Rocky Mountain National Park Offers Affordable Family Adventures

By Karen Rubin

Families looking for high adventure that is easily accessible and affordable should make their way to Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Estes Park is this charming little Colorado town that has the very good fortune to be nestled up against some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in North America. People have been coming here for thousands of years and for nearly 100 of them, some 415 square miles of wilderness have been demarcated as Rocky Mountain National Park.

Just entering the park you have the feeling of being in a very special place – a place where time is measured in eons or in a flash, where the force of nature is evident all around you. It is a place where you feel like you are standing literally at the top of the world, and yet, so accessible, without the hardship and danger that is more typically associated with exploring such environments. You can even be back to town in time for dinner at a quaint bistro.

This is especially wonderful for all of us who wouldn’t have a clue what to do with ropes and crampons. We get to know that feeling that is more appropriately the province of the truly intrepid –that experience that is both humbling and ennobling. There is a purity and intimacy, a connection to the cosmos that is simply exquisite.

And yet, the park has the creature comforts – restrooms, a well maintained road, great signage, even stroller and wheelchair accessible trails, well-situated visitor centers – that make this experience accessible to one and all.

Rocky Mountain National Park (RoMo as it is known) is so, so vast, and there are so many possibilities for experiencing the park – hiking, biking, camping, fishing, climbing or by motorized vehicle.

After driving up from Denver (it’s just a short drive, 66 miles, but we stop for lunch in Boulder), we come to a promontory that overlooks the town of Estes Park, with this breathtaking view of the valley at the base of the mountains and recreation area built around a lake.

Estes Park is a lovely place, but there is no doubt that the overwhelming lure for visitors is Rocky Mountain National Park – Estes Park provides a place to enjoy fine restaurants, quaint shops, and lodging ranging from the historic and grand Stanley Hotel to the YMCA of the Rockies and the lovely cabin resort we stay at, Valhalla.

We don’t stop, though. It is late afternoon and with such limited time – not even a full weekend - I want to at least get an idea of how to best experience RoMo. So we drive straight through the town to the park’s Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (the park is open 24/7, but the center closes).

It’s a good thing, too. The Ranger gave us an overview of the park and I realize that the fee we pay, $20, is good for seven consecutive days, so there is no reason to waste even the precious few hours of daylight that is left.

There are 350 miles of trails and they span the full spectrum of ability. There are even a selection of trails that are accessible for strollers and wheelchairs (around Lake Estes, Sprague Lake, Lily Lake and Bear Lake) that offer scenic views of mountain reflections in the mirror surface of the water, and the possibility of spotting wildlife. (At the website, you can find hikes around lakes, waterfalls, scenic mountaintops: http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/hikes.htm).

The Ranger advises us on the best place to hike within the time we have that meets my criteria for “scenic” and that we can get to and back before dark (you have to take into account the driving time to the trailhead because of how vast the park is).

So, we lose no time in checking in to our lodging at Valhalla Resort, just three miles outside of Estes Park and literally at the edge of the park (there is even a trail you can hike to get into the park which comes out at the Moraine Park), and, taking the Ranger’s suggestion, head to the Bear Lake Hiking Area.

Driving by the Moraine Park area, though, we spot numerous cars parked along the road (always a clue that there is something interesting going on). We pull off the road, too, and see before us an idyllic valley with a stream in the foreground and mountain peaks as a backdrop, and there, a herd of elk drinking at the stream mere yards away from us.

Seeing elk, it turns out, is one of the highlights of Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park itself (where the elk like to visit and there can even be “elk jams” that stop traffic; there is even an Elk Festival in fall). There are some 3,000 of elk in the park– the largest concentrated population of elk in Colorado.

With no predators, the elk are actually quite comfortable around humans (even though humans have tended to put colored bands on them) – except during mating season (never get between a cow and her calf).

We pull ourselves away and continue on to Bear Lake.

Bear Lake is one of the most popular places in the park and for very good reason. It is very accessible – just 10 miles from downtown Estes Park and is a “hub” for a variety of hiking trails, ranging from an easy stroll around the lake, to an 8.8 mile roundtrip trek through forest to open tundra above the tree line to the top of Flattop mountain. There are hikes from there that will take you to waterfalls, and hikes that are accessible for a stroller or wheelchair.

With photo possibilities in mind, we hike up toward Emerald Lake, 1.8 miles from the trailhead, through meadows and forest, passed Nympth Lake and Dream Lake, and finally to Emerald Lake. (In the guide, this is described as a “moderate” difficulty – for the most part a gentle ascent and “not generally crowded”). And it is perfect – providing diverse environments and gorgeous vistas including a lovely view of Long’s Peak, the park’s highest peak.

