endless wildlife, the opportunities for memorable family moments are prevalent wherever you may visit along the third longest mountain range in the world. The best place to enjoy all of this is Rocky Mountain National Park! Our family stayed outside the park in a condo, travelling back and forth into the park several days over the course of a week. Each day offered a new experience that thrilled the children. Whether it was a drive over Trail Ridge Road maxing out at 12,183 ft. or a short hike to Holzwarth Historic Site camp, each encounter had its own story to tell and a chance for our children to learn.

Mama Moose, baby was close behind

The most unexpected moments undoubtedly occur when you get to view wildlife in their natural habitat. Viewing animals as giant as a moose or as small as a pika will allow children to realize why it is so important for us as humans to protect the lives of all animals. Sitting at home watching nature shows on TV will not have the same impact as your children witnessing a baby moose follow her mother through a field. Or watching a small pika scurry off a rock outcropping above the tree line of 10,500 ft., as cool winds blow. My daughter watched in wonderment as three huge moose grazed next to a slowly flowing creek. I held her in my arms from the other side, taking selfies yet warily staying a “safe” distance away. These magnificent creatures certainly left an indelible mark on her, even at a young age.

One of the more interesting activities in which we partook was a hike back to Holzwarth Historic Site. A short “stroller-friendly” path led to an old settlement where John and Sofia Holzwarth settled in 1917. Here children can learn about the history of some of the first settlers in the area, the life they lived, and the hardships they faced. I have two distinct memories while spending time with my children here. The first is my son using the washboard to clean “dirty” socks and the ringer to dry them off. He would not leave until all the socks that had been staged nearby had been washed, scrubbed, wrung out, and hung out to dry. I asked him if he would like to do all his laundry like that, and after his expected response, “No!”, he had one of those light bulb moments. He realized the difficulties faced by the people that lived there and gained a better appreciation for his own conveniences of life. Then as we stood there holding dripping wet socks, we heard a rustling in the field nearby. A herd of 30 elk meandered past us, only about 100 feet away. A ranger working at the site took this chance to explain the elks’ habits as well as their gestation period, since the herd also included a handful of young elk, only a couple months old.

Trail Ridge Road

Stopping at the visitor center at the top of the pass offers a remarkable view from an area that seems like it is a different world. High above the tree line lies the barren Alpine Tundra with mossy rocks and snow packed cervices, even in the middle of summer! The thin air and endless views remind children the variety and expanse our planet contains, opening their minds and inspiring their imagination. We stood on a wind-swept overlook, listening to the bleating of another herd of elk while what felt like hurricane force winds sent hats flying and empty strollers rolling. Truly a remarkable experience! No child’s visit to Rocky Mountain National Park would be complete without them working on the junior ranger packet and reciting the oath to protect nature. When my son, only 2 ½ at the time, looked through the workbook over the week we stayed near the park, I was amazed by how much he had learned. And when he took the oath to earn his Junior Ranger badge, I could not be prouder. I still have the recording of his sweet innocent voice telling his grandma, “I’m a junior ranger!”.

Boat trip on Grand Lake

The towns outside of the park offer an idyllic mountain atmosphere that coincides with the vibe from Rocky Mountain National Park. On the east side of the park is the quaint little village of Estes Park. The town of only 6,000 people is lined with shops and restaurants, all with the feel of a mountain town. The products and items for sale in the stores are somewhat touristy but add to the ambiance of the area. The drive to and from Estes Park is a winding, curving road with switchbacks and mountain vistas, making for an enjoyable trip. Grand Lake to the west of the park is located on a gorgeous lake with hidden inlets and mountains rising up in the background. This one-lane town of shops and restaurants has a dramatic view of the lake and access points for all types of water sports. We rented a houseboat for a couple hours and traversed the upper portion of the lake and its bays, seeing different types of wildlife, including an eagle. .

Panoramic View from the top of Trail Ridge Road

Rocky Mountain National Park is an experience that many people will not forget. With the mountainous views and wildlife galore, it is a place that will give visitors a different experience each time they visit. Repeat visits are encouraged, but everyone should try to get there at least once.

Next stop – Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

The Snake River brings imagination to life in the Magic Valley

Southern Idaho’s most valuable resource – WATER!

When you enter Southern Idaho, you will see desert sagebrush and small brown mountains dotted with the occasional tree. Giant rock cities are scattered around the area, including the most famous, City of Rocks National Reserve. However, as you close in on the Snake River, the area is transformed! The brown, dried up grass is now lush and green. As you close in on the city of Twin Falls, small towns and housing developments begin to appear. Deserted farmland and ghost towns are no more. You seem to be transported into a different world. All of this is thanks to one thing, the Snake River. The river that winds through Southern Idaho, starting in Yellowstone and ending in the Columbia River has carved beautiful canyons and inspiring views. But it is one coveted resource that brings the area to life, WATER. In the early 1900’s, irrigation canals were dug to deliver water to the valley, magically turning it into lush farmland capable of supporting life and thriving agriculture.

Shoshone Falls

In this valley, dubbed the Magic Valley, the contrast between the irrigated land and natural growth is stark. But as the Snake River Canyon winds through Southern Idaho, carved 500 feet deep in some places, it provides bountiful opportunities for exploration and wonderment. Centered in Twin Falls, the Magic Valley is a haven for activity. The most picturesque spot in the valley is Shoshone Falls. Here an overlook provides an exquisite view of a multi-tiered waterfall navigating around giant rock formations and emptying into a pool of clear green water. The mist rising up from the falling water creates a rainbow spanning the bottom of the falls. The overlook provides a great family photo op from above the falls and across the canyon. The state park that surrounds the falls has picnic areas and hiking trails that are stroller friendly. In addition, a 2-mile bike and hiking trail willl take you to the spot where Evil Knievel attempted to jump over the canyon back in 1974.

