I can’t believe that next week we will be celebrating 4th of July! If you are heading to Estes Park, Colorado, I looked back through our ‘archives’ to see what we’ve done on this holiday weekend over the past several years.
From firework displays to waterfall hikes, we’ve always had a blast. A lot of people complain about the crowds this time of year, but the key is just getting up early. We aim to get into the park before 7:00am. I also have a few suggestions for trails that are typically less crowded.
We took an evening hike starting at the Lumpy Ridge trail head up to a spot that looks over Lake Estes to watch Estes Park’s annual fireworks show at 9:30pm. After the spectacular display, we hiked back down the trail with a large group of people who had the same idea. It was magical to see the trail lit up by headlamps. My preschooler thought it was the coolest thing because she got to stay up WAY past her bedtime. It was one of the most memorable 4th of July’s we’ve had (ever).
Hike in the Wild basin
The Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park is located approximately 19 miles south of Estes Park on highway 7. The Wild Basin area is more remote than other areas of the park. There is not shuttle service to this area. Even though it is more remote, you will still need to arrive early to find a parking spot, but we’ve been lucky to find spots there even on 4th of July weekend several times.
Once you turn off the highway, drive down narrow dirt roads to get to the Wild Basin trail head. You can walk to Copeland Falls (.3 miles/way) and Calypso Cascades (1.8 miles/way) which are some of our favorite family-friendly waterfall hikes.
The Pool is another hike we’ve enjoyed over the 4th of July weekend. This trail is located in the Moraine Valley area of RMNP. I love that you can shorten the hike by stopping at Arch Rocks or extend it by going on to Fern Falls. I wrote more details in this post.
The Alluvial Fan is a “waterfall” (created by the lawn lake flood in 1982) located right off Old Fall River Road near Horseshoe Park in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a fun spot to explore. I recommend packing a picnic because there are several picnic spots nearby.
A walking trail goes around Lake Estes and leads to downtown Estes Park. There is a playground, picnic spots, fishing, and boat rental. You can learn more about the fees, hours, and rentals on their website.
Trail Ridge Road & Grand Lake, Colorado
As I write this post (June 26, 2019) Trail Ridge road is closed because of a late-season snow storm. The scenic highway that connects the East and West sides of Rocky Mountain National Park is typically open this time of year and will hopefully re-open in time for the holiday. Visitors can call 970 586-1222 to get updated information.
You can spend a full day on Trail Ridge Road if you stop at the many outlooks to take pictures and spot wildlife. The Alpine Visitors Center is awesome for lunch, bathroom breaks, shopping, and breathtaking views!
We enjoy going all the way over to Grand Lake, Colorado to walk along the shore of the largest natural lake in Colorado, play on the playground, and eat ice cream while strolling around the scenic mountain town. I wrote more about Grand Lake here.
Additional POSTS to HELP Plan Your 4th of July Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park
We love hiking with our kids, but it’s also a gift to go on a solo hike. On his birthday (May 30th), Eric took a more challenging hike without the girls – and where better to get a moment away than in a place called Hermit Park?
We are always on the look-out for new (to us) hikes in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, especially in the springtime when snow still covers many of the higher-elevation destinations. Rock Cut Brewery recently started a hiking club, and posted about their group adventure to Kruger Rock a month or so back, and it looked like just the right fit for a quick spring challenge.
The Kruger Rock Trail is located in Hermit Park, just outside of Estes Park on Highway 36. I’ve driven by Hermit Park hundreds of times, but had never stopped to check it out. Its maintained by Larimer County, and there are dozens of campsites, a nice pavilion, and a few other trails to explore. You can read more on their website, here.
Entrance for day usage (hiking) was $9, handled at an easy-to-use self-pay system just off the highway. The trailhead is a couple of miles back near the large pavilion—I found the trailhead locater in the AllTrails app to be helpful in finding it, as the official sign was down when I visited.
The trail is roughly 2 miles each way, steadily gaining just under 1000 feet of elevation. The first section of the trail isn’t spectacular, but is certainly pleasant, as you wind through the pine trees up towards the ridge line.
Less than a mile in, you reach a junction with the Limber Pine trail.
From here, things start to get more scenic, both looking back over the valley you are ascending, and soon, with views of the Estes Valley beginning to emerge.
If you look closely, you may even spot our cabin 😊 (excuse the grainy iPhone-zoom photo).
From this point forward, the views are truly wonderful, and the adventure culminates in a fun scramble to the summit. I’m not an expert, but I would put the brief climb at class 3, although its just a few moves and has zero exposure to be concerned about. Might be a little tricky with a dog, but even without the final scramble, the views are fantastic.