Trail Ridge Road

The next day, we take the car to really survey the park. The most popular route, Trail Ridge Road, offers the best way to appreciate the vastness, the ecological diversity, the incomparable vistas, the purple majesty of the Rocky Mountain peaks.

But it doesn’t take long to marvel at the feat of human engineering. Trail Ridge Road is the highest major highway in North America, topping out at 12,183 feet above sea level, and extends an amazing 46 miles. built between 1929 and 1932, it has these dramatic turns and changes in elevation that open up to wildly different vistas, one more breathtaking than the next.

Trail Ridge Road is only open a few months of the year. Winter winds can roar at 150 mph, and snow can block passage, so these vistas are only available for relatively short periods of time each year, making the experience that much more precious.

There are plenty of places to stop off for a short scramble up rocks, or a short trek to be personally engaged in the change of ecosystem.

We drive past an area called Hidden Valley, once the town’s ski area, to the “Many Parks Curve (this is where Trail Ridge Road would close west to the Colorado River Trailhead, from mid-October to June). We stop here to take in the stunning view, taking time to scramble up some rocks for an even more dramatic perspective.

Many Parks Curve provides us with a view that brings to mind the phrase “purple mountain majesty” – with the sight of multiple peaks of different hues receding in the distance.

We drive on – the turns in the road and the constant changes of elevation making a kind of moving picture show of these spectacular scenes. Meanwhile, the air is getting thinner and you feel your heart pounding more.

At Rainbow Curve there is a stunning view of Endovalley and the Alluvial Fan (both names make me think of “Clan of the Cave Bear”) – it is these broad vistas of varied terrain and colors that make the Park such a treat.

The road continues to climb and wind, at each turn exposing another spectacular scene.

Forest Canyon overlook, at 11,716-feet elevation, provides one of the most dramatic visuals. From a certain vantage point, the people walking on top of a rounded hill seem to touch the clouds above.

Continuing on, there is a point where you gaze up at boulders that look small against the expansive backdrop, with tiny specks that you realize are people. The boulders get closer and you come to Rock Cut.

Here is the Tundra Communities Trailhead (not to mention convenient bathrooms and a handicap accessible trail).

You basically stroll the Tundra Communities Trail and find yourself in the alpine realm, accessing an ecosystem with such ease that typically would be a challenge for hikers to reach. The area is relatively pristine and a short stroll brings you to these massive boulders which we could see from the highway.

What is so special about the tundra becomes crystal clear as you walk the narrow trail and are implored not to stray from it. For the close-cropped fuzz turns out to be lichen, one of first plants to pioneer the area after the glaciers retreated. The same species live for thousands of years. The growth we see has stubbornly been pushing up for three summers to come through the gneiss and schist layers.

The tundra is so fragile, it takes centuries to repair one footprint – that’s how slowly vegetation grows here because of the incredibly short growing season, just six to 12 weeks, and the extremely harsh weather.

The short hike provides an amazingly physical connection to the landscape. Newly enlightened, I cannot stop myself from scolding some young people who are wantonly trampling the lichen.

Continuing on, it seems that every twist and turn of the road opens up to a spectacular scene.

We come to the highest point of the road, 12,183 feet and soon after the Alpine Visitors Center, which has been modernized and expanded with a lovely cafeteria and shop and an exhibit that illustrates the fragile world of the tundra. Big picture windows let you gaze out.

From the parking lot you there is the Alpine Ridge Trail that is like climbing stairs to the summit. The climb is relatively short – great for families with kids to feel they have really accomplished something – and the view is spectacular. It’s August, but it snowed just a couple of weeks before, a reminder of the changeable weather. From this promontory, you can gaze around at tall peaks.

Rocky Mountain National Park holds 72 named peaks above12,000 feet of elevation, the highest being Long’s Peak, at 14,259 feet.

The Continental Divide runs northwest to southeast through the center of the park atop the high peaks (the Alpine Visitor Center is close to it).

Walking back, you can look down at miles and miles and see trails centuries old, many etched onto the surface by the Mountain Utes who followed the retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago and settled the area 6,000 years ago, the Apache in the 1500s, and the Arapaho in the 1800s. The trails have names from those ancient times: Deer Trail, Dog Trail, Ute Trail.

Nearly one third of Rocky Mountain National Park is above the treeline – 11,400 feet - and just below that, you see “krummholz” meaning “crooked wood,” the trees that are gnarled and stunted from the punishing weather.

