The most important thing we’ve learned about traveling and hiking with kids in this age range is not to push them too hard. Could we have filled our schedule more and seen more of the park? Sure. But we also would have had miserably tired kids, which isn’t fun for anyone. So unlike many itineraries you’ll see, this is a pretty laid-back one that gives plenty of down time so that you and your kids can rest and have an enjoyable time.
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Just for reference, we are what I’d call a moderately fit family. We hike 2-4 miles on relatively flat ground about once a week and exercise sporadically. We are all healthy weights for our ages and have no major medical issues. At the time of this trip, our kids were 6, 8, 9, and 10 years old (we left our youngest, who was 2 at the time, with the grandparents for this trip). Our 6 year old struggled a bit with the hike to Emerald Lake, but with plenty of rest breaks, snacks, and encouragement, we all made it just fine.
We drove to the park from Kentucky, spending two nights on the way there- one just west of St. Louis, Missouri, and one in Burlington, Colorado. Obviously this will vary depending on where you’re coming from. We ate lunch and got groceries in Boulder, and then headed to the park in the mid-afternoon.
Set Up Camp
When we got there, we drove straight to our campsite at Glacier Basin Campground. I had booked campsite A029 in advance on recreation.gov, and it was the perfect spot. Any time we are looking for campsites, I always look for ones on the outermost edge and the furthest away from other spots. We had people in the spot on one side of us, but there was sufficient room between sites that we still felt like we had a ton of space to ourselves. On the other side of us was a gravel access road, and our campsite backed up to an open area and then the woods.
The kids explored the campsite while we got everything set up, and then when they got antsy, Josh took them on a short hike so I could finish up. By the time we finished, it was getting pretty late, so we cooked and ate supper, hung out around our campfire, and called it a night.
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
After cooking and eating breakfast in the freezing cold, we packed up a picnic lunch and decided to start our first full day in the park by heading back the way we came in and stopping at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Whether or not you are camping in the park, this is the perfect place to start. We were just in time for a short ranger program about bears, which the kids enjoyed, and then we spoke with a friendly older ranger about what he recommended we do next. The rangers there can give excellent advice about what to do and where to hike, so we highly recommend chatting them up. We also picked up Junior Ranger booklets for each of the kids.
He recommended we check out Trail Ridge Road and the Tundra Communities Trail (also known as Toll Memorial Trail) that branches off from it. When you aren’t used to high elevations, it is strongly recommended that you don’t do a lot of hiking on your first day in order to give your body a chance to adjust. So driving this scenic drive and doing a short hike or two from it is the perfect way to spend your first day in the park.
On our way to Trail Ridge Road, we stopped at a scenic overlook on the side of the road and enjoyed our lunch with a gorgeous view. Properly fueled up, we headed out.
Trail Ridge Road
It’s hard to describe just how gorgeous the views are from this scenic drive, and they change as you go up, up, up in elevation. Eventually you get to the tundra above the treeline, and it was so cool to see snow in June! We finally got to the Tundra Communities Trailhead and parked in the small turn-off.
Tundra Communities/Toll Memorial Trail
The 1/2 mile paved trail has 360 degree views of the tundra and Rocky Mountains, and it was breathtaking. Actually it was breathtaking both literally and figuratively, because at over 12,000ft in elevation, we were surprised by how easily winded we became on such a short, easy trail! At the end of the trail there are some rocks you can climb around on and take pictures from, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for hyraxes! We saw a few playing in the rocks not far from us!
Alpine Visitors Center
From this trailhead, we went on to the Alpine Visitors Center, which has a restaurant and huge gift shop. The parking lot was CRAZY, and you aren’t guaranteed to find a space in the busy season, but it’s worth a try. We spent some time there letting everyone choose a shirt and getting coffee and snacks. The views are gorgeous. There is a short 1/4 mile trail here if you’re feeling up for another hike, but don’t be fooled by its length. It’s considered a strenuous trail because of the high elevation and quick elevation gain of the trail. We considered it, but two of the kids were feeling a bit woozy from the high elevation, so we decided to head down to lower ground.
Milner Pass/Continental Divide
A lot of people who are coming from the east side of the park turn around and head back at the Alpine Visitors Center, but we recommend going a little further until you reach Milner Pass, which is where the Continental Divide is! All waterways west of this spot drain to the Pacific Ocean, and all waterways east drain to the Atlantic. It’s a pretty neat thing to see and teach the kids about, and the view of Poudre Lake is serene and beautiful as well.
After this stop, we turned around and headed back down Trail Ridge Road and to our campsite. All the kids fell asleep on the drive back! When we got back to the campground, we had a restful remainder of the day just hanging out around there and making some new friends at the campsite next to us.
After breakfast on Day 3, we decided to spend the morning in Estes Park. We both grew up going to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and Estes Park reminds us of a smaller, less touristy Gatlinburg. It was a quaint town, and really pleasant to walk up and down the street, window shopping and actually popping in a few shops. We also all got warmer pajamas at The Lazy Moose, because it was SIGNIFICANTLY colder at night in the park than we’d anticipated.
Penelope’s World Famous Burger & Fries
We had lunch in Estes Park at Penelope’s World Famous Burger & Fries, which was delicious and best of all, had gluten free buns! It was a small, kid-friendly place that we really enjoyed. After lunch, we headed back to the park.
