This complete trip guide will give you the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park with kids and more. The park has seen a lot of changes over the last year. So we’ll give you the latest park updates for 2021 so you can plan a great trip. Maybe I’m just a pushover for beautiful mountains, alpine lakes, and elk oh my, but this park is in our top three favorite national parks. Our kids love it as much as we do and we’ll be sharing all of their favorite, must-do things in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Overview of Rocky Mountain
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited and the nation’s highest national parks with elevations ranging from 7,860 to 14,259 feet. The park is unique in that it encompasses three different elevational ecosystems, the Montane, the Subalpine, and the Alpine. If that weren’t impressive enough it spans the Continental Divide, stretches across 265,770 acres and is filled with alpine lakes and the headwaters of the Colorado River. Rocky Mountain serves as a water source for a large portion of the US with snow melt constantly flowing off of mountains and into alpine lakes, rivers and eventually making its way into all three oceans in North America. Rocky Mountain National Park provides such a unique trip for kids with so much variety in what they can see and do in every season.
Two things to know before you go to Rocky Mountain
Over the last year, two of the largest wildfires in Colorado history took place and impacted the park substantially. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a seasonal reservation system in an effort to manage crowds.
- There was approximately 10 percent of Rocky Mountain National Park or 30,000 acres impacted by the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak Fires of 2020. The Grand Lake entrance station office was destroyed in fall 2020 by the East Troublesome fire. The park is constantly modifying what’s open or closed, so please check this page on the National Park site for the most current information and an interactive map with trail closures.
- There is a seasonal reservation system in place. From May 28 through October 11, 2021, visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park will need a timed entry permit and an entrance pass to enter the park. There are two reservation options:
- Bear Lake Road Corridor from 5 AM-6 PM which includes access to the rest of the park
- The rest of the Rocky Mountain Park Area (This includes Wild Basin, Long’s Peak, Trail Ridge Road, Fall River Area) which has a reservation period from 9 AM-3 PM. Outside of these times, no park reservations are needed.
If you don’t score a park reservation we also cover things to do in Estes Park with kids that are outside Rocky Mountain National Park and don’t require an entry reservation.
Top things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park with kids
This park has so much to offer, but here are some of our favorite things to do, kid-friendly trails (stroller-friendly ones too!) and other fun adventures in Rocky Mountain National park with kids.
Picnic and Wildlife Spotting
The only food option inside the park is at the top of Trail Ridge road near the Alpine Visitor Center, so grab a bite to eat before you head into the park. We love getting into the park early and bringing breakfast along or coming back into the park early evening and bringing dinner to get in more wildlife spotting. Some known wildlife viewing spots are upper Beaver Meadows, Moraine Park or Horseshoe Park on the east side of the park and Harbison Meadow and the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side.
If you want to spot moose, try Sprague Lake or other wetland areas at sunrise or sunset where aquatic vegetation can be found. Often moose, elk, deer, or even bear can be seen at Sprague Lake. There is also a .8 mile trail around the lake that is mostly flat, making it ideal for strollers, wheelchairs, and the elderly.
Horseback Riding: Glacier Creek Stables
This is the only horseback riding stable inside the park. If you reserve a spot to ride this will get you into the park without a reservation, but you will still need to pay the standard park entrance fee. Note: if this stable is booked, see our Best Things to do in Estes Park with Kids for an alternate horse stable option outside the park.
Get Your Guide Tours of Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re short on time and want to see a lot of the park with a professional guide then this is the way to go. They have small group tours that range in length. Click here to learn more.
Family friendly hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Some of the best family friendly hikes in Rocky Mountain National park are among the most easily accessible as well. If not already acclimated to the altitude we recommend going on a shorter hike at a lower altitude and drinking lots of water for the first day. Also, ultraviolet light is stronger in the mountains because there is less atmosphere for the sunlight to pass through. Wear sunscreen, a hat, sun glasses and consider wearing a long sleeved shirt if you are in the sun for an extended period of time.
The hiking guide found in the National Park newspaper (pages 5-7) is a helpful, quick reference for where the burn areas are and which hikes are open/closed.
