At this all-season camp, everyone in the family will feel like a kid again - even grandma and grandpa!
The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, named the No. 1 Family Resort (Reader’s Choice) in USA Today’s 10 Best Awards, allows your family to do all-things-summer-camp sans penning letters home (if kids even do that anymore!). With more than 250 individual cabins along with lodge rooms (think rustic hotel), you can introduce the kids to a mountain getaway with plenty of the luxuries of home. Trails, equestrian activities, crafts, swimming, and just hanging out in the lodge - it’s all plenty to keep a family busy on this adventure in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park - along with its sister property, Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park, Colorado - is unique to the 235 YMCA camps across the nation, as family camping is not limited to special weekends or weeks during the summer. The YMCA of the Rockies isn’t only for the nuclear family either. The flexible lodging options and plethora of activities make inviting grandparents and other family members up for a high country getaway much easier than a legit camping experience.
Where to stay?
Choose a cabin that fits your family - and not just the size. My family and I opted for a three-bedroom cabin, and it was a perfect option for a family with a toddler, preschooler, and grandparents in tow. It also “fit” us as my daughters needed to nap in the afternoon and head to bed earlier than the rest of us. One of the bedrooms - conveniently, the one with the highly sought-after bunk beds - was tucked away down a decently-long hallway, out of earshot from the kitchen and the living room. When our two little girls darted down the hallway to the back room upon arriving, it was nothing but squeals and ladder climbing as we unloaded the car. The cabins, which include a fireplace (wood-burning or gas), range from two-bedroom options all the way up to mammoth, eight-bedroom reunion cabins. Each bed is made up with sheets, blankets, and pillows, so you just need to bring the little ones’ pajamas and lovies.
Prices depend on cabin size and season but start at $154/night for a two-bedroom cabin. If you’re looking for a deal, try the winter season except for the big holidays.
KidTripster Tip: Look ahead at when registration opens for cabins. Typically, six months’ worth of registrations will open eight weeks before the season’s start date. For example, this year's reservations for December 1 through May 31 opened on October 4.
What to do?
Start your day at YMCA of the Rockies with a cup of coffee (or milk, if you’re a toddler) on the deck of your cabin. There’s nothing better than crisp mountain air and a view of a 14,000-foot peak (Long’s Peak, to be exact) to spur conversations about the impending day’s adventures.
If a horseback, pony ride or horse-drawn hayride is on the to-do list, call down to Jackson Stables to find out the day’s schedule and reserve spots for your family first thing in the morning. If you have little ones, I suggest hopping on a family hayride that includes a stop at a campfire for s’mores and a walk around the Minnie Mouse Pony Trail. If you have kids in elementary school or older, take off on a horseback trail ride into the forest.
Whether or not equestrian activities are on the schedule, a good spot to start is the Sweet Memorial Building to get a look at the day’s planned activities, including Little Explorers mini-guided hikes and a fire building tutorial to story time and an orienteering class called Pathfinders. The Sweet Memorial Building is also home to the YMCA’s gear rental center with options like hiking boots, mountain bikes, and Frisbees for the on-property disc golf course.
KidTripster Tip: With little tykes in tow, don’t bother lugging a stroller or a kid hiking backpack to the YMCA when you can rent them for $5- and $10-a-day, respectively.
Head two buildings down to the Craft and Design Center. Kids - and big kids who loved sleep-away camp - will be eager to pick a wooden or ceramic project to make their own. Projects range from $5 to $85 and can take as little decorating time as a half hour to multiple days.
KidTripster Tip: Once your family finishes the projects, leave them on a drying rack inside the Craft and Design Center overnight… especially if glitter is involved. Trust me!
Spend the afternoon hiking around the trails surrounding the cabins or join a guided hike to look and listen for elk in rut. Estes Park is world-renowned for the majestic bugling of bull elk in the autumn. It seemed like no matter where we ventured on the property, there was a herd of elk or deer casually peering at us. The only time that it wasn’t a magical experience for the kids was when a herd of elk overtook the playground by our cabin! However, it provided the perfect opportunity to chat about exactly whose home we were visiting.
KidTripster Tip: If you stay at either the YMCA of the Rockies or Snow Mountain Ranch in the summer season, you can opt to register your child (age 3 and up) for day camp. The kids get the whole summer camp experience, and parents can opt for some grown-ups-only adventuring. Day camp cost: Starts at $32/day.
As the sun starts to set, work in a swim around dinner. The pool has open swim time from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. A quick swim after a nap, but before dinner worked perfectly for my little ones, while an after-dinner dip could be an ideal way to wrap up the day for older kids. Warning: The pool starts at a 3-foot depth and the slide, which drops off into 10-foot-deep water, is only fair game if kids can pass the swim test. There are a few Puddle Jumper floaty vests available on the pool deck for toddlers who want to float around.
Just like any great vacation, there were things that we missed out on. We hear the indoor roller skating rink and archery are great additions to the winter season while the outdoor climbing wall and new 800-foot-long zipline are must-dos in the summer. And after what we saw, we’ll be back to check ‘em out!
After a little dose of summer camp with mom and dad, it’s not hard to see why bigger kids head back to sleep-away camps when they're old enough. While there’s no drop-off, overnight camps at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, kids can prep here for a tradition overnight summer camp at Chief Camp Ouray at Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park; campers need to be 7 years old.
It’s easy to never leave the YMCA of the Rockies, but don’t miss Estes Park. Estes Park’s main drag, Elkhorn Avenue, is lined with quaint shops and touristy fudge and taffy spots. Once you’ve had your fill, take the five-minute drive to the famously eerie Stanley Hotel, the birthplace of Stephen King’s book The Shining, that sits above the town. You can wander into the lobby or take a ghost tour without having to book a room - that’s a whole different trip. And while Rocky Mountain National Park’s 48-mile-long Trail Ridge Road, that peaks up to 12,183-feet, closes for the winter, it certainly warrants a trip after Memorial Day.
Read more about visiting Rocky Mountain National Park here.
Where to eat?
If you’re in a cabin, plan on eating from your humble abode for most meals. Whether you’re a Coloradoan scooting up from Denver or you’re flying in from afar, stop by the grocery store in Estes Park to stock up before heading to the YMCA property. The cabin’s full kitchen includes dishes, cooking utensils, pots and pans, silverware, a regular-size refrigerator, a full-size oven, range, and microwave.
KidTripster Tip: You can call guest services to rent a grill for just $30 that gets dropped off on your cabin’s porch. It’s a 4-hour rental that's picked up after dinner, so the bears don’t stop by your cabin to lick up the leftovers.
If you want to stay on the YMCA property and grab a bite, hit up Y's Guys Pizza at the Rustic Cafe in the main administration lodge. The pizzas are giant; my husband barely worked through two slices.
If you want to head out, stop by Scratch Deli and Bakery, just off Highway 66 between the YMCA and downtown Estes Park. My girls and I split easily the best ham and cheese sandwich that I’ve ever had. After you’re done chowing down at the tiny sandwich spot, snag a couple of their housemade sticky buns to go.
The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado is about a 1-1/2-hour drive from Denver. The sister camp YMCA of the Rockies at Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado is also about a 1-1/2-hour drive from downtown Denver.
Writer Lindsey McKissick lives just outside Denver with her husband, two young daughters, and her eager-to-hike pup. Her favorite adventure locations include anywhere with a forest full of Ponderosa pines or a toasty warm beach.
This writer received a complimentary stay for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.