Rocky Mountain Animal Game

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

A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
A moose wading out in chilly waters of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

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

A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep crosses the road near Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO
A bighorn sheep on Fall River Road in Estes Park, CO

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

A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park
A fox prowling for food near Rocky Mountain National Park

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

A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks
A marmot near Twin Sisters Peaks

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

A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra
A pika calling out in Rocky Mountain alpine tundra

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

An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO
An eagle rests near Lake Estes in Estes Park, CO

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

Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers
Snake near Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park slithers throw wildflowers

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

Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk spotting is common while driving through Rocky Mountain National Park

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 in Estes Park, Colorado
During elk rut season in Estes Park, Colorado the bull elks duel

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

Deer standing right outside our front door in Estes Park, CO

Like elk, deer can be seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park and around town in Estes Park, CO.

Chipmunk – 5

Chipmunk in Rocky Mountain National Park

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

Hummingbird near Big Thompson River in downtown Estes Park, CO

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

Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO
Turkey traffic jam in Estes Park, CO

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 swimming in The Loch

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.

New Monthly E-newsletter!

If you like this post, we would love for you to sign-up for our monthly e-newsletter which gives you all of our best content each month plus extras like travel tips and reviews. You can sign up here.

A Winter Walk in Moraine Park That’s Worth Freezing For

Earlier this month we took a winter trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Little did we know, a few weeks later the national parks would be affected by the current government shutdown. Unfortunately, that means visitors can’t drive into the park. Based on articles I’ve read, this hasn’t had a big impact on the local economy yet because winter is typically a slower season. With that said, I hope that the situation is resolved soon!

Moraine Park

During our December trip, we enjoyed a brief but beautiful hike in Moraine Park beginning at the Cub Lake trail head. We chose this area because at 8,080 ft of elevation there is substantially less snow compared to areas of the park with higher altitude.

Frozen river in Moraine Park

I was excited when this picture was featured on the instagram feed @visitestespark where over 930 people liked it.

The first stretch of the hike is in a valley where there is little protection from blasts of freezing wind, but the scenery is worth bundling up and getting out of your cozy cabin for. The Big Thompson River was mostly frozen and seem to glimmer against the blue sky and snow covered mountain backdrop.

rocky mountain national park

Luckily, you don’t have to walk far before tall trees and surrounding rock formations block the wind. Our four-year-old daughter veered off the path to scramble up boulders to join her sister and dad taking in the peaceful views.

view of moraine valley rocky mountain national park

Beautiful views are not the only reason to visit Moraine Park, it is also a great place to encounter wildlife. Last fall we wrote, Cub Lake Trail – a Wildlife Hotspot in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Toddler Friendly Hiking

toddler friendly hiking in rocky mountain national park

Our nearly two-year-old insisted on hiking in her pajamas, wearing socks as gloves, and borrowing my hat. She held on to my husband’s hand in icy patches, but wanted to show off her independence by walking at her own pace. This led to our decision to cut the hike short. The trail to Cub Lake is 2.5 miles each way. We wrote about this hike in more detail in a previous post, Rocky Mountain Tot Goes to Cub Lake.

log bridge in moraine valley near big thompson river

New Year Goals

As we look forward to a New Year and new outdoor adventures, our goal is to have the girls walking rather than riding in kid-carriers during many of our hikes. We are excited to discover new hikes in the Rocky Mountains and the Ozark Mountains which are located near our new home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We will write about all of them in our family hiking journal and also look forward to sharing with y’all too!

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.