Our Magical Snow Vacation in Estes Park, Colorado

Waking up to a winter wonderland in Estes Park, Colorado wasn’t what we expected when we planned our trip for October. We expected crisp autumn weather with blue skies and golden aspens. This trip took us by surprise but we had a wonderful time getting cozy by the fireplace in our cabin, taking in the views, playing in Rocky Mountain National Park and enjoying all the shops and treats downtown Estes Park has to offer.

Snow in Estes Park Colorado
Snow in Estes Park Colorado

Aspen in Colorado

We expected to see the golden aspens. The contrast with the snow made them even more breathtaking.

Aspen in snow in estes park colorado

Shopping in Downtown Estes Park

We got all bundled up to play in the snow.  Then I realized in the rush of packing I forgot to bring along gloves so we purchased some in downtown Estes Park. I always love an excuse to go shopping in Estes, so while we were down there I also picked out a cute hat for my husband to ‘surprise’ me with on Christmas.

family friendly trips to colorado

Sledding in Hidden Valley

Our favorite snow adventure was going sledding in Hidden Valley which is located inside of Rocky Mountain National Park. We were worried that there might not be enough snow, but there was just enough to have a blast! We had the hill to ourselves and lucked out with a gorgeous day. The last time we went to Hidden Valley it was very windy and cold! I can say without a doubt it’s the most epic place I’ve ever gone sledding. Plus there is ample parking and a nice shelter with restrooms.

sledding joy in rocky mountain national park

Warm up with Hot Chocolate

Getting hot chocolate at Trailhead Restaurant on Fall River Road was another big hit with my girls. Besides the ample whipped cream, they also enjoyed spending time on the playground right outside.

hot chocolate at trailhead restaurant

Standing on the restaurant’s back deck we got a family photo with ALL OF US LOOKING! I think this is the only one we’ve captured this year. You can basically count on it being our Christmas card.

family photo in estes park colorado

Winter Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

You can’t go to the mountains without getting in a little hiking so we took a stroll around Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This short loop trail is one of our favorites because it is very toddler friendly and the views are beyond amazing. This time the lake was half-frozen and the trails were half frozen too.

sprague lake half frozen

The trail around Sprague Lake was nothing compared to the slipping and sliding my sister-in-law and I did on our way up to Bear Lake which is a little higher up the mountain. It was too slippery to carefully carry the girls up to see the beautiful views. That’s Hallet Peak in the background. Yep, I climbed that once!

bear lake in the snow

Elk in Estes Park

Another reason to visit Estes Park in October is to experience elk rut season. They didn’t seem to mind the early snow.

elk season in estes park colorado

We had to cut our trip a few days short because more snow was expected and we didn’t want to get stuck. Well… I don’t know how much I would have minded getting stuck in winter paradise, but we had to get back to work and school.

national park service snow baby

Even though it was cut short, I’d say that our trip was a snow ball. Get it!? Okay that’s my Mom humor coming out.

snow ball

Have you been to Estes Park in the winter? Let us know your favorite snow day activities!

2 Day Itinerary in Estes Park with Toddlers

When we are on vacation with our young girls we try our best to stick to a regular routine and take advantage of unexpected moments. If you are looking for ideas on how to spend a couple days in Estes Park with your young family, here are a couple days we recently enjoyed in our favorite mountain town.

Day 1 Itinerary in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park 
First thing in the morning we drove to Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park so the girls could burn off some energy by walking around the gorgeous half mile loop. We love this hike because our girls can both walk at their own pace and stop to climb rocks and look at trout. The views of the Continental Divide are stunning – one time we spotted a moose right in the middle of the lake!

Sprague Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

Next we went to Trailhead Restaurant which is attached to the Fall River Visitors Center. We sat outside on the deck and sipped cups of hot chocolate and split warm, gooey cinnamon rolls. The girls played on the attached playground and we enjoyed views of Deer Mountain.

After some quiet time and naps at our cabin, we headed back out in the evening to Snowy Peaks Winery in downtown Estes Park. They have a great kids area with toys and art supplies which occupied our girls while we enjoyed Colorado wine. After the tasting we all headed downstairs and back out to the garden where local bluegrass duo Dahlby & Nadine inspired our own duo to joyfully twirl in circles behind our table.

We went to the playground across the street before heading down the River Walk to Mama Rose’s, an Italian restaurant for dinner. We weren’t lucky enough to grab an outdoor table by the Big Thompson River, but we enjoyed our spot inside. Our three-year-old enjoyed a flight of milk: strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and white. She was nice enough to share sips with her little sister.

Day 2 Itinerary in Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park & Brainard Lake
We started out our morning with another favorite lake hike. Lily Lake loop is less than a mile and it’s flat so our girls can hike on their own. Lily Lake is located six miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7. We enjoyed spotting muskrats swimming the in the lake as well as the awesome views of Twin Sisters Peaks, Longs Peak and Lily Mountain.

Mountain Views around Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Next we enjoyed coffee and hot chocolate at Coffee on the Rocks. Our girls love walking around the duck filled pond behind the coffee shop. We also ventured into Red Rose Rock Shop which shares a parking lot. The girls each thoughtfully selected pink sparkly rocks from the abundant display.

Rock Shop Estes Park Colorado

We got back in the car with the treasure and our 1.5-year-old instantly fell asleep. We decided to seize the opportunity by grabbing an amazing take-and-go sandwich from Scratch Deli & Bakery and driving to Brainard Lake Recreation Area. This popular hiking destination has been on our bucket list all summer. It’s located 50 minutes away from Estes Park. After sitting in line at the entrance we eventually got a parking spot, which was lucky on a holiday weekend. We got out and hiked around the breathtaking setting.