Bear Lake trail (.6 miles round trip, easy)
One of the easiest but must-do hikes in the park is Bear Lake. It’s a flat, easy trail that is even stroller and wheelchair-friendly. Park at the Bear Lake trailhead (30min drive from Estes Park) but this parking lot can fill fast so recommend getting there early (ideally by 8am). Recommend combining this hike with the Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes hike below for a total of 4.2miles.
Alberta Falls trail (1.6 mile round trip, easy, elevation gain 232 ft)
Bear Lake Shuttle Route (seasonal). This hike is along a well-marked trail and offers some beautiful views of carved-out canyons and fast-flowing waterfalls. It’s best done in the morning before crowds arrive. Alberta Falls can be found via the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop which will take you on an easy, but steady 0.8 mile climb up to the falls. But we recommend starting at the Bear Lake shuttle stop and ending at the Glacier Gorge shuttle stop. This approach minimizes uphill hiking.
Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes (3.6 miles, moderate, starting elevation 9,475′ – 9,705′ (at Nymph)
Elevation gain: +230′ (Nymph): +437′ (Dream): +615′ (Emerald). Bear Lake Shuttle Route (seasonal). A great family-friendly hike that’s a perfect introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park. If you combine this hike with Bear Lake it’s 4.2 miles. This hike is accessible from the Bear Lake Trailhead. This is a very popular year-round hike; arrive early to secure parking and avoid crowds.
Alluvial Fan (.5 mile, easy out and back paved trail, great for wide age range families)
If your kids love to climb on rocks this is the stop for you. This is an easy paved walk from the parking lot and features a waterfall and is good for all skill levels. This is a great stop if you have a wide age range of kids because you can stay on the paved trail or do some rock hopping/climbing to get closer to the falls.
Our kids vote Alluvial Fan was their favorite so don’t miss it!
Bierstadt Trail (3 miles, moderate, out and back, with a elevation gain of 800 ft)
Bear Lake Shuttle Route (seasonal). This trail has steep switchbacks going up, but impressive views of the Continental Divide. Once at the top the trail goes into a dense pine forest before making it to Bierstadt Lake. The lake is beautiful and a great place for a lunch break. Remember to bring sun protection as the hike up is very exposed, rain gear for frequent afternoon summer rainstorms and bug repellent.
If you want to extend this hike, and the shuttle is running (this is key!), consider starting at the Bear Lake trailhead and hike to Bierstadt Lake and then down to the Bierstadt Lake trailhead shuttle stop to catch the shuttle back to your car. Make sure to check the times for the shuttle to ensure you can make it in time. This full hike is moderate to difficult (6-7miles) so give yourself enough time and pack the essentials. Make sure to do it starting at Bear Lake so you can go down the Bierstadt trail vs up the steep incline. We ‘accidentally’ did this full hike with our three elementary-age kids so it is possible, but I don’t advise it unless you have strong hikers. Lots of negotiating with snacks, piggyback rides and begging to just keep going to make it to the finish line before dark. Here are two additional sources if you plan to do the Bear Lake add-on. See here and here.
Drive Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain
This bucket list-worthy drive is one not to miss, assuming the road is open when you’ll be visiting. This drive has been called the “Highway To The Sky” cresting in over 12,000 feet, it is the highest continuous paved highway in the nation and offers spectacular views. The road covers 48 miles between Estes Park on the park’s east side and Grand Lake on the west. The drive without stopping takes about 2 hours, so it’s good to plan more time if you plan to hike or make stops. If you have flexibility when you go, try to pick a day that the sky looks clear as this will give you great views from the top.
Call the Trail Ridge Road Status Line at 970 586-1222 for the most up-to-date information for Trail Ridge Road. Extreme weather can change the status of the road any time year-round.
The road traverses through different ecosystems and the changes that you’ll see occur en- route is fascinating. After 11,000 feet elevation, the tree line will disappear and you’ll find yourself in the alpine tundra. To prepare for wind and a dramatic change in temperature, it’s good to bring warmer clothes, a packable down jacket, and a hat. If you plan to hike, depending on the day, boots, hiking poles, and possibly crampons can be needed. If it’s a clear day get ready for endless panoramic views.
Best Stops and Hikes on Trail Ridge Road
- Continental Divide: you’ll find this at Milner Pass at 10,759 feet elevation. Milner Pass offers incredible views of the Rocky Mountains. Marks the place of the Atlantic and Pacific plates converging.
- Forest Canyon Overlook: Take a five minute walk down the paved asphalt trail to see Forest Canyon. Panoramic view at 11,716 feet.
- Alpine Visitor Center: is the highest visitor center of all the US National Parks, it can be found close to the top at 11,796 feet and has ranger information, tundra exhibits, viewing scopes, gift shop and café (only food option in the park).
- Tundra Community Trail: This 1.1 mile out and back trail begins at Rock Cut, which is 4.1 miles east of the Alpine Visitor Center and is at 12,100 feet in elevation with a 260-foot elevation gain. Parking for this trail can be found along the roadside. You’ll be rewarded with some amazing views of the alpine tundra.
- Holzwarth Historic Site (see more info below)
Holzwarth Historic Site
Recommend doing this as a stop when driving Trail Ridge Road. It’s an interesting historical site where you’ll learn about the life of the Colorado homesteaders. It is on Highway 34, seven miles north of the Grand Lake Entrance. Park employees sometimes do historical reenactments
The Holzwarth Historic Site Trail is 1.3 miles and offers scenic views and you’ll get to explore this historic ranch that is on the national register of historic places. During this hike you’ll also get up close to the Colorado River and sweeping views of the Kawuneeche Valley. This is a hidden gem and a great way to beat the crowds.
Complete Guide to Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids
When to visit Rocky Mountain
The busiest months to visit the park are July-September, but the park is open year-round. In the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms are common between 1-3 pm so plan accordingly. In July and August, consider starting hikes early to be complete or below the tree line by 1 pm as lightning regularly strikes in Rocky Mountain.
All seasons have their benefits, but we’ve enjoyed visiting Rocky Mountain with kids in the fall when there are fewer crowds, but when Trail Ridge Road is often open. Trail Ridge Road is only open end of May (sometimes later) through late Oct. If this might be your only visit to Rocky Mountain, and you want the full experience, you might want to plan around this. Weather can vary and the opening and closing dates for the road can change.
Lastly, a reminder that it can snow any month in Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow can also remain on the trails at higher elevations as late as July so plan accordingly as waterproof hiking shoes or boots work best for traction.
How to get there
Rocky Mountain National Park is about an 80-mile drive from Denver International Airport. Driving or renting a car is best for easily getting to the park as there is no public transportation from the airport to the park. The Estes Park shuttle is an alternate option if driving isn’t possible.
The Estes Park Shuttle runs between Denver International Airport, AMTRAK, other local bus stops, and residences or other locations in the Estes Valley Area. You can find more information and make reservations here.
If you have a bit more time, make a stop at the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater on your way to Rocky Mountain. If staying in Estes Park, it only adds about 30 minutes to the drive.
Rocky Mountain Park Shuttles
Once in the park, there is a shuttle bus that operates within the Bear Lake Road corridor as well as Moraine Park. There are no shuttle buses on the west side of the park or across Trail Ridge Road. Shuttle buses are a tremendous help during peak crowded times in the park as parking lots fill quickly. If you can find a parking spot early and then plan to use the shuttle bus for the rest of the day this works best.
In typical years there is a hiker shuttle bus that connects the Estes Park visitor center and the Park and Ride location in Estes Park to Rocky Mountain National Park. Please note the hiker shuttle is not running for 2021. Find more information on park shuttles here (scroll down).
For directions and more info check here.
How to prevent altitude sickness
Here are 7 things to remember to help prevent altitude sickness. Remember, to give your body time to adjust to the altitude and that you may feel more out of breath doing regular activities.
- Stay below 7,000 feet for the first day (reference: Denver is 5,280 feet and Estes Park 7,522 feet )
- Give your body time to adjust (there’s lots to see and do at lower altitudes.)
- Avoid strenuous exercise the first day.
- Limit alcohol. Alcohol binds oxygen and water and robs your body of these two important nutrients.
- Drink more water. The air is drier and your body will dehydrate much more quickly. The higher up you go, the more water you should drink.
- Always travel with a companion. Watch out for severe coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or chest pain and if experienced get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.
- The effects of some drugs can be greatly increased at higher altitudes. Check with your doctor beforehand.
Rocky Mountain National Park Entrances
There are four entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park and depending on which one works best for your visit, your route will be slightly different. Beaver Meadows Entrance is the most popular entrance and closest to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. This entrance is located closest to the gateway city of Estes Park. The Fall River Entrance is also easily accessed from Estes Park. It’s the best option for those looking to experience Trail Ridge Road or Old Fall River Road, two of the most beautiful drives in the park.
For families looking to explore the accessible, but off-the-beaten-track areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Wild Basin Entrance is for you. The Wild Basin Entrance can be found 30-minutes south of Estes Park. It’s accessed off of Highway 7 on one of the best routes on the Denver to Estes Park drive. On the opposite side of the park sits the Grand Lake Entrance off HWY 34 near the town of Grand Lake. The charming town is great to explore. And the Grand Lake entrance drops you right into the heart of the Colorado Rockies, but was the most impacted by the wildfires in 2020.
Where to Stay near Rocky Mountain
Unlike most large national parks, Rocky Mountain has no lodging inside the park other than five campgrounds.
The park has two gateway communities: the town of Estes Park on the east side and the town of Grand Lake on the west side. Estes Park is the more popular place to stay with very easy access to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake is a great day trip, but we don’t recommend staying there because if Trail Ridge Road is closed the drive to the east side of the park will be 3-4 hours minimum. More info here.
If you want to be further away, then consider staying in Boulder, Loveland or Ft Collins.
Inside the park: Only Moraine Park and Glacier Basin Campgrounds have partially reopened for 2021 with approximately half of the campsites available for reservations. Aspenglen, Timber Creek and Longs Peak Campgrounds are to remain closed. For all the latest information for what’s opened and closed check here. To make reservations, as with all camping in the national parks, go to recreation.gov or download the app.
Camping outside the park in Estes Park, CO
Check here for RV sites and camping information.
Lodging in Estes Park
We love staying in unique vacation rental homes as they provide more space for our family of five. Estes Park has many great vacation rental options at all price points. This can be rare for national park gateway towns. When we visited we stayed here and loved it. It’s a short 2-mile drive to the Beaver Meadows east entrance of the park and close to all the amenities in Estes Park. Our kids loved the game room and stargazing over the fire pit at night.
Other great accommodation options in Estes Park
Estes Park Resort is a family-friendly hotel in Estes Park that is only 15 minutes from the park entrance. The hotel is by Lake Estes and there are walking trails, a playground, and boat and bike rentals. Click here to learn more.
The Stanley Hotel, if you want a unique stay look at staying at The Stanley Hotel. This historic 1909 hotel is best known for the movie The Shining. The hotel is said to have inspired Stephen King’s novel, The Shining but contrary to rumor, it was not filmed at The Stanley Hotel.
Steamside Cabins has 21 cabins and suites on 29 acres of pine and aspen trees in Estes Park, CO. It’s located on the Fall River with lots of wildlife. More info here.
YMCA of the Rockies offers cabins and lodges. The Estes Park location is minutes from the east park entrance. They offer rustic mountain cabins, yurts, a lodge experience, camping as well as various activities. Click here to learn more.
For packing ideas check out our Ultimate Hiking Gear for Kids Guide.
Cell Service in Rocky Mountain National Park
There is very limited cell service in Rocky Mountain National Park. There is some service near the Beaver Meadows entrance, but it is spotty at best throughout the rest of the park. Make sure to download the area surrounding the park in Google Maps before you go and if you want to see some of the other apps that we recommend before heading to a national park check here.
We hope this complete guide to Rocky Mountain National Park with kids is helpful in your trip planning. Have you ever visited Rocky Mountain National Park with kids? Let us know your favorite stops and best tips, in the comments below or on our Facebook or Instagram pages. We’d love to share in your travels!