You realize that part of the euphoria you feel is the result of moving to such high elevation, even just driving. The park starts at 7,500 feet above sea level, so you need to acclimate before undertaking strenuous activities and have water with you.

On the return, we drive out through the Fall River Visitor Center, where the views from West Horseshoe Park of the Endovalley are magnificent.

During our visit (way too brief), we get to see elk, but there are also mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes, black bears, cougars and hundreds of smaller animals living within the park.

Although the park is most famous for its large animals, particularly elk and bighorn sheep, you might get a glimpse of a tufted-eared Abert's squirrel, an iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird, or a squeaking pika. The best time to see wildlife is at dawn and dusk.

Give your kids their own cameras, my favorite way to engage them in the "hunt" for scenic and natural wonders. It makes them a participant, not just a spectator. There are very inexpensive, easy to use digitals now so they can instantly see what they have taken (and you will save a fortune on film and developing.)

The park offers wonderful ways to uncover the fascinating facts – Beaver Meadows Visitor Center offers a film introducing the park and you can find out about interpretive programs, campfire talks and nature walks; displays and information are available at the Moraine Park Museum; the relatively new Fall River Visitor Center on Fall River Road, which offers exhibits about wildlife through the seasons; the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, just north of Grand Lake on Highway 34, has information on the west side of the Continental Divide; and the Alpine Visitor Center has a wonderful exhibit illustrating the fragile world of the tundra.

For information, Rocky Mountain National Park, 1000 Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517, 970-586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo).

Where to Go, What to See in Estes Park

More than three million people come to visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year, but unlike Yellowstone and many other national parks, there are no commercial facilities. So Estes Park, with all its charm, delightful lodgings, restaurants and shops, enhances the visitor experience immeasurably.

For example, the town provides a free hiker’s shuttle from Estes Park Visitor Center, so if you just want to hike, you don’t have the hassle of traffic and finding parking (the most popular parking lots fill up, and you may have to take a shuttle bus to get to where you want to go, anyway). You can even avoid any delay entering the Park at the gates by pre-purchasing the fee (good for seven consecutive days) at a machine at the Visitor Center.

There is this amazing feeling of comfort after a day in the wilderness when you return to your cozy lodging, or stroll down Elkhorn Avenue or the extremely charming Riverwalk. In fact, that is why Estes Park is a bit of a sleepy place – not a lot of nightlife – because people tend to get tuckered out. But Estes Park certainly offers enough to keep you amused.

Estes Park is fairly low-key and (dare I say it) wholesome. There is plenty to do to fill out a family vacation for a week: Bike or roller blade on the Lake Estes Trail, a 3.75-mile paved path (bike rentals through Colorado Bicycling Adventure). Take in the Roof Top Rodeo or the Elk Meadow Chuckwagon Supper & Show. Enjoy the rides at Fun City and Cascade Creek Family Amusement Park, or the Aerial Tramway. Go horseback riding at Cowpoke Corner Corral or National Park Gateway Stables.

What is especially pleasant is the fact that Estes Park is a real community of some 6,000 people, and in no time at all, you become part of it. You can play tennis at the local courts through the Estes Valley Recreation and Park District (970-586-8625); golf at Estes Park’s 18-hole course amid the fabulous scenery (Green fees, $36) or at the nine-hole course along the Big Thompson River and Lake Estes (green fees are $16, pull carts, $3), take advantage of the Estes Park Aquatic Center and the Lake Estes Marina where you can rent boats, bikes, paddle boats, kayaks.

We stroll down Riverwalk one evening enjoying the glow of the lights on the water, to Mama Rose’s for dinner. It offers a delightfully Victorian atmosphere and is renowned for its wine menu (entrees are paired with wine), and beer list. We started with delectable garlic bread with cheese and followed with Ravioli with Portobello mushrooms, fresh basil, red wine marinara sauce (338 East Elkhorn Avenue, 970-586-3330).

Another night, we drive to the Fall River side of Rocky Mountain National Park to Nicky’s Steakhouse. A local favorite since 1967, Nicky’s offers cozy woodsy atmosphere, and is noted for its Prime Rib roasting in rock salt, steaks and chops, Northern Italian cuisine and fresh seafood and Colorado trout. The distinctive feature is pianist Ray Young, who was the audition pianist at Carnegie Hall and retired to Estes Park (1350 Fall River Road, Estes Park, CO 80517, 866-464-2597 (Toll Free), 970-586-5376, www.nickysestespark.com).