I was back at the trailhead in a total time of just under an hour and a half, including a 5-10 minute stop at the summit. It was an awesome hike, with very few other people out that day (granted it was a Thursday, and I got a relatively early start). Nearly everyone else I encountered had their dog as a hiking partner, and as mentioned above, it seems like a great place to bring them, outside of perhaps the very end of the trail. Given how close Kruger Rock is to Estes, and how early in the season the snow melts out, we will definitely be recommending this one to our friends, and visiting again soon!
Through all the things my eyes have seen The best by far is you
Tomorrow is my daughter’s 2nd birthday, so I’m feeling extra sentimental about everything… even this post about hikes with amazing views. I asked my husband which hikes near Estes Park, Colorado he thinks of when I say, ‘wide open views’ and he responded, ‘with kids, or without?’ I attempted to break them into two categories, but as you can see there are several hikes that overlap.
Kid-Friendly Hikes with A+ Views
Lily Lake Ridge
Lily Lake is approximately six miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. (Lily Ridge shouldn’t be confused with Lily Mountain which can be accessed a quarter mile closer to town.) We hiked up Lily Ridge in late November when Lily Lake was covered in ice. The ridge provided views of the surrounding snow covered mountains including Longs Peak. The hike around the lake is .8 miles. The ridge adds another .4 miles and 100 feet of elevation.
The hike to Gem Lake starts at the Lumpy Ridge trailhead and goes through unique rock formations like Paul Bunyan’s boot. This is a moderately strenuous hike because of the steep steps that lead up to the lake. Gem Lake is small and shallow. It is framed by a rocky, sand beach on one side and sheer rock formations on the other side. The views you see along the way are expansive. The hike is 1.8 miles each way. You can read more here, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Gem Lake.
There is something very rewarding about making it to the summit of a mountain. The trailhead for this summit hike is located off of Deer Ridge Junction, a few miles west of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Beaver Meadows entrance. The summit is at 10,013 ft. of elevation. The hike is 3 miles each way.
Warning – I think Eric considered this hike harder than his 17 mile trek over the Continental Divide because he was carrying a preschooler on his back. A lot of this hike was uphill, so it was a good challenge for us. The Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park is located 19 miles south of Estes Park. Most hikes we enjoy in this area begin at the Wild Basin trailhead. We wanted to try something new, so we began at the Finch Lake trailhead and we were rewarded with panoramic views. Instead of going up further to Finch Lake we headed downhill towards the Wild Basin trailhead and got to stop at some of our favorite waterfalls along the way. I wrote all about it here, Sweeping Mountain Views and Waterfalls – Our New Favorite Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin.
Advanced Level Hiking with Inspiring Views
Lily Mountain is a fun, quick summit hike with excellent 360 degree views from the top. Dogs are allowed on the trail because it is part of the Roosevelt National Forest. The trail begins relatively flat. You cross through a landside area at approximately .3 miles. After you cross, the trail climbs up steadily with a few good lookouts of the Estes Valley. The last couple hundred feet are a class 2 scramble to the summit. When Cecy was a baby we took her on this hike, but Eric generously offered to stay back with her while I hiked up the last portion. The hike is 1.8 miles each way.
We hiked to Estes Cone from the Longs Peak trailhead. It can be difficult to find parking spots during the summer, but in early October we had no issues. This was another hike that we brought our daughter on in her baby carrier, but Eric let me hike the last .7 miles on my own because we felt the trail was becoming too steep. The summit is rewarding with amazing views of Longs Peak and surrounding mountains. The hike is 3.3 miles each way. Read more about it here, Hike to Estes Cone.
Twin Sisters Peaks
Climbing up Twin Sisters Peaks was my very first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. My husband took me on an adventurous long-weekend trip a few months after we got married. Three years later we hiked the same trail with our baby. It’s amazing how a few years can change things! Part of the trail was wiped out from a large landslide and we learned carrying a baby up to 11,413 feet of elevation was much harder than we expected. I wouldn’t recommend bringing little ones on this hike. For us, it’s a special hike that we get to do when we have kind family members willing to babysit. This hike is 7 miles round trip. I give more details here, Twin Sisters Peaks.
Standing at Bear Lake, I point up to Hallett Peak and I tell my girls, ‘Your mommy has climbed that.’ This year I’m going to climb it again, it’s on my list!
Evelyn Lily, we love you so much! Happy birthday to our sweet, tough, funny and smart little girl! I wish you a life time of reaching high and enjoying all of the amazing views.
I can’t see a hawk without saying ‘5 points!’ out loud. When I was a kid we took long family road trips from Kansas City, Missouri to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. We filled the hours in the car by playing games. My favorite was the ‘animal game’ where we would spot animals and get points. Now that I’m a parent, I’ve adopted the game for all the animals we might see during our trips to the Rocky Mountains.
