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.

 

 

Following Rocky Mountain National Park’s Historic Ute Trail

The Ute Trail is located 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.

 

 

Sweeping Mountain Views and Waterfalls – Our New Favorite Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Wild Basin

This month we drove to the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park which is 19 miles south of Estes Park, CO on highway 7. The roads are a little bumpy and narrow as they wind back to the Finch Lake Trailhead where we began our adventure.

The Finch Lake Trailhead was new to us, so our goal was to hike 2 miles in to explore where it would lead. At first, we regretted our decision because for nearly a mile we hiked straight up hill.

Finch Lake trail

Eventually we turned sharply right and into a dense grove of aspens. The trail flattened out enough for us to catch our breath. We spotted signage that showed a route to the Allenspark Trailhead, but we continued on the main trail towards Finch Lake.

aspens in Rocky Mountain National Park

We decided to keep going…at almost 2.5 miles we stopped at a clearing with views of the surrounding mountains. We could see the Wild Basin Ranger Station below which helped us get our bearings and encouraged us to continue despite another steep uphill climb for .3-.4 miles.

rocky mountain views in wild basin

We came to another trail sign that showed the ranger station via Calypso Cascades was 3.1 miles away. We turned towards that route knowing the extra 2.2 miles up to Finch Lake would be longer and more uphill.

hiking in wild basin rocky mountain national park

We were amazed by the stunning views of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Mount Pagoda and Chiefs Head. We met a fellow hiker on the trail who told us about a national park fire that scorched the area in 1978. The fire opened up the view and increased the aspen growth.

wild flowers in wild basin rocky mountain national park

We enjoyed a variety of wild flowers as well as the downhill path that lead us by some of our favorite spots including Calypso Cascades and Copeland Falls.

calypso cascades wild basin

When we arrived at the Wild Basin Trailhead we walked less than a half mile back to our car at the Finch Lake Trailhead.

wild basin rocky mountain national park

We ended up loving this hike! We did it with our 3.5-year-old and 1.5-year-old in carriers which was a bit of a (good) challenge for us.

family hike in rocky mountain national park

Wild Basin is awesome! Here are 5 more posts we’ve written about hiking in this area:

Family Friendly Waterfall Hike in Wild Basin

Into the Wild Basin

Waterfalls, Wildflowers, Weather and Wine – Why I love Rocky Mountain National Park in July

Best Waterfall Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Favorite 2-4 Mile Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Deer Mountain – A Great Hiking and Horseback Riding Destination in Rocky Mountain National Park

Hiking Deer Mountain with Toddlers
We just got back from another wonderful family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park. The first day we decided to hike up Deer Mountain which is one of our favorite hikes because of the amazing views.  Unfortunately, this time the views were pretty hazy from forest fires in nearby Grand Lake, Colorado.

Hazy Skies from Forest Fires in Grand Lake CO

The mountain hike was still beautiful with wildflowers in full bloom. I’m trying to learn more about the different species we see on the trails. Here is a link to some of the most common flowers in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Wildflowers in Bloom in Rocky Mountain National Park

According to Rockymountaintrails.com, this hike starts at 8,940 ft in elevation at the Deer Ridge Junction. It’s 6.2 miles round trip and gains 1,210 ft of elevation.

For us, that’s a pretty tough hike with the kids in their carriers. Our girls are 3 and 1 years old, so longer hikes are a great way to help them grow in patience. I’m really proud of them! It is fun for me to look back on times we’ve hiked this before. Check out past posts:

Deer Mountain – A Family Friendly Summit Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cecy’s First Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

Horseback Riding Deer Mountain
Later in the week I got a fresh perspective of Deer Mountain by taking a 2 hour horseback riding tour with National Park Gateway Stables.

Horseback Riding Rocky Mountain National Park

The ride ‘follows the Fall River to the base of Deer Mountain and Aspen Glen area into Lil Horseshoe Park and Hidden Meadows.’ You can learn more about the tours on their website. They even have pony rides for ages 2-7.

Horses Rocky Mountains

Mom Tips:
There isn’t a parking lot, ranger station or toilet available near Deer Ridge Junction, so plan ahead if you can. On trips we keep a potty like this one in our car for our 3-year-old.

We pack snacks, drinks, sing songs and play games to keep the girls entertained during longer hikes. Games include ‘tortoise and the hare’ where we take turns who is in the lead and who is going slow paying attention to details (or getting distracted by wildflowers). We also play ‘bear’ where one parent goes ahead with a child and hides behind a tree or rock to jump out and surprise the other parent and sibling.

 

 

Breathtaking Hike to Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Dream Lake is a popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. We hiked the trail at the end of May. It’s always helpful to check the park’s trail conditions before selecting a hike, especially this time of year. (Here is the link)

You start at the Bear Lake trailhead which is a hot spot in the park! If you can’t find a parking spot in the lot, don’t give up – the national park has a park and ride shuttle that is free to use once you’ve paid the entrance fee. Routes change with the season. (more info)

Once we unpacked the kids from car, we were greeted by friendly and knowledgeable park staff and volunteers. Don’t forget to say thank you to them for keeping the park such a clean and amazing place – especially the people who have to clean the bathrooms. Bear Lake has several non-flushing toilets available.

The total hike is 1.1 miles each way starting at 9,450 ft in elevation and gaining 450ft. You will cross by Nymph Lake half way into the hike which is a lovely spot.

Nymph is short for Nymphae polysepala the original scientific name for the lily pads that adorn the lake during the summer months. (according to Rocky Mountain National Park – the Complete Hiking Guide by Lisa Foster)

As you continue to climb, the views of the surrounding mountains open up.

Hike to Dream Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

You will pass by a small waterfall which is a great spot for a family picture (if your kids cooperate)

Young Families in Rocky Mountain National Park

Here is a view from the top.

pretty scenes in Rocky Mountain National Park

We were excited for the opportunity to play in a little snow right before Dream Lake, but had to use extra caution because it was pretty slippery in places.

Snow hike in Rocky Mountain National Park

And finally our Dream Lake destination, which never gets old no matter how many times we hike to this gorgeous spot.

Dream Lake Rocky Mountain National Park