Where to start with this trip! I’ve been wanting to get out to Rocky Mountain National Park for quite a while. Then COVID-19 happened, and I’ll be honest that I’m for sure the millennial that bought tickets when they went down to $42/person round trip. Snatched those things up so fast.
Unfortunately Dan wasn’t able to come (working like an adult or something), so I decided to take the kids on my own. My sister lives in Wyoming, so it didn’t take much convincing to get her to come with us and essentially be our chauffeur for the week.
We spent 3 full days and one afternoon at Rocky Mountain National Park, which I felt like was the perfect amount of time. I feel like we truly got to experience so much of the park- honestly almost all that we could do with two toddlers. Not to toot our own horn because we did kind of wing it, but I think we ended up with a really good schedule! We had some downtime, nothing felt crazy, but we did what we wanted to do. With that, I’m just going to share what we did, where we stopped, and our experience here!
Again, this is the year of COVID-19. As a result, to get into the park, you had to purchase timed entrance tickets. You can typically get into the park before 6am or after 6pm with no pass as rangers are not stationed at the entrances, but if you plan to go in during the day at any time, you’ll need a pass. They sell these passes in 2 hour increments- 6am-8am, 8am-10am, etc. Once you enter the park, you can come and go at will, however, they do not allow early entry. With that in mind, if you go and need to buy passes, I would recommend just buying an early morning pass. You don’t necessarily have to enter at that time, it just means you can come and go anytime after that entrance time.
Also- be respectful. If you go, take a mask. This park didn’t seem as busy as I’ve heard other parks are, however, trails were still busy, as were lookout points. While we didn’t wear masks our entire hikes and we let the kids go without, my sister and I tried our best to have them available to pull on quickly when passing or going near large groups of people.
Where We Stayed- Rocky Mountain National Park
We stayed in Estes Park, which, if you haven’t been, is the absolute cutest little town. It’s the east entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. If you’re visiting the park, you’re guaranteed to see it at some point- and it will be so worth it! There’s a really cute creek that runs beside the town where you can stick your feet in and kids can splash around. Lots of open seating! Most nights, we got dinner to go and ate at open air spots around town (they have quite a bit of open seating you can find). This let the kids run around some and saved us 2 hours in restaurants (probably more as there were always long waits). They also have lots of souvenir and mountain shops, so many ice creams places- it’s a really fun place to just walk around a little. Herds of elk visit the park downtown fairly often, so that can be so fun. And if nothing else, it sits right below the mountains, so the views are beautiful.
There are so many places you can stay around here. We didn’t camp as we didn’t want to travel with all of that stuff. We stayed at Coyote Mountain Lodge, which was super simple and had the basics. We’re low maintenance travelers, though, so that worked for us (and our budget).
What We Did- Rocky Mountain National Park
We first got to the park around 2pm the day we arrived. There were no plans, we just wanted to get a map and see it. We started driving along Trail Ridge Drive, which is the main scenic drive that goes the whole way through the park. There are so many lookouts and pullouts along this road. We hit the first few and let the kids roam around before heading to check into the hotel and find some dinner.
The first full day, we hit Trail Ridge Road for real. We wanted to hit this early on in the trip because 1) it’d be an easier day for the kids after adjusting to a 2 hour time change, and 2) we could get a feel for where we wanted to go and places we wanted to see again on our last day.
I think we stopped at almost every single look out/pull off, so ones I recommend-
- Sheeps Lake- this will be the first stop. It’s a small lake with a tremendous view of the mountains you’ll be climbing, so definitely stop here for a photo! May- June is bighorn sheep time, so if you travel then, you have a much better chance of seeing one of them!
- Many Parks Curve- a popular pull off with amazing views- and you can see an alpine lake!
- Rainbow Curve- gorgeous panoramic views, and crazy chipmunks! Listen. You are not supposed to feed wildlife, and I do not condone it. Not only is it food the chipmunks aren’t used to, but it teaches them to be reliant on people for food. When winter comes and no people are there, they are no longer used to finding food on their own and they starve. That said. People don’t listen, and these chipmunks will crawl all over you.
- Ute Trail- This is more of a pull off, so you have to watch out for it. It comes shortly after Rainbow Curve. This trail is a 6 mile hike, but it’s worth getting out and just walking it a short distance. The views are incredible!
- Forest Canyon- One of the most popular overlooks in the park. You can view alpine lakes and lots of marmots, if they’re out. This is a paved path and short distance to the overlook, so super family/stroller friendly, if needed. This is also one of the most popular places in the park to catch the sunset!
- Gore Range- This was cool, but be prepared, it was windy and cold. Definitely take appropriate outerwear. The views across from the parking lot are astounding. There’s also the chance to walk higher up and climb some rocks. We did this, but with how windy and chilly it was, this was the one that led to some tantrums from the children…and possibly me, by the end of listening them, ha!
