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Rocky Mountain National Park is a breathtaking landscape carved by ancient glaciers, pockmarked with picturesque lakes and guarded by tall jagged peaks. Rocky Mountain National Park is also one of the best national parks for families. It’s less than 2 hours from Denver International Airport so it’s easy to access, especially if you are visiting the Rockies with kids. Here you can experience several distinct ecosystems within an hour passing through meadows in the wetland to forested valleys filled with wildlife to windswept alpine tundra.
Best time to visit
Looking for the best time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park with kids? Most of the park facilities and roads are open from June through October. Trail Ridge Road usually opens after Memorial Day and closes in October (snow dependent).
If you prefer warmer weather, longer days, wildflowers and iconic afternoon thunderstorms visit during June through August.
If you want a taste of fall in the Rockies, visit during September or October when tundra turns crimson, aspens turn golden. The best part of visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall is that you can hear all the bugling elk that gather in valleys all throughout the park. If you want some secluded family time visiting RMNP in the fall is the best time to go to avoid crowds.
To avoid the crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park, plan your visit during the week, as day trip visitors from Denver make the park very busy on the weekends, even in the fall.
Where to Stay
Rocky Mountain National Park has five established campgrounds, which get busy in the summer and fall months. Make sure to book in advance if you are planning to use campsites.
There is no lodge or cabin inside the park boundary. Outside of the Park, you have two options – Grand Lake on the southwest of the Park and Estes Park on the east side of the park. Estes Park is a preferred choice being only an hour and a half away from Denver and most of the trails are also on the east side.
For a really fun experience, check out the YMCA of the Rockies that provides a fun family camp experience and is incredibly affordable.
The entry fee for Rocky Mountain National Park for a single-day pass is $25 per vehicle. I highly recommend buying the annual National Parks Pass for $80, especially if you enjoy visiting national parks.
The park has recently implemented a time entry system to manage seasonal traffic. You must reserve your timed entry permit to enter Rocky Mountain National Park—including Trail Ridge Road (US Hwy 34) between the hours of 6 am and 5 pm.
Check the National Park Service website for more details, roads and trails conditions.
Park Visitor Centers
Rocky Mountain National Park has five visitor centers and all of them have great exhibits to learn about diverse ecosystems within the park. While you’re there, make sure to check in for information about the ranger-guided walks and information sessions. You can learn so much from these and it’s always a great introduction to the area.
While you’re at the visitors center, you can sign your kids up for the Junior Ranger Program at Rocky Mountain National Park. These programs are so well done and the Junior Ranger program is a great way to keep kids engaged during your visit and also help them learn a lot as well.
Visitors Centers Near Estes Park
- Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
- Fall River Visitor Center – be prepared to spend an hour or more, especially if visiting with kids. Our favorite one after Alpine Visitor Center.
- Moraine Park Visitor Center – a great museum, worth a stop
Visitors Centers Near Grand Lake
- Kawuneeche Visitor Center just north of Grand Lake
Visitor Center at Trail Ridge Road
At 11,796 feet Alpine Visitor center is the highest visitor center in the National Park System. It is a very special visitor center for me since my son took his very first Junior Ranger oath at this visitor center.
Best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park
You will run out of time and still there will be many things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park. While you’re there, I consider it a must-do that you take a short hike or two and go on a scenic drive as well.
The highest road in the continuous US traverses through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park above 12,000 feet that roughly follows a 10,000-year-old trail prehistoric people once walked on. Spectacular high mountain scenery will take your breath away. Cross the Continental Divide as you take in sweeping vistas of towering summits and alpine lakes. The drive takes two-to-three hours to complete, depending on how frequently you stop to admire the scenery and take photos to capture its beauty.
The historic Old Fall River Road is a scenic 9-mile dirt road that is typically open from early July through late September. Take precautions as you drive through steep grades and tight curves.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a mecca for the climbers of all kinds – rock climbing, ice climbing, bouldering, and mountaineering. Kent Mountain Adventure Center is an Estes Park-based and authorized company to lead climbing trips in the Park if you would like to learn or enhance your climbing skills.
For regular day use climbing, you won’t need a permit, but for more technical or overnight routes, you need to get a permit from the park.
Bicycles are permitted on all roads open to motor vehicles (paved and dirt). If you have good fitness levels, biking is a great option to experience the splendid beauty of the park. Don’t miss the 16-mile circuit Horseshoe Park Loop, if it is open. Make sure to check about road status at the Visitor Center before heading out and follow rules on while riding.
Mountain biking is not allowed on single track trails or hiking trails, so if you are looking for rides like this, there are some great ones in Estes Park and in Winter Park to the south.
Over 75% of trails in the park are open to horses, mules, and llamas. You may rent a horse at Estes Park on an hourly or daily basis.
Hiking is the most intimate way to truly experience the rugged beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. Park offers 355 miles of trails to choose from. All the trails are beautiful and will take you to pristine alpine lakes or rushing waterfalls or mountain tops. Select any trail(s) for your fitness level and preference. You may want to get trail updates and suggestions from the park rangers at one of the visitor centers. Here are some of the trails which we hiked with our kids – 4 and 7 years old. Both of them enjoyed each trail and had fun skipping rocks on the lakes.
You may want to read these useful tips to start hiking with kids.