Hiking with Kids in Rocky Mountain National Park, Brainard Lake Colorado

Even though it was overcast and eventually started to hail, the trip was still worth it!

Brainard Lakes Colorado, Indian Peaks Wilderness

Rainy Afternoon Activity in Estes Park, Colorado
The hail was brief but cut our adventure short. We decided to go swimming indoors when we got back to Estes Park. The Estes Valley Community Center opened a new pool with a lazy river, slides and water play area. There are resident and non-resident fees to use the facility. We had so much fun!

We wrapped up our vacation at Rock Cut Brewing Co. which has games and picnic tables outside. We ordered Chinese takeout from the restaurant next door and saw other people order pizza from across the street. There is typically a food truck option as well.

 

 

The Most Underrated Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. Following the Historic Ute Trail.

Basically nothing in life gets me more excited than discovering a new trail for my family to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s like finding a secret path or a hidden paradise. I don’t know how I skipped over the Ute Trail during my years of scouring hikes in guidebooks and even passed by the trail dozens of times in our car. I guess sometimes you miss things right in front of you when you are distracted by amazing views or in our case, toddlers in the backseat.

The Ute Trail is located right off of Trail Ridge Road, a scenic highway that connects Estes Park, Colorado to Grand Lake, Colorado. Parking is limited to a handful of cars that can fit into a pull-off area between Rainbow Curve and Forest Canyon Overlook.

We dressed in warm layers because the temperature drops as you rise above treeline. The Ute Trail begins at 11,430 ft of elevation which is incredible! On the tundra, the sun shines bright and the wind can be intense. We lucked out with a beautiful day.

Rocky Mountain National Park Ute Trail

We accidentally locked most of our hiking gear including boots and kid carrier in our storage closet, so we picked this hike for the girls to do (mostly) on their own because it’s basically flat.

views from Ute Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Both girls did an amazing job, especially our 3-year-old. She wanted to keep going and going. We decided to turn around approximately a mile into our hike, making this a two mile trek for us. Rockymountainhikingtrails.com lists this as a 4 mile round trip hike which gives us a great goal for our next adventure up on the Ute Trail.

Family Friendly hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

The sweeping views are inspiring, but I also love witnessing the intricate plant life that survives in this harsh climate.

Alpine Tundra Rocky Mountain National Park

I can just imagine the the Arapaho and Ute tribes passing here between their summer and winter hunting grounds as they did so many years ago. The National Park Service has placed a historical information plaque at the start of the trail.

Historic Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado

We spotted wildlife including marmots, pikas and birds. Oh hey, there little guy!

Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park Tundra

Trail Ridge Road is open seasonally. You can check road status reports on the National Park Service’s website here. In the high elevation take extra caution with weather that can produce lightening or icy conditions.

The Ute Trail is one of my new favorite family-friendly hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you are looking for more amazing hikes, check out our favorite hikes under two miles.

The Low-Down for Labor Day Vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park

Weather in Rockies
We are packing our bags for our 2018 Labor Day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’m excited because the weather is (hopefully) going to be beautiful. The forecast is showing mid-70s with pretty low chances of rain. At night the temperatures will drop to mid-40s. Here is a link to check the weather in RMNP. It’s colder at high elevations like Trail Ridge Road. It’s time to layer – I’m excited to break out my fleece jacket!

Beating the Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park
The park will be busy. I’m hoping we can get up and out the door in time to get to our favorite hiking destinations before all the parking spaces are taken. We will probably need to leave by 6:00 AM (maybe even earlier). There are some park-and-rides if we get a late start. Here is a link to the shuttle service in Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors can also save time by pre-purchasing a park pass online here.

Even in the most popular areas the further we hike the less people we see on the trails. Also, the West side of the park is home to family-friendly destinations that are typically less crowed. Here are a couple posts-from-the-past about the area:

4 Great Reasons to Visit Grand Lake with Kids

A Perfect Picnic at Coyote Valley

Getting the Best Pictures of the Mountains
Sunrise will be right around 6:30 AM and sunset will be around 7:30 PM. I’m paying attention to my watch so I can photograph these magical moments in the mountains. It’s also a great time to spot wildlife in the park. I can’t wait to see elk and hopefully moose.

Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park
When I picked up my daughter from preschool today the teacher informed me that she is afraid of bears. Oh my! We live near Kansas City, Missouri so this isn’t an issue at home, but she knows that bears are in the forest including in Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve never seen one on our hikes or drives, but I’ve heard sightings of these awesome animals are on the rise. It’s good to be prepared with some black bear knowledge. I found helpful ‘Be Bear Aware’ information on a Colorado Parks & Wildlife website. They also provide a fun bear coloring page.

Potty-Training/ Facilities in Rocky Mountain National Park
And speaking of my preschooler, it’s good to know where the best (flush) potty’s in the park are: Alpine Visitor Center, Fall River Visitor Center, Kawuneeche Visitor Center, Moraine Park Discovery Center, Hidden Valley, Sprague Lake. We also bring our own toddler portable potty because we’ve found vault toilets to be a little challenging.

Hiking with Toddlers
When we hike with our kiddos they like to walk a lot of the way. We’ve listed our favorite short distance hikes here. For longer hikes we use kid carriers. There are several shops in town that rent them out including Warming House.

Festivals, Food, Shopping, Parking and More in Estes Park, Colorado
The town of Estes Park, Colorado will also be busy, but they offer free parking and shuttle services which come in handy on crowded weekends. Learn more here. There is always a lot going on downtown Estes Park. Visitestespark.com has a great calendar of events.