- Alpine Visitor Center- The highest point in the park! Again, take appropriate outerwear! Lots of steps, but both toddlers managed to do this just fine. Across the street is a little trail on the ridge. This is another 6 mile trail, but it was cool to walk along this for a little bit!
- Lake Irene- This was such a cute little spot! It’s a brief walk to the lake and a short walk around it. We got stormed out, but the reflection was so pretty!
- Milner Pass- Home of the Continental Divide! We drove past this in the sunlight and it was beautiful, then when we stopped it was so hazy from the fires. But it was still so cool, and we hiked on the trail a short ways before turning around.
We drove Trail Ridge Road all the way to the West entrance at Grand Lake. We had packed lunch, so we drove into downtown, parked, and found a spot to picnic. From there we headed to the little beach area on the lake for the kids to play. The water was freezing! Per usual, though, the kids did not care at all, and they had a blast playing for a little bit. We then got back in the car and headed back the opposite direction. This gave us a chance to stop at some pull offs we had missed on the way because of napping kids.
The second day we wanted sunrise at Bear Lake! We woke up at a ridiculous hour, so if you do this, I recommend packing up all snacks and changes of clothes and everything the night before. In all the research I had done, I knew Bear Lake was the most popular trailhead in the park and got full so quickly. We arrived right around 6:15, and the lot was already about 3/4 full. There is an overflow parking lot with a shuttle that goes quite frequently, but I was definitely thankful to have gotten a spot!
Anyway. As early as sunrise was…it was so worth it. And my sister agreed, who is not at all a morning person. The colors on the rocks of the light coming up…the sun on the trees…the reflection on the lake…it’s breathtaking. It really is just so incredibly stunning. We meandered around Bear Lake, taking lots of photos and just taking in the beauty. We got to see the sun come up over the trees, and it was just so gorgeous. Highlight of our trip, so definitely recommend.
After we walked around Bear Lake, we went back to the car, shed some layers, and ate some breakfast. We then headed back to the trailhead for the triple lake trail, hitting Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. This was about 3.6 miles round trip and is definitely a hike. But y’all- it was gorgeous. The lakes were STUNNING. The views along the way were epic. Mountain streams and mini waterfalls you could climb down to. Aspens changing to yellow already. We took a lot of rests, but Oliver and Zoey handled it so well.
I think we were all definitely exhausted after this day and actually got a lot of rain that afternoon, so we showered and hung out before just grabbing some dinner.
Our final full day in Rocky Mountain National park was a bit of a mash up. We started by going to the Alpine Visitor Center as we hadn’t done the peak or ridge trail on the first day. From there we headed to Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This is another really popular trailhead. It has a really small parking lot, but again, overflow parking is available. This is the trailhead I would recommend to hike to Alberta Falls. Everything I read had said this a 1 mile roundtrip hike. It was 1 mile there, so 2 miles roundtrip. The kids did so great on this whole hike though, and oh my gosh- this was one of my faves. This hike was SO beautiful. The beginning part of it runs beside a trickling mountain stream. You hike through gorgeous Aspens. And it ends at a tremendous waterfall. Do not skip this one!
After Alberta Falls, we stopped by Sprague Lake. This is about a 1 mile easy walk around the lake. It’s very laid back, very relaxed. The lake was really pretty, and this was just a good, unrushed spot. From there we headed to get dinner and then came back into the park to Moraine Park. We drove down the road towards the campground, and they have various places where you can pull off and park. Moraine Park is just a beautiful meadow with views of the mountains. A gorgeous stream flows through the middle. We didn’t get long here before we started getting poured on, but it was SO beautiful and just the perfect way to end our time in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Where We Ate
I don’t usually include this because I feel like people can find their own food, ha. But we ate at some really great places! Top on my recommendations would be Penelope’s Burgers- they are apparently voted best burger in Estes Park, and it was good. This was quick dining, so we actually ate here first thing upon getting into Estes Park. They had really good sweet potato fries and just a good, messy burger.
Ed’s Cantina and Grill for fish tacos- just trust me. I love a good fish taco, and this one was excellent! I also tried the fish tacos at The Wapiti Colorado Pub- they were not my favorite, BUT. My sister got their ooey gooey grilled cheese with slow cooked beef, and ooooh my gosh was that good. Definitely recommend to give those places a try! As I mentioned above, we did our meals to go every single night. This is easy with COVID, but is honestly something we loved. My kids go crazy in restaurants, and it saved us so much time from sitting in booth for 2 hours. We got to eat outside, whether it was a picnic table in downtown or the back of my sister’s Subaru overlooking Estes Park. Will definitely become a vacation tradition.
Rocky Mountain National Park Photos
And because my photographer self goes a little crazy, here are some more photos for our trip! We truly had an amazing time. Rocky Mountain National Park is so gorgeous and did not disappoint one bit! It was a blast taking Oliver and Zoey, little as they are, so definitely recommend adding this one to your list if it isn’t already!
If you’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park, what was your favorite part? And if you’re looking for an East coast national park, make sure to check out our trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park!