Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, CO
Copyright NPS/E. Skeen
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:
Rock Climbing, copyright Craig
Luebben/Fort Collins CVB
- The Loch. If you're looking for a great "photo op," hike the easy, mile-long Albert Falls trail to The Loch. You can drive there too, but beware: Since this is one of the most popular spots in the park, traffic can be a headache. And you might have trouble parking. Instead, take the free shuttle bus that runs down Bear Lake Road. If you hike, bring plenty of water and sunscreen; the trail is exposed to sun all day.
- Bear, Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes. One of the most popular and crowded trails is the one leading to four magnificent lakes. The trailhead begins at the end of Bear Lake Road, where you'll see the first lake. The trail from Dream to Emerald gets a little rough and steep, but shouldn't pose problems for those in good shape. From Emerald Lake, watch climbers scale Hallett Peak along the canyon's southern wall. Once again, shuttle service to the trailhead is recommended.
- Old Ute Trail. The mountain goats in your group will appreciate this moderate, 6-mile roundtrip hike, which begins at 11,250 feet and descends to 8,250 feet. The trail once served as a highway for Ute Indians, who traveled from village to village along the Continental Divide. From the barren slope of Tombstone Ridge, there is a great view of Longs Peak towering above. Don't be deceived. The trail down is a piece of cake. But you have to hike back up! Note: In winter, many lower-elevation trails on the park's east side can still be hiked. Those on the west side at higher elevations are generally buried in snow.
Mammals, copyright NPS/RMNP
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:
- Rainbow Curve. You'll get a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and peaks, including Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita, Mount Fairchild, Hagues Peak and Bighorn Mountain.
- Many Parks Curve. Witness the spectacular scenery left behind after glaciers scoured the canyon below.
- Forest Canyon Overlook. Check out the surrounding peaks and Big Thompson River that runs more than 2,500 feet below. Here you'll also catch a glimpse of busy marmots and pikas (small guinea pig-like mammals) darting about the rocks. Carry a jacket. It has been known to snow at the overlook, even during the summer!
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.