The summer months are obviously the most visited, but September-October and early November are also extremely popular. The days are shorter, with a golden light, not too cold – you might only need short sleeves when the sun is out – but there can be a cold snap. The fall colors are gorgeous –the aspens and elm turn yellow, the brush turns russet, and some are vivid wine color.

But the starring characters each October are the elk. The elk are so plentiful, that they have to stop traffic for “elk jams”; as many as 150 may gather on the nine-hole golf course during mating season (the golfers just play through). They are so habituated to humans, they don’t seem to mind.

Each October, elk in Estes Park are regaled, imitated, watched and otherwise celebrated during the community’s annual Elk Fest (held around Columbus Day weekend), timed to coincide with the elk rut – and the natural sight and sound spectacle created during the big game’s mating season. Elk-viewing tours depart on the hour from noon to 5 p.m. each day (elk-viewing bus tour tickets are not sold in advance, but are available in the white Gazebo at Bond Park Saturday & Sunday; tickets are $5 per person or $20 for group of five riders).

Where to Stay

There is a great variety of lodging in Estes Park.

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Valhalla Resort, which offers 25 cabins – ranging in size from one-bedroom vacation homes to four-bedroom cabin rentals – tucked into the woods on 15 acres bordering Rocky Mountain National Park.

The cabins are wonderfully rustic yet extremely charming and comfortable, outfitted with everything you could want – from a full kitchen and a wood dining table that seats 6, a living room with sofas and blankets, fireplace and cable television, to a barbecue and table and chairs on the outside deck. Some of the cabins even have a Jacuzzi/hot tub.

You are nestled in the woods, amid these wonderful smells of pine, the fresh breezes, and sitting on the deck, you have a front-row seat to shooting stars.

A communal Activities Center offers cable TV, Ping Pong, Foos Ball and the arcade classic "Frogger", just next to the guest Laundromat (also very convenient). There is a small heated outdoor pool, a playground, volleyball and basketball courts.

Valhalla is just three miles from downtown Estes Park, so it is very easy to go out for dinner, shop or enjoy the nearby Fun City amusement park.

Valhalla is ideal for families and particularly for family reunions – plenty of space for living, and plenty of opportunity to be together – and the rates are economical, ranging from $90 to $405 for a cabin that can sleep six, depending on the season. We can’t wait to return.

Valhalla Resort, 2185 Eagle Cliff Rd., Estes Park, CO 80517, 800.522.3284 or 970.586.3284, email: info@valhallaresort.com, www.valhallaresort.com.

With some 140 different lodging establishments, there is tremendous variety.

Another superb choice for families is YMCA of the Rockies. Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, the YMCA Estes Park Center is set on 860 acres of ponderosa pines. Estes Park Center offers guests the choice of 200 cabins, ranging in size from two to 16 bedrooms, and 600 lodge rooms.  The lodges are within walking distance of most activities, and a stay in a lodge room includes complimentary breakfast for two.  On-site activities include a zip line, horseback riding, archery, fly-fishing, hiking, mountain biking, a brand new craft center and an indoor swimming pool. Kids from three years old, can take part in day camps for half day, at $14, or full day, at $25 (the Outpost program for 5-8th graders offers rock climbing, ropes courses, building survival, camping skills and horseback riding; full-day Adventures program for 9-12th graders offers a ropes course and zip-line, swimming, horseback riding and rafting; a special evening camp is also available for parents looking for the freedom of a night out to go to dinner, a movie or just to relax). Rates start at just $109 per night in a lodge room that can sleep up to six adults and $119 for a two-bedroom cabin, and includes two adult breakfasts per day (800-777-9622, www.ymcarockies.org).

To really feel connected with Estes Park’s heritage, there is the stately and grand Stanley Hotel. Built by inventor F.O. Stanley in 1912 has the most exquisite backdrop of any hotel, its stunning white Georgian Colonial Revival structure juxtaposed against the craggy mountains, and is probably the signature image of Estes Park. Stanley not only was the co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, he built the fist “motorbus” by reworking a truck into the Stanley Mountain Wagon, and was a major force in building up the town and Rocky Mountain National Park. The hotel offers 138 guest rooms, 17 villas and cottages, restaurant and lounge (333 Wonderview Ave., Estes Park 80517, 970-586-3371; a member of Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946, www.historichotels.org).

Most first timers to Estes Park don’t realize all it has to offer, so they stay 2 ½ days, but the next time, they stay 8 days. That’s our plan, as well.

To help you organize your visit to Estes Park, contact Estes Park Convention & Visitors Bureau, 500 Big Thompson Ave., P.O. Box 1200, Estes Park, CO 80517, 970-577-9900; 800-44-ESTES, www.EstesParkCVB.com.

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