In Rocky Mountain Nat Park – hikes are great, but beware crowds

Families enjoying a sandy beach along the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park
Families enjoying a sandy beach along the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park

By Eileen Ogintz

ESTES PARK, CO (Day 2) –UH OH! We had planned a kid-friendly afternoon hike to Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park but we hadn’t figured on the crowds.

Dumb! Given that it’s a sunny day the last week in June. There are no parking spots at the trailhead or even at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center just inside the park; some in the group go back to the Estes Park Visitor Center, several miles and a traffic logged road, to get a hiker shuttle which only runs every half hour.

Four of us opt to take our chances and park at the Deer Mountain Trailhead, a little farther into the park and a hike we had done before. We lucked out! There were spots. We opted for the Beaver Meadows trail through beautiful wildflowers—red, yellow and purple—with vistas of the Rockies in the distance. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon!

On a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
Hiking in Beaver Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park

But if I’d done my homework, the Rocky Mountain National Park rangers would have told me to hike early, as parking spots at some of the popular trailheads—like Beaver Lake, a four-mile round trip hike that is kid-friendly—are gone by 8:30 am. Gulp!

Related: The Best Time to Visit the Top U.S. National Parks

We are here for a big family reunion—more than 100 from my husband’s family–at the YMCA of the Rockies. Had I done my homework before we set out, chatting with the YMCA’s hiking masters, I would have learned there are plenty of kid-friendly hikes right on these grounds and even some that drop into the park from here—the YMCA of the Rockies is right at the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The next morning before we headed off, I did stop and talk to Scott Annin, who has been one of the YMCA of the Rockies hike masters for the past 11 years. You could also borrow hiking shoes, buy socks or rent poles for $5 a day. Nice!

The Pool in the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Pool in the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park

“I love Rocky Mountain National Park,” said Annin, acknowledging that the summer crowds can be off-putting. Over a million people visit the park just in six weeks over the summer. But with over 400 square miles of mountains, lakes, meadows, waterfalls, forests and rivers, “There are still places to go away from the crowds,” he said, and places to park at a trailhead without having to take two shuttle buses.

He suggested we park at the Cub Lake trailhead and do a loop hike that would take us up to the pretty lake and along the rushing Big Thompson River and out at the Fern Lake trailhead. The only drawback—a mile walk along the road back to the car.

A Raven taking flight along the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
A Raven taking flight along the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

The trail wasn’t too crowded either. At our family gathering, I suggested the last bit—park at the Fern Lake trailhead, walk in on the mostly level trail along the rushing river to a famous “pool” – 1.7 miles each way would be a great morning hike for younger kids.

If you are hiking with kids in a national park this summer stop at a visitor center and get the rangers’ advice on where to go. There are lots of organized ranger-led activities—everything from discovery hikes complete with hands on activates at the Moraine Park Discovery Center to All About Lightning or High Country Geology or about Bighorn sheep that you will see at Sheep Lakes (the Bighorn is the popular symbol of this park). There is night astronomy, a twilight walk and more.

Most important, pick up the age appropriate Junior Ranger activities booklet –one for kids five and under;  one for six to eight and one for nine and up.  Becoming a Junior Ranger is a great way to not only get kids engaged in nature and the outdoors, but keep them from being bored on a hike that might go on a little long for their taste.

View of Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
View of Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

A preschooler, for example, might circle on a picture what he’s seen—an Elk or a Moose, a Big Horn sheep, an Aspen or Pine tree. A seven year old could check off the birds she’s seen—a broad tailed humming bird, mountain bluebird or Steller’s Jay or the wildflowers –red Narrowleaf Paintbrush, blue and white Colorado Columbine, pink Fireweed (the color pictures help them identify what they are seeing). The old kids will learn more about the different  ecosystems and have a more complex Wildlife Watch – Did they see a red fox?  A long tailed Weasel??  A Northern Pocket Gopher?

Parents and grandparents should get into the action too.  Who has spotted the most animals? The most wildflowers?

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