Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Family-Friendly Hikes

In our family, life in the seventies unfolded to a revolving soundtrack of the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom setting the record player needle onto vinyl just so, my dad singing and stomping to “Sweet Caroline.” I’d spend whole afternoons rifling through our album collection, pulling records from sleeves to hand to my mom. I remember one album in particular–a bespectacled, long-haired John Denver on the cover, guitar in hand–a greatest hits compilation. I may not have understood who Annie was or the significance of those country roads, but there was an earnestness to Denver’s voice that moved me even then. Listening to “Rocky Mountain High” with the kids decades later at Rocky Mountain National Park was like traveling back in time, linking past and present. Like coming full circle and going home. Wandering a few miles of RMNP’s trails, those lyrics came alive like never before. Hiking felt like catching a small glimpse of Denver’s heart.              

  1. Bear Lake Loop (0.8 miles)

If you’ve ever visited Bear Lake in late June, then you already know the truth we discovered on Day 3 of Road Trip 2015: the eponymous bear of Bear Lake might have more to do with the challenging parking conditions than any creature of the ursine variety! Still, one glimpse of beautiful Bear Lake was all it took to convince us that parking woes were a small price to pay for such beauty. We jockeyed for a stall at the Bear Lake Park and Ride (our fault for lingering over camp bacon!) and took a free park shuttle to the lake.

With a bevy of lovely trails and showstopping subalpine scenery to enjoy, Bear Lake is one of the most popular regions in RMNP. Crowds are something I prefer to avoid, but Bear Lake is popular for a reason: if ever there was a picture perfect postcard scene, Bear Lake is surely it. Bear Lake Loop follows the circumference of Bear Lake, offering multiple perspectives and viewing angles with an added benefit–the farther we hiked along the loop, the more the crowds diminished. And while you’re never truly alone on this trail, there are plenty of lakeside pockets and clearings to escape to, if only for a minute.

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Bear Lake Park and Ride–even with several hundred stalls, this lot fills by 9 am
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Bear Lake, RMNP
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Bear Lake Loop, 2015
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Bear Lake Loop offers pockets of solitude not generally found at the trailhead
  1. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake (3.6 miles)

Once back at Bear Lake trailhead, we followed an adjacent trail to Nymph Lake, half a mile away. A short but steady uphill climb didn’t sound so bad on paper, but the unfamiliar altitude (9,400 feet) left us winded. Coming from sea level, we found ourselves headachey and nauseous. Recognizing the effects of altitude, we slowed our pace and hydrated liberally to take the edge off. (Which mostly worked, though we continued to experience headaches the next day, too.) We rested at Nymph Lake for half an hour, journaling and sketching the waterlily-ringed lake before us. While not as clear or vivid as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake had its own Monet-like appeal that made for an interesting watercolor study.

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Taking a break to sketch the scene with watercolors
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Nymph Lake, RMNP 2015
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Photo cred to the hubby for this shot…and most of the shots on this blog, really! 😀

From Nymph Lake, we climbed another half mile to an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet. This portion of the trail remains ingrained in my mind to this day: yellow wildflowers overlooking miles of forest, Longs Peak standing watch in the distance. It was hard to keep from stopping every few seconds; it seemed there was a rushing creek or family of deer vying for our attention around every bend. Perhaps that’s how it was meant to be–RMNP’s way of upping the ante to prepare us for the grandeur of Dream Lake. Framed by snow-capped Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain and Tyndall Glacier, Dream Lake remains one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. We lingered on a rocky perch and sketched for the better part of an hour, savoring the view.

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On the way to Dream Lake, Longs Peak in the distance
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Between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake
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This portion of the trail was especially scenic
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We felt like we were getting whiplash–there were beautiful creeks around every bend
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Dream Lake was sublime, especially as seen from our rocky perch away from the crowds
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Dream Lake, RMNP–we sat here for close to an hour just absorbing this beautiful scene

Though we were loath to leave Dream Lake, we still had a mile to go to reach our final destination: Emerald Lake. Climbing through the heart of Tyndall Gorge, we were excited to come upon a family of elk grazing in a meadow. They paid us no heed as we ascended the trail, finally coming to a rocky outcropping signalling the end of the trail and the beginning of Emerald Lake. I wasn’t sure anything could top the magnificence of Dream Lake, but Emerald Lake gave Dream a run for its money with its exquisite jewel-toned hue. We’re lake fans through and through, and this hike came through in a big way, supplying four beautiful subalpine lakes in under four miles. Emerald Lake even delivered an entertaining bonus in the form of a plump marmot who scurried about the rocks, panhandling for food.