Emerald Lake Trail
We planned one big hike for this trip, and decided it would be Emerald Lake. It’s only 3.5 miles round trip, but between the already high elevation and an elevation gain of 650 feet during the hike, it was pretty tough on our youngest hiker. The trail is a gorgeous hike that takes you by 4 lakes, each one more beautiful than the last.
You start at the Bear Lake Trailhead, which was crazy busy. We took the park shuttle from the Park & Ride parking lot, which we highly recommend doing to avoid the traffic and trying to find a spot at the tiny trailhead parking lots. The shuttle was convenient, clean, and well-managed. We were happy to quickly leave behind the Bear Lake crowds and make our way toward Nymph Lake.
We stopped at each lake for a rest and pictures, which was a nice way to break up the hike. Beyond Nymph lake, the crowds thinned out significantly, and even moreso once we got past Dream Lake. When we reached Emerald Lake, we were some of only a handful of hikers, and we hung out here for quite a while resting and eating the picnic supper we’d packed. It was so gorgeous, and we were so glad we did it.
We made it back to our campsite before dark and enjoyed a relaxing evening by the fire.
Fall River Visitor Center
For our last full day in the park, we wanted to get the kids their Junior Ranger badges that they’d been working toward with their booklets. We drove up to the Fall River Visitor Center, and were so glad we decided to check it out! It was HUGE, with a neat activity area for the kids and an enormous gift shop. The kids had fun doing some coloring activities and looking around, and then we found a ranger who swore them in as Junior Rangers and gave them their badges.
On our way back to the campsite from the visitor center, we took a tip from a ranger and stopped at Sheep Lakes in the Horseshoe Park section of the park. Apparently the bighorn sheep come down from the hill across the road from the lakes about every 3 days to drink at the lakes, and they were overdue for a trip down, so we were very likely to see them. There is a little parking lot and ranger station there at the lakes, so we parked and hung out for a bit. We chatted for a while with the nice older volunteer ranger and a few other friendly park guests while we waited. The view there is gorgeous with or without sheep. Unfortunately our kids weren’t in much of a mood to wait, and the sheep didn’t seem to be making an appearance, so we finally decided to move on. As we went up the hill and around the valley where the Sheep Lakes were, we pulled off at a scenic lookout point to have a snack and continue to watch for the sheep a little longer from a higher vantage point. After we finished our snacks and still didn’t see any sheep, we gave up and went back to the campsite for lunch.
After lunch, we again parked at the Park & Ride and took the shuttle to the only hike of our stay that we kind of regretted—Alberta Falls. Since we had pushed our littlest hiker pretty hard the day before, we wanted an easy hike with something cool at the end, so we thought this trail seemed perfect. We saw little kids in crocs doing this hike, so it’s definitely not a challenge. You can get to Alberta Falls from either the Glacier Gorge trailhead, which is 0.8 miles each way, or the Bear Lake trailhead, which is 1 mile each way.
Don’t get us wrong, this trail is SUPER popular, and extremely well-rated on websites like alltrails.com. So obviously a lot of people love it. The falls at the end were beautiful. But the trail’s popularity was exactly what we did not like about it. The trail was wide and FULL of people, and the overlook spots around the falls were crowded (you can see in the picture above that we weren’t even able to get a picture of the falls without other people in the way).
Now we understand that when you’re going to the fourth most visited national park in the US during the busiest time of year, there are going to be crowds. But we still prefer to stay away from the crowds, and besides the crowds around Bear Lake at the beginning of our Emerald Lake hike, we had pretty well managed to do that.
So if you want an easy hike to a beautiful waterfall and don’t mind a busy trail, then definitely check out Alberta Falls, but if you’re like us and prefer to get away from the crowds, then this is one you’ll want to avoid.
After this hike we went back to the campground for supper and our last night in the park.
All we did this morning was pack everything up while the kids played with some new friends in a nearby campsite, and then hit the road.
Our Tips for a Great Visit
1. Don’t push the kids too hard. Plan plenty of downtime for rest and recharging.
2. Take the shuttle to the trailheads. Rocky Mountain National Park has a very good shuttle system to manage its high number of visitors, and we strongly recommend parking in the Park & Ride and taking the shuttle to the trailheads. You can see the shuttle routes here.
3. Pack more water and snacks than you think you’ll need, and take more breaks than you think you should. Little bodies expend a lot of energy hiking, and need lots of chances to refuel. It also just helps to keep everyone happier. We all have Osprey hiking backpacks with water reservoirs, which make keeping hydrated easy. Some of our favorite easy-to-pack hiking snacks are Larabars, dried fruit, and fresh vegetables like baby carrots and sugar snap peas.
4. Start at one of the welcome centers, and chat up the rangers for insider tips. Several of the rangers we met were retired people who are volunteer rangers a few days a week, just because they love the park so much. It was so fun to chat with them. We got some good tips, and it seemed to make their day, as well.
5. Don’t feed the chipmunks! Some of the trails, especially the Emerald Lake trail in our experience, have TONS of chipmunks who are not afraid of people and clearly used to being fed. But you shouldn’t ever feed any wild animals in any park. The park says the reasons for this “range from simple, ‘You might get bitten,’ to more complex reasons involving changes in the animal’s behavior and foraging patterns, as well as increasing negative health effects on the cute little chipmunks.”