Best Hikes With Kids
Looking for the best hikes with kids in Rocky Mountain National Park? We did several of these during our trip and know that you’ll enjoy a lot of these Rocky Mountain hikes with kids.
Details: less than a mile with a negligible elevation change
We started our exploration with the easiest trail. Shaped by the massive rocks swept by the Lawn Lake flood of 1982, these cascading waterfalls flow in a horseshoe-like pattern. This is a great place to do on a sunny day since playing in the shallow water and walking up the river is the perfect way to cool off. This is one of the easiest hikes with kids in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Alpine Ridge Trail
Details: 0.6 miles round trip with 210 feet elevation gain
A short trail starting from the side of Alpine Visitor center is a tribute to the resilience of ground-hugging tundra plants at the elevation of 12,000 feet. Nicknamed “Huffers Hill” is not to be missed when hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park with kids.
Details: 2.8 miles roundtrip with 585 feet elevation gain
Arguably one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park to hike to with kids and easily accessible. Experience zen as you watch water crashing down 25 feet through a narrow granite gorge.
Mills Lake Trail
Details: 5.8 miles roundtrip with 750 feet elevation change
In about .8 miles you will reach Alberta waterfalls, one of the popular ones hence crowded. Continue 2 miles to reach Mills Lake, a gorgeous alpine lake with jagged peaks in the backdrop. The extra 2 miles is worth the great views on your hike in Rocky Mountain National Park with kids.
Emerald Lake Trail
Details: 3.5 miles roundtrip with 605 feet elevation gain
This is my personal favorite trail and I will recommend hiking it early in the morning. It passes through two more lakes – Nymph Lake with lilies and picturesque Dream Lake. Emerald Lake has gorgeous views of surrounding peaks, including Flattop Mountain.
Details: 4.2 miles roundtrip with 745 feet elevation gain
“Haiyaha” is “rock” or “lake of many rocks” in the Native American language. Studded with rocks this lake is stunning with dominating views of Otis Peak and Hallett Peak.
Flattop Mountain Trail
Details: 8.8 miles roundtrip with 2,850 feet elevation gain
Our kids love to hike up summits and we chose Flattop for its panoramic views. There are lots of pikas and marmots running busily around above the treeline. Impressive views of glaciers, Rockies were well worth its rough ascent when hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park with kids. It took about six hours to reach the summit with frequent breaks and one nap-break for the little one.
Milner Pass Trail
Details: 8.2 miles roundtrip with 1,011 feet elevation gain
This trail can be hiked from both sides – from Milner Pass or Alpine Visitor Center. Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. After about 2 miles the vistas of high-alpine meadows and Never Summer Range get incredibly stunning. We dropped the idea of Milner Pass and spent about two hours admiring the scenery, taking photos, and contemplating life, while kids hopped around on boulders.
These are some of the hikes with kids in Rocky Mountain National Park that we plan to do in the future.
Deer Mountain Trail: 6.0 miles roundtrip with 1,085 feet elevation gain
Sky Pond Trail: 9.6 miles roundtrip with 1,650 feet elevation gain
Ouzel Falls Trail: 5.4 miles roundtrip with 870 feet elevation gain
Long’s Peak Trail: 14.6 miles round trip with 5,100 feet elevation gain
Things to remember while visiting Rocky National Park
Park elevations range from 7,500 to over 12,000 feet and demand proper respect. Headaches, shortness of breath, insomnia, and rapid heartbeat are all signs of altitude sickness. Drink water frequently, even though you won’t feel thirsty, avoid alcohol, eat all means, get rest, and take it slow. Start hikes from lower elevations. Always carry extra water on high altitude hikes. Check out this article on the best hydration packs for kids, one of the best ways to get kids to drink enough!
Protect yourselves from high levels of UV light in mountains by wearing sunscreen, hat, sunglasses and a long-sleeved shirt or UV protected clothing. Check out our favorite hats for sun protection.
In late summer lightning is common above the treeline. While hiking at higher elevations, start early to avoid afternoon thunders. If you ever hear thunder, hike down below the treeline. Pack a rain jacket while hiking.
Ticks and Bugs
Ticks and bugs get active in warmer weather, some are pesky and some can make you sick. Wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt and tuck it in. Wear lighter shades to spot ticks easily and spray tick repellent on shoes and pants.
Mountain weather is extremely moody – sunny by the waterfalls, windy and chilly at the top. Dress in layers and keep the wind/rain jacket within reach.
Enjoy your Rocky Mountain National Park visit. Here is a fun National Parks Quiz for you.
Attractions around Rocky Mountain National Park
Holzwarth Historic Site
Travel back 100 years as you explore the homestead of John (Papa) and Sophia (Mama) Holzwarth. I will highly recommend volunteer-run tours if you are in the part between mid-June end Labor Day weekend. My favorite, Mama cabin has many original furnishings, linens, and the Admiral Blue stove, which was purchased in 1923 for $40!
You may walk around the grounds and view exteriors of the buildings when visiting out of the summer months.
Holzwarth moved to Colorado mountains in 1917 with their four children and developed 160 acres into a homestead. Gradually they expanded into a dude ranch and opened doors to tourists. The Nature Conservancy purchased it in 1974, and eventually donated to the National Park Service.