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 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