Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids
Even though parts of the park are closed during the winter months, Rocky Mountain National Park is open year round and is absolutely gorgeous in the wintertime.
Don't let the cold stop you from visiting! Not only is there a lot to do for families, the snow adds a magic touch and turns an already beautiful place into a winter wonderland.
I assumed that most of these visits would take place during the summer, and I had just about ruled out Rocky Mountain National Park since we would only be near the area at Thanksgiving for a ski trip.
Having visited the park myself during the summertime, I envisioned hiking and taking in the alpine views as strictly summer activities. But, to my surprise, there is still plenty of hiking that the family can enjoy during the winter months. Read on to find out how we spent a pleasant afternoon in RMNP.
Rocky Mountain NP in Winter - What's Open and What's Not
Granted, there are some things that you will have to miss if you are visiting RMNP in the winter. Trail Ridge Road is closed during the season due to the icy roads, snow, and fierce alpine winds. So, keep that in mind as you plan your trip.
Park Entrances and Visitor Centers
There are two main entrances to the park - Estes Park, Colorado on the east and Grand Lake, Colorado on the west. Since we were driving up from Winter Park, we entered at the Grand Lake entrance.
There are two visitor centers that are open year round. Just a few minutes north of Grand Lake is the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center is located near Estes Park. Both offer short films about the park, passport stamps, shops, maps and things to explore.
Other visitor centers in the park include the Alpine Visitor Center, the Fall River Visitor Center, the Moraine Park Discovery Center, the Holzwarth Historic Site, and the Sheep Lakes Information Station. Be sure to check here for hours and conditions. I've also found that the Twitter feeds for each park are good sources of up to the minute information on weather and ever-changing conditions in the park.
We were a bit disappointed to not be able to visit the Alpine Center. At an impressive 11,796 feet above see level, it boasts the highest elevation of any visitor center in the entire National Park System. The views are incredible! We did get pretty close to that altitude this year however - the Haleakalā Summit is 10,023 in elevation.
In the summer months, the epic Trail Ridge Road will take you all the way around the park to the north. Set aside a half day and take in all the majesty. There's a reason it's a nationally-designated All American Road.
Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter
Kawuneeche Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park
We are big fans of the visitor centers at the National Parks. Not only do the kids enjoy getting their passport cancellation stamps, but there is always a lot to learn before heading into the park and exploring on our own.
At the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, they have a wonderful interactive 3-D display of the park that helps you to determine what you can see in the amount of time you have. We also watched the short film about the park, its habitats and wildlife, and its history.
We also took time to chat with one of the knowledgeable park rangers. He explained some of the kid-friendly hikes that we could handle in the amount of time we had, and when we told him that we were interested in getting some beautiful pictures, he was full of good suggestions on where to go and what to look for. We highly recommend getting to know the park rangers when you visit the National Parks. Their love for what they do definitely shows.
Hiking Trails in Rocky Mountain NP in Winter (or Anytime!)
Coyote Valley Trailhead
From the visitor center, you can only drive about 10 miles before you reach the spot where the road is closed for the winter. But, don't let that discourage you. There is lots to see in that 10 mile stretch. Taking our ranger's advice, we stopped at the Coyote Valley Trailhead and enjoyed a nice half mile hike along the Colorado River.
This flat trail afforded us some spectacular views of both the mountains and the valley.
We kept our eyes peeled in the hopes that we could catch a glimpse of some wildlife. We didn't see any (dawn and dusk are the best times), but the snow on the ground allowed us to see lots of animal tracks which lead to some great discussions with the kids.
Overall, we found the Coyote Valley Trail to be easy, peaceful, and absolutely gorgeous.
Colorado River Trailhead
The next trail that our park ranger recommended was the Little Yellowstone Trail at the Colorado River Trailhead. He did warn us that the first 100 yards was rather steep and contained several switchbacks. We decided to have a look, but soon discovered that we were not sporting the appropriate footwear for this terrain. With the snow covering the path and the incline, our shoes were just too flat and slippery.
We were all wishing that we had some good, waterproof hiking boots because we had to skip what were probably some amazing views. Bummer. I guess we'll just have to go back!
Adams Falls and Grand Lake
Our final hike was Adams Falls at the East Inlet Trailhead. This is another hike where I wished that we had some good boots, but we could at least manage it with what we had. There were a few muddy spots and some slippery areas along the stepped trail, so be aware of that if you make this trip during the snowy season.
The trail led us up to a viewing area of the falls, which was partially frozen for our visit. It was actually really cool to see it this way. Not only did we enjoy the natural beauty of the falls, but there are some pretty spectacular views of the mountains and Grand Lake along this trail as well.
Exploring With Children
There is something so special about experiencing nature and exploring with kids. They see magic in the simplest things.
Andrew observed during our walk along the Colorado River that, "In the park, it is just a stream. It is hard to believe that it carved out the Grand Canyon." He also said that he wants to go back and that his favorite part was "the mountains in the background" because "they were so cool."
Cadence loved the hike up to Adams Falls because she said that "the waterfall was really pretty and so was the lake." She also liked "looking at the animal tracks and taking lots of pictures of the mountains."