Animal Game Rules:
1. The first person who says the name of the animal they see out loud claims the points. 2. You can’t multiply your points when you see a herd, but for animals with antlers such as deer, elk or moose you can say both ‘male moose’ and ‘female moose’ which doubles your points. 3. You can get points for the same type of animal, but it has to be a newly spotted animal not belonging to the same herd.
We’ve assigned points based on how often we’ve seen animals in the Rocky Mountains.
Mountain Lions – 100 Points
We’ve never seen a mountain lion on our trips to Rocky Mountain National Park, but we have seen signage to be aware that they can be in the area.
Bear – 50
My husband is the only one in our family who has seen a bear (or two). He heard loud rummaging noises around the garbage near our old condo and spotted two large bears looking for late-night snacks. The complex immediately put in better bear-proof trash receptacles to make sure the bears weren’t drawn back to the area.
Male Moose – 25 & Female Moose – 25
We’ve spotted moose in several locations in Rocky Mountain National Park including Sprague Lake, the Cub Lake trail, Kawuneeche Valley and in the Wild Basin. We’ve also seen a herd near Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems like the easiest way to spot a moose is to watch for large groups of cars pulled over on the West Side of the park. A male moose is called a bull. This name serves as an appropriate reminder to give them space when you see them.
Male Bighorn Sheep – 25 & Female Sheep – 25
Sheep Lakes is located near the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the only spot where we have seen a bighorn sheep inside the park. We have also spotted them driving down Fall River Road and along scenic Highway 34 on the route to Fort Collins, Colorado from Estes Park. We have never seen rams dueling and think that should be worth an extra 50 points if you want a bonus opportunity.
Coyote – 25
We’ve spotted coyotes a couple of times during the winter months in Rocky Mountain National Park. We watched a handsome coyote prowling for its food near the Beaver Meadows Entrance. We saw another sitting proudly looking over the valley near the Moraine Park Discovery Center which was closed for the season.
Fox – 20
One snowy morning, we hiked around Lily Lake and spotted a fox in the woods. I didn’t get a picture, but the image stands out in my mind as a special moment.
Marmot – 20
We spotted this marmot on a hike up Twin Sisters Peaks. We’ve also seen marmots basking near Timberline Falls, in the Alpine Tundra on the Ute Trail and even at Emerald Lake (which surprised me).
Pika – 20
Pikas also live in higher elevation. You can see them running around busily collecting food. I usually hear a pika call out before I see them because they are small and blend in well with rocks.
Eagle – 20
It’s always exciting to see our nation’s bird. We spotted this eagle near Lake Estes.
Owl – 20
If you want to spot an owl, a good place to look is right behind the library in downtown Estes Park, CO. Even with this clue, you will have to search hard because the family of owls that live here blend in so well to the rocky surroundings.
Snake – 10
To be honest, I’m scared of snakes and I don’t care to see them on our hikes. It makes me feel better knowing that snakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not poisonous. We’ve spotted them near Lily Lake and on our hike through the meadow towards Cub Lake.
Male Elk – 5 & Female Elk – 5
It feels wrong to make elk spotting worth only 5 points in this game, but they are so prolific in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, Colorado that you might not have to leave your vacation rental to see one. No matter how many times I see elk, I still get excited. They are beautiful, but it’s good to remember they are massive animals (often with big antlers) and you need to give them space. I used my camera’s zoom to get this picture.
Elk rut season is in October. It’s exciting to hear the distinctive elk bugle calls and see the bull elks fighting for their harem – a group of female (cow) elk. When you see a scrimmage like this, you can add 10 bonus points.
Male Deer- 5 & Female Deer – 5
Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.
Chipmunk – 5
Sometimes I feel like we see too many chipmunks. Just kidding cute little fellow! But for real, these guys will steal your picnic.
Hummingbird – 5
Sweet little hummingbirds are fun to watch while I’m enjoying a meal out on the patio at restaurants along the Estes Park Riverwalk. I’ve also seen them on the Homer Rouse trail and near Lily Lake.
Hawk or Turkey – 5
We’ve seen turkeys crossing the road in Estes Park and also on my horse back riding tour into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Trout – 5
Trout are good at blending into the rocks of mountain lakes like The Loch and Sprague Lake. Earn 10 bonus points if you catch one, just make sure you get a permit first.
At the end of your trip you can add up all the points each person earned by spotting wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park. Final step: Start planning your next trip back to the mountains for a redemption round.
Do you play your own version of the animal game or have any other road trip favorites?
Government (is still) shutdown
I had so much fun writing this lighthearted article about animals that I hesitate adding to the conversation about how the government shutdown is affecting the national parks. Unfortunately, the past three weeks have taken a toll. Here is a recent article from Westworld that helped me understand some of the impacts I wouldn’t have considered. The article also has some suggestions on how people can help.
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