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There's a good reason they call this park "breathtaking." Climb to the top of Long's Peak and you'll see why. (Hint: It's not just the drop-dead views). At almost three miles above sea level, Long's Peak is a huffer and puffer.
Drive up Trail Ridge Road, get out of the car and walk 50 feet on level ground. You'll be winded, just checking out the panoramic views of surrounding peaks along this famous, 50-mile route, the highest highway in the US, crossing the Continental Divide.
Sure, the air is rarified up there. But even for those with limited lung capacity, a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park is a must. And after a day or so, altitude will be a gasp of the past.Walk The Walk
This is a day-hiker's park. Many of the 355 trails are a manageable 5-10 miles roundtrip. And the scenery is varied enough to keep it interesting; you'll weave through spruce forests, over alpine tundra and past high-mountain lakes. The only downside: most trails start with a brutal uphill climb. Here are some of the most popular routes:
Even if your young ones don't have the lung capacity to tour this "park in the sky" by foot, they can get the same Rocky Mountain high along Trail Ridge Road, the highest highway in the US.
Trail Ridge crosses the park from east to west over 50 miles of glacially carved alpine tundra. For 15 miles, you'll ride above 11,000 feet; somewhere between Lava Cliffs and Gore Range it reaches its highest point-12,183 feet. Set aside at least 4 hours to see all the sights. Our favorites include:
Better than a zoo, Rocky Mountain Park is a veritable Wild Kingdom. Your little ones will shriek with delight upon spotting elk, mule deer, black bear, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and moose roaming wild and free. Have cameras ready but proceed with caution. Remember to keep your distance and avoid making any sudden movements or sounds.
One of the best places to view wildlife is the open meadows of Moraine and Horseshoe Parks. You'll hear the wild yipping of coyote, and see deer, bobcat, raccoon, muskrat, porcupine, fox, black bear, and weasel. During the evening hours, beavers are easy to spot along streams. Keep your distance! It may be tempting to enter the meadow, but it's safer to observe these furry friends from your car in the Moraine and Horseshoe parking lots.
Above treeline, you're in alpine tundra, a flower-rich meadowland. Many of the plants here are the same as those in other arctic and alpine areas of the world. And keep an eye out for yellow-bellied marmot, pika, elk and bighorn sheep. While exploring the tundra make sure to stay on the designated trails, as recovery from damage may take several hundred years.DASHBOARD
Type of trip: Sightseeing, hiking
Best ages: 9 and up
Ideal trip length: 2-3 days
Distance: Boulder (37 miles), Denver (64 miles), Cheyenne, WY (88 miles)
Best time to go: Spring through mid-fall
Weather: 78/44 degrees in summer, 69/30 fall, 62/35 spring. Bring a jacket. It can snow, even in summer.
Lodging: Campground fees range from $10-14/night. Estes Park, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain, offers a variety of inns, motels, and bed & breakfasts, ranging from $72 to $125/night; $100 to $165/night for cottages and cabins. Make reservations at least 3-4 months in advance, earlier for summer visits.
Squirm factor: Some to a lot. Trails may be difficult for very young children; in summer, park traffic is bumper to bumper.
Rocky Mountains National Park. Off US Hwy 34, Estes Park, CO, 970-586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo. Entrance fees: $10/vehicle, $5/pedestrian or cyclist, good for 7 consecutive days.
Lodging: For campground reservations call 800-365-CAMP, http://reservations.nps.gov. For a complete listing of lodging in Estes Park, www.estes-park.com.
Contact: Estes Chamber Resort Association Visitor Center, 500 Big Thompson Ave. (US 34), Estes Park, CO, 800-443-7837; Estes On-Line (lodging information), http://www.estes.on-line.com/rmnp.
If you're headed to Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver, stop in Boulder on the way there or back. Just 45 minutes southeast of the park, this beautiful college town (University of Colorado is located here) is a great place to have lunch, people watch, or window shop on the Pearl Street Mall. There are also several wonderful family attractions:
Boulder Chamber of Commerce, 303-442-1044, www.boulderchamber.com; Boulder Convention & Visitors Bureau, 303-442-2911, www.bouldercoloradousa.com.The INSIDE Scoop
Favorite local spots:
Lazy B Ranch, 1915 Dry Gulch Road, Estes Park, 800-228-2116 or 970-586-5371 (reservations). Kids will love the live stage show and chuckwagon supper. Open spring through fall only.
Mountain Home Cafe, 457 E. Wonderview, 970-586-6624. Stop here for breakfast served all day long. Specialties include french banana pancakes and Arizona hashbrowns.
Penelope's World Famous Burgers & Fries, 229 W. Elkhorn Ave., 970-586-2277. Voted the "best burger in Estes Park" by locals, Penelope's features 13 different kinds of grilled sandwiches, old-fashioned malts and flavored sodas.
Best souvenirs: Rocky Mountains National Park Game, a trivia game about the Rockys featuring trails and attractions, as well as animal-shaped game pieces. Price: $15.95.
Annual events: For more information, visit www.estes.on-line.com/rmnp.
Traffic alert: Spring and summer are peak season; so expect crowds and heavy congestion on roads. Take the free shuttle bus, which runs along Bear Lake Road and stops at most attractions and trailheads.