Trip Planning: How to Get Here and Where to Stay
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From the East - Estes Park, Colorado
Estes Park, CO is the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain NP and is a great home base for an extended trip to the area. At only about 1 ½ hours from Denver and 1 hour from Boulder, it's an easy and quick drive to get there.
From there, the Fall River Visitor Center is just a 10-minute drive to the northwest and the Beaver Creek Visitor Center is 10 minutes to the southwest. If you're headed up to the Alpine Visitor Center via Trail Ridge Road, take the Fall River entrance.
Estes Park Colorado Lodging
If you're looking for hotels near Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park will be your best bet. There a several to choose from, and they won't bust your budget.
- Best Western Plus Silver Saddle Inn - Check here for the latest prices
- The Estes Park Resort - Check here for the latest prices
- Alpine Trail Ridge Inn - Check here for the latest prices
If the weather is warmer and you want to rough it a bit, you can rent cabins in Estes Park, CO, and of course there is always camping if you're inclined. After exploring the park, stick around - there's an amazing array of things to do in Estes Park, Colorado as well. Check out Visit Estes Park for a great list of kid and family-friendly activities in the area.
From the Southwest - Grand Lake Colorado
If you're coming into the park from the south, Grand Lake is the southwestern gateway to Rocky Mountain NP, and you'll be visiting the Kawuneeche Visitor Center which is only a 5 minute drive from town. We were driving from Winter Park, and it took us about an hour.
From here, you'll have access to several trailheads, campsites, and picnic grounds. You can also continue north, following Trail Ridge Road around to the Alpine Visitor Center which would take you less than an hour.
Grand Lake Colorado Lodging
Although Grand Lake isn't quite as developed and 'touristy' as Estes Park, there are still places to stay if you want to be close to the park entrance.
- Gateway Inn - Check here for the latest prices
- Western Riviera Lakeside Lodging & Events - Check here for the latest prices
You could also stay down the road in Granby. Or, you can go a little bit farther and stay (and ski) at Winter Park, which is more developed and upscale.
For the nature-lovers and backpackers visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, camping may be on your list, and for good reason. Carrick and Andrew both commented that they need to come back in the summertime with a tent and some gear (Mom will find a hotel, thanks). Even though none of us would ever get tired of seeing these views of the Rockies every morning, some of us prefer a warm bed and a clean, hot shower.
Planning For the Weather
You might be wondering about the weather and how that might affect your enjoyment of the park during the winter months. As with any vacation, you should definitely check the forecast before you venture out, but for us, the weather could not have been more perfect.
Weather in Estes Park Colorado, Grand Lake, and Rocky Mountain NP is what you would expect for this time of year - chilly and 30's for temps, but sunny, with calm winds. We were not uncomfortably cold at all, which is really saying something for me because I'm always too cold!
Just know that alpine weather can change in an instant. Be aware of incoming weather and changing conditions. Be prepared!
Other Activities Rocky Mountain NP
As is the case with most National Parks, activities occur throughout the year. RMNP has some really fantastic programs in the wintertime to keep everyone entertained. Things like snowshoeing and wildlife spotting are great ways to engage the kids in their surroundings and make nature fun.
Sledding and cross-country skiing are also available for those who are interested. With a bit of planning, you can go out with a park ranger at no cost and really explore the park and what it has to offer. Check out the winter activities here before you go, and see if you can work it into your schedule.
If you are planning to do any of these, make sure you bring your own gear as the park does not provide it. You can rent locally in a nearby town which would not be difficult at all.
So, How Good is RMNP?
In a word, majestic. Or breathtaking. Lots of both, really.
With its proximity to major cities, incredible scenery, and well-maintained roads, trails, and visitor centers, Rocky Mountain National Park is a place everyone should absolutely visit. In fact, put it right at the top - there's no reason not to.
We left impressed by the friendliness of the staff and rangers, and the well-kept trails, picnic areas, and campsites. Signs placed along the trails were very informative and the kids enjoyed reading them to learn about what animals and plants they might encounter.
We visited on Thanksgiving weekend, and we nearly had the park to ourselves. It was amazing. With the popularity of the parks, this is obviously a rarity, but we felt lucky nonetheless.
It may not get the fanfare of Yosemite or Yellowstone, but RMNP celebrated it's 100th's anniversary last year and it has been around that long for a reason. It's older than the National Park Service itself, which is celebrating it's centennial in 2016. Make RMNP a part of your travel plans, and we'll guarantee you'll love it.
On this Thanksgiving, we found ourselves very thankful for family, travel, and our National Parks.
This visit was part of our 2016/17 campaign to use our Every Kid in a Park Pass and visit as many parks as we can. Check out our posts about these other great National Parks:
- Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala National Parks
- WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument
- Every Kid In A Park
- Visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Check out our favorite book on the National Parks from Lonely Planet. The photography is beautiful and the info on each park is concise making deciding on your next park visit a snap.
Which parks will you be visiting this coming year? Drop is a line and let us know!
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