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.

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How to Survive a Long Family Road Trip

Tis the season for family road trips. If you are like many Midwestern families, you will be bundling up the kiddos and driving at least a couple of hours to visit loved ones this holiday season. How do you make this part of the holidays a little less stressful so you can focus on the festivities?

We’ve learned a lot from our frequent treks from our home town near Kansas City, MO to Estes Park, CO. This trip takes about 10.5 hours each way. One of the things we hear the most from friends with young kids is that they are intimidated to make long drives. We get it, driving all day is tough on us and really tough on the kiddos, but they usually do great.

Prepare for Traveling Day in Advance

The day before we go