Perrine Bridge, from the overlook

Another great spot to witness the beauty of the Snake River is at the Perrine Bridge overlook, a must stop for any visitor to the Twin Falls area. The overlook provides views of the canyon, the beauty of which cannot be captured by a mere photo. As I stood at the overlook taking photos with my son, several kayakers gently paddled the Snake River, passing between two lush golf courses located at the bottom of the canyon. The sheer cliffs plunge to the river below and then curve, following the route of the river. Do not miss this overlook while travelling around Southern Idaho.

Snake River Canyon

30 minutes west of Twin Falls is the Thousand Springs area, where waterfalls cascade down the side of the canyon, wineries dot the area, and boat tours are available on the Snake River. This area is known for excellent fishing opportunities due to the fact that the majority of trout in the country are raised right here. Several state parks provide enjoyment for families, especially Ritter Island, an oasis for activity in the middle of the Snake River. Hiking, swimming, and paddling opportunities abound, in addition you can visit a historic dairy farm on the island.

Buffalo Caves trail at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

90 minutes north of Twin Falls is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. This unit of the National Park Service protects a large area of volcanic deposits, left there thousands of years ago. Lava bombs, spatter cones, and cinder cones are interrupted by paved walking trails and stairs, providing visitors up-close access to these interesting landscapes. Visitors even have the chance to visit several underground caves that have been formed by the long-cooled lava or climb to the top of Inferno Cone to overlook the entire valley. Snow-capped mountains in the distance climb toward the sky at the edges of this vast land area. This area was great for our children to get out and walk, inquisitively looking at the strange and unusual formations dotted with areas of life here and there. The junior ranger booklet my son completed encouraged him to find items such as monkeyflowers, bitterroot, and lichen. The wide array of new and intriguing species tantalized my son’s imagination.

City of Rocks National Reserve

Southern Idaho is a place of distinct differences. Desolate volcanic formations to the north and rock cities to the south contrast with the activity of the city centers. Brown barren grass surrounds lush green, irrigated areas. Flat plains are punctuated by deep canyons and powerful waterfalls. All of these different areas provide opportunities for different family-friendly activities that will strengthen relationships and create memories. With so many choices it is easy to try something new. Perhaps a kayak trip down the Snake River? Maybe learn about the famous Hagerman horse at Hagerman Beds National Historic Site? See a woolly mammoth skeleton at the Herrett Center for the Arts where you could also catch a movie in their planetarium turned into an IMAX-style theater. Learn about a less-than-proud part of American History in Minidoka, home to a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Check the local event calendar and attend a festival or visit a farmers’ market. With so many different options, Southern Idaho is a great place for families to visit that may not have been on your travel radar, yet.

Top of Inferno Cone at Craters of the Moon National Park and Preserve

Next Stop – Rocky Mountain National Park

The Towering Cliffs of Rim Rock Drive – Colorado National Monument

Entrance sign at the beginning of Rim Rock drive

Towering cliffs and scenic vistas fill my mind as I recollect a recent family trip to Colorado National Monument. I knew very little about the park before visiting and wished we had planned more time. A short drive outside of Fruita, in Southwest Colorado, looms a park unlike any other. 23-mile Rim Rock Drive traverses through the cliffs and rock outcroppings, climbing almost 2,000 ft. to the summit before descending the other side. Along this narrow, winding road are three tunnels carved right through the rock, eliciting my son’s excitement at each one we approached. “Another tunnel”, he would yell from the backseat as we would enter, knowing full well that I was about to beep the horn to let the echo reverberate in our heads. At the top of some of the mammoth cliffs lies the visitor center, where hands-on exhibits offer children a chance to learn about the history and wildlife of the area. Here is a great spot to stop and spend some time with the family. Allow your children to work on the junior ranger booklet, designed to reinforce the important lessons of the area. Take a short hike to view the canyon below and point out the wide array of various plants and birds. Have lunch at a nearby picnic bench and sit back to enjoy the breathtaking views.

One of many tunnels along Rim Rock Drive
Independence Monument

As you leave the visitor center, you will pass many scenic overlooks. Two of the best, must-stop points are Independence Monument View and Upper Ute Canyon Overlook. At Independence Monument, you can hear the story of the original climbers of the famous rock and the many that have followed. If your timing is right, a park ranger will be there to explain the history and possibly have displays on hand as well. This is a great spot for that holiday card-worthy family photo to trigger your excuse-making friends’ jealousy. A short walk at Upper Ute Canyon, while tightly holding your child’s hand, leads to an overlook that exemplifies the grandeur of the area as you peer down into the canyon below. The sheer red cliffs dotted with tufts of green foliage are a sight to behold.

Upper Ute Canyon Overlook

Colorado National Monument is a park that few outside of Southwestern Colorado know about, but one that is worth every minute spent in the awe-inspiring landscape. Your children will be able to better appreciate the grandeur of the world and realize in it just how small they really are. Just make sure to plan more time to spend in the park with your family then I did.

Rim Rock Drive switchback

Next Stop – Southern Idaho