Location: Estes Park, CO
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, we found one at the Alpine Visitor’s Center
Rocky Mountain National Park is a big park. We only had one day here so we decided to hit one of the coolest highlights: Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road is a 48 mile scenic drive that runs from Estes Park to Grand Lake and takes you to a height of over 12,000 feet in elevation. The road takes you from alpine forest through alpine tundra and crosses the Continental Divide.
I highly suggest you arrive at the park early if this is on your to do list. We arrived at the park about 9:00 in the morning and there were already a few cars out ahead of us on the road but it wasn’t crowded. We stopped at the first few pull outs with plenty of parking and only one or two other visitors looking around. We took our time to explore and take in the lower regions and watched squirrels, pikas and chipmunks running about the rocks. The day had been fairly overcast at the lower elevations. As we climbed higher and got above the cloud cover the kids were amazed that it was sunny above us and we could stare over a sea of white fluffy clouds.
By mid-morning as we were approaching the tundra pullouts, parking was becoming much more of a problem and the overlooks were much more crowded. We enjoyed seeing the fat marmots sunning themselves on tundra rocks and were very lucky to see a large herd of elk including several calves resting on the side of the road.
We stopped at the Rock Cut pullout and hiked the Tundra World Nature Trail. The trail is paved but not a very even pavement. The trail is also fairly steep. We did managed to push the stroller up the path but we were fairly winded when we got to the top. This is a fairly short hike and as long as you take your time (remember you probably aren’t used to working out at this altitude) your kids can easily do this hike. There are also great little markers that line the path that talk about tundra life and how the plants and animals adapt to this harsh climate. Also at this point it’s probably a good 20 degrees cooler than it was back in Estes Park (and very windy) even in the height of summer I would suggest bringing a light jacket to wear. It took us probably 30-45 minutes to climb to the peak of the trail and then go back down to the car. We were there in July during the height of tourist season, so the trail was fairly crowded (not Disneyworld crowded but still there were a fair amount of people walking the trail); I’m sure that this trail takes on a whole new life when the park is less crowded (remember in the road does close in the winter so check with the park service before your trip). The big plus of doing this drive during the summer was the wild flowers were in full bloom so take time to really stop and see the details of the tundra. Also a friendly reminder the tundra is a VERY delicate ecosystem, please stay on the trail.
We reached Alpine Visitor’s Center around 11:30 and by this time the road was PACKED. Parking at the Visitor’s Center was very crowded. The Visitor’s Center has a nice museum in it and a gift shop with a small snack bar. There is a short trail at the Visitor’s Center that will take you to the top of the mountain. Although Alpine Ridge Trail is fairly short, it is not an easy hike. The hike was pretty much just a giant staircase. If you decide to take the hike, give yourself plenty of time and rest when you need to. I felt myself getting a little dizzy a couple of times hiking to the top. The view from the top was amazing and be sure to get a picture next to the elevation marker.
After getting some souvenirs, we headed back down Trail Ridge Road. Rocky Mountain National Park was a little unique to us because not all ranger stations will do the JR Ranger oath. We had to go to the JR Ranger Headquarters at the Hidden Valley Ranger Station and participate in a Ranger Led Program. Hidden Valley looked amazing and while the older kids were attending their ranger program, I walked with the babies around the picnic area and mountain stream that crossed the area. After completing the short program and receiving their badges, we decided it was time to eat and headed back to Estes Park for a late lunch.
Overall impression: A half day in the park gave us a great overview of the mountains. We are due back to Estes Park in a few years for another family reunion and are already planning on visiting a different part of the park. This is a must do if you are in the area!