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Between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake; loved seeing the mountains and lakes from multiple angles
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Emerald Lake, RMNP–it was challenging to take a photo without being unintentionally photobombed by lakeside visitors
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Emerald Lake (plus unintentional photobombing visitor) 😀
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Loved Emerald Lake’s beautiful jewel-toned hue
  1. Alpine Ridge Trail (0.6 miles)

Day 2 in RMNP dawned ominous and gray. A quick check-in with a park ranger regarding impending thunderstorms confirmed our hunch that hiking 5 miles along open and exposed Mount Ida Trail was probably not the best idea. His recommendation? Hike the half mile trail behind Alpine Visitor Center instead. I have to admit that I secretly pooh-poohed the idea– “Only half a mile?” I thought–but don’t let Alpine Ridge Trail’s short length fool you: ascending 200 feet at an elevation of 12,000 feet in under three tenths of a mile is no joke. Our youngest was seven at the time and had to sit with his head between his knees a long while to recover. He struggled to catch his breath, saying it felt like there was an elephant sitting on his chest.

Here in the alpine tundra, the growing season is short. Wildflowers bloom for six short weeks and plants grow low to the ground, adapting to the harsh winds and temperature extremes of this unforgiving environment. These miniature blooms have found a way to thrive where other organisms perish, and it was a treat to see their vibrant hues dotted against the stark expanse of glaciated greens and purples.

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Alpine Ridge Trail begins behind this Visitor Center
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Climbing toward the sun (or thunder clouds)
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Interpretive signs help with identifying all the different wildflower species
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Looking back at the Visitor Center
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Adventures of Five at 12,005 feet!
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At the top of Trail Ridge Road, fourteeners look like tiny hills
  1. Tundra Communities Trail (1.1 miles)

Located a few miles from the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road, the Tundra Communities Trail traverses alpine tundra and offers tremendous Alpine Ridge Trail views with far fewer crowds. I wish we’d taken pictures of this trail, but we were too busy keeping an eye on the thunderstorm headed our way…and driving ourselves crazy trying to locate the elusive pikas that had us turning circles with their distinctive chirps! We could’ve sworn we heard thousands of them, but spotting these little critters would elude us until Grand Teton National Park a week from now. Still, we loved hiking above the treeline through tundra meadow and especially enjoyed the strange and wonderful mushroom rock formations along the way. Tundra Communities Trail makes for fantastic and worthwhile tundra exploration along Trail Ridge Road.

  1. Hidden Valley Trail (<2 miles)

With thunder clouds rolling in, we were anxious to descend Trail Ridge Road but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave RMNP just yet. As luck would have it, RMNP’s Junior Ranger Headquarters is located at the base of Trail Ridge Road alongside a picturesque picnic area and valley creek. With a pot of lentil soup warming our bellies, we set out to explore Hidden Valley. A short boardwalk looped around the picnic area, branching off into spur trails that led into the mountains. We followed the most obvious of these trails and found ourselves quickly gaining elevation–and just as quickly losing traction along the steep incline. We later learned that this area is an old ski area used for winter tubing, which sounds just about right given the slopes we encountered. Downed trees littered much of the trail ahead of us, so we decided to turn around before things turned sketchy. To be honest, I’m not even sure of the trail’s official name, but exploring Hidden Valley reinforced the old adage that it really is the journey that matters most.

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Main loop around picnic area
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So many wildflowers in Hidden Valley
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Creek view, Hidden Valley
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The yellow wildflowers were especially pretty here
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Hamming it up in Hidden Valley

Back at Jellystone of Estes Park, we’d barely finished 4 holes of miniature golf before thunder crashed across the Rockies, splitting the sky apart in a torrent of rain. I’d used the phrase “lightning bolt” before but had never actually witnessed one until that moment. Watching lightning zig-zag across the sky and strike the ground with an electrifying crackle was a terrifying and awesome thing. The boom of thunder echoing across the Rockies is something I’ll never forget. Safe and sound in our tent, we were so glad we’d heeded the ranger’s advice about Mount Ida!

A short aside about Jellystone of Estes: Though the staff was very welcoming and kind and the kids loved the Yogi Bear Mardi Gras parade, given the price of a tent-only site ($60 per weekend night) and lack of amenities such as a hot tub or pool, we probably wouldn’t stay here again. We’re happy to have tried it and enjoyed our stay, but we’d prefer to camp in RMNP next time.

As always, our time in RMNP was over too soon, but we were grateful to have sampled the sights and serenity that make this park so unique. Heading out of RMNP for South Dakota, we couldn’t help but smile at John Denver’s fitting send-off refrain. 

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain High, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.

You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado.

Also from Road Trip 2015: RMNP Trail Ridge RoadGrand Teton Day 1, Grand Teton Day 2, Badlands National ParkPANO_20150628_101243

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Dinosaur National Monument + Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

Let me come right out and say it: Dinosaur National Monument was not a destination high on our travel list. Like Mesa Verde, it was an afterthought of the we’re passing through, so why not? variety. Honestly? My expectations were embarrassingly low.

Oh, we of little faith! Because National Monument and Park status is not something so glibly conferred. Still, it took a Dinosaur National Monument visit to eradicate my heretical leanings once and for all. Spoiler alert: this unassuming park delivered in big and unexpected ways!

Salt Lake City

Summer 2015 began with a six-hour red-eye to Salt Lake City that sounded good in theory–cheap tickets with an early-morning arrival, allowing for a full day of SLC exploration. Turns out a 3 am (Hawaii time) touchdown makes for some very grouchy kids–and testy parents. Oops! Oh well, at least we got the cheap tickets part right. Luckily, the kids caught their second wind at Park Cafe. Trip Advisor nailed this SLC breakfast recommendation right: thick-cut slab bacon, in-house strawberry jam, and homemade hash that delivered beautifully in the surface area to crisp edges ratio department. Bountiful portions kept our hungry brood plenty satisfied.

From Park Cafe, we headed to Temple Square for a glimpse into the heart and history of the LDS organization. Regardless of religious affiliation, Temple Square represents a triumph of both architecture and the human spirit. It is easy to appreciate the immaculate grounds and reverent beauty found here. We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering Salt Lake Temple, the Family History Library, and LDS Conference Center. The Tabernacle, in particular, harkened back to childhood memories of watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform around an old rotary-knobbed Magnavox on Christmas Eve (Whew, dating myself big time here. Anyone else remember standing up to change the TV dial? Bueller?).

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Afternoon walking tour through SLC

Melt-in-your-mouth pastrami burgers and creamy fry-dipping sauce from Crown Burgers made for a tasty early evening pick-me-up before a 3-hour drive east to Vernal. If you like pastrami, you’ll love this SLC institution! Vernal is a fun little town–a quirky, kitschy mishmash of dinosaur-themed memorabilia and potted flower-lined streets. Even the gas stations sport fun dinosaur statues. With two weeks of camping ahead of us, we happily splurged on a motel and settled in for the night.

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Crown Burgers with special fry sauce (It’s probably just mayo and ketchup, but I swear the stuff is like crack with that pastrami burger!)

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border of Utah and Colorado, sheltering a dinosaur fossil hotbed in Vernal and winding through dramatic canyon country in Colorado. Both regions are stunning. Unfortunately, we only had time for half a day in Vernal but earmarked both ends of the park for a return visit.

A quick stop at the Quarry Visitor Center gave us time to view the park film, pick up Junior Ranger booklets, and hop on the summer shuttle to Quarry Exhibit Hall a quarter mile away. Recently renovated, the Quarry Exhibit Hall was truly magnificent! The structure itself contains glass-paneled walls that allow you to see for miles into the quarry, but what is even more impressive is the fact that the building houses over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in relief. In the early 1900s, paleontologist Eric Douglass envisioned housing the exposed bones in relief, suggesting that such a site would inspire more awe than excavating the fossils. He couldn’t have been more right. With skeletons left untouched and exactly as they’d been discovered over a hundred years ago, we felt like paleontologists discovering this quarry for the first time. True, we were a small and biased sample, but the wonder and awe we felt walking through the display seemed to confirm Douglass’ vision. This was not some hodgepodge of bones, either; we were able to make out entire articulated vertebral columns, skulls, and Stegosaurus plates. We purchased a one-dollar guide that was invaluable in helping us identify the fossils and decipher what we were seeing; between the guide and the quarry, our youngest was in dinosaur heaven.

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Dinosaur National Monument, Utah 2015
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Riding the shuttle tram from Quarry Visitor Center in Vernal
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Quarry Exhibit Hall
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Quarry Exhibit Hall houses skeletons in relief
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Vertebrae in relief
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Comparing fossils against our reference guide

The Quarry Exhibit Hall also houses many reassembled fossil skeletons, among them a Camarasaurus discovered in Dinosaur. An interactive Junior Ranger Talk gave the kids an opportunity to touch dinosaur bones, test their knowledge of Jurassic trivia, and emulate dinosaur gaseous emissions with balloons–a hilarious activity that proved you’re never too old to find balloon flatulence amusing. 😀

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Dinosaur National Monument
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After striking out on fossils at California Academy of Science, he was so happy to see assembled dinosaur skeletons here
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Informing the vision behind Quarry Exhibit Hall
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Blowing balloons to emulate dinosaur flatulence
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Flatulent balloons never get old

In a state that boasts the Mighty Five, it’s easy to see how a park like Dinosaur might get overlooked for top billing. But perhaps it’s precisely Dinosaur’s quieter nature that makes it feel like such a find. We only had time to hike 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery Trail before our shuttle arrived, which is a shame because Dinosaur National Monument looks to have some incredible trails. We’d love to tackle more hikes as well as camp or river raft through the park someday. Kids or no, I suspect we all harbor some secret seven-year-old dinosaur zealot deep within. Call me corny, but there’s something nostalgic about reigniting that dormant zest at Dinosaur National Monument.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Grand Lake to Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road

From Quarry Visitor Center, we drove four hours east to Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Coming from triple digit temps in Dinosaur, we found ourselves reaching for jackets to stave off the cold in Grand Lake. With a quick stop to view the park film, admire elk, and play with roadside snow, we ascended Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is a spectacular 48-mile stretch of highway spanning the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park and linking Grand Lake in the west with Estes Park in the east. Crossing the Continental Divide, Trail Ridge Road traverses alpine tundra at dizzying elevations of over 12,000 feet. The drive begins like any other in the Rockies–evergreens and forest views–but within minutes, Trail Ridge Road redefines itself as something else entirely. Pine forests yield to wind-sheared firs and then barren sky as you climb above the clouds–a literal expression, not a figurative one. Here in the vast alpine tundra, clouds mist across the road, cloaking snowy peaks below. Devoid of trees, the Rockies seem to go on forever, just one immense fourteen-footer after another. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormity of it all.

Spotting a herd of elk grazing amid the clouds, we felt certain we were at the top of the world. It wouldn’t have been such a stretch given the rising altitude and thinning oxygen. Where else but at the top of the world could you find startlingly stark beauty like this?

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The ascent…climbing into the clouds
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The views keep getting better and better
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From up in the clouds, those 14-ers look like little hills
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Turning a curve to see this herd in the clouds was amazing
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We sat here for quite a while admiring these beautiful elk
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Trail Ridge Road, 2015

With daylight fleeting, we were disappointed to make a hasty descent to Estes Park and Jellystone Campground, our home for two nights. With the beauty of Trail Ridge Road still fresh in our minds, we were excited to see what Rocky Mountain National Park held in store for us at Emerald Lake and Mount Ida the next day. For now, though, it was on to more pressing matters, like dinner and s’mores and the adorable bunny who so graciously allowed us to share his charming home.

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The adorable bunny who shared his campsite with us for two days, Jellystone Estes Park