Experience this scenic park by rock climbing with your family.
Majestic. That’s the best way to describe the vistas at Rocky Mountain National Park. Crowded. That’s the best way to describe a visit here during summer and early fall. In fact, RMNP is one of the most visited parks in the country with over 4 million tourists a year! So if you’re going during peak season, pack some patience.
KidTripster Tip: The park is busiest from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. To avoid the crush of people, arrive early or visit later in the day. Trailhead parking lots will fill up during the day. Best advice, if you’re not camping inside the park? Grab a parking spot at the visitors center and utilize the free park shuttle.
KidTripster Tip: Stop at the visitor center to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and return it completed for a Junior Ranger badge. Also, make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit.
What to do?
My family’s favorite activity at RMNP is actually just outside the park at Mary’s Lake. Take a 4-hour rock climbing lesson with a guide from Estes Park Mountain Shop. An expert instructor teaches you how to tie knots, belay for other family members, and climb on small rock formations; advance climbing lessons are also available. My boys, ages 12 and 15, really enjoyed the challenge. I enjoyed the fact that I finally found an athletic pursuit that I’m equally skilled as my über-sporty sons and husband! Yes, it's pricey but worth it. Cost: $375/4 people.
Our favorite RMNP hike starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead, accessed via the park shuttle. For little ones, a short .6-mile walk quickly rewards with views of Bear Lake. Continue on the trail another half-mile to lily pad-covered Nymph Lake. Be sure to climb the boulder on the far side of the lake for an overhead view. Hike another half-mile to picturesque Dream Lake before finally reaching Emerald Lake another .7-mile down the trail. Here you’ll stand at the tree line with an elevation of 10,135 feet. My son’s goal of finding snow in the middle of summer - achieved! Know that the hike gradually climbs; the farther you go, the fewer people you’ll see. Round trip: 4.6 miles.
If you driving a car, I’d recommend the Trail Ridge Road that crests the Rocky Mountain range and connects the east and west sides of the park. Here you’ll be able to truly appreciate the subalpine and alpine terrain. However, if snaking along cliffs with no shoulders and sheer drop-offs makes your knuckles turn white just thinking about it, don’t attempt this road.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re driving an RV or towing a camper trailer, I’d highly advise against driving Trail Ridge Road. The edges are unforgiving, and overlook parking is limited. The climb is considerable, and other drivers can be impatient traveling behind campers. Simply put, it’s not worth the stress. After exploring the east side of the park, head south to access the west side.
Where to stay?
Aspenglen ($26/night, maximum RV length of 30 feet), Glacier Basin ($26/night, maximum RV length of 35 feet), Longs Peak ($26/night, tents only, no reservations), and Moraine ($26/night, maximum RV length of 40 feet) are on the east side. Timber Creek ($26/night, maximum RV length 30 feet, no reservations) is the only in-park campground on the west. Because of the popularity of RMNP, you should book as soon as reservations open six months in advance of your visit.
Lodging is also available in Estes Park and Grand Lake.
A word about Estes Park: It has the potential to be a quaint mountain town; however, during the summer, it’s completely overrun by visitors squeezing in and out of taffy and t-shirt shops. If you can, I’d avoid it and instead focus on the nature that you’ve come to see.
RMNP is located a 1-1/2-hour drive northwest of Denver. Expect heavy traffic on summer weekends.
Headed to Great Sand Dunes National Park? Click here. Or maybe Black Canyon Gunnison National Park? Click here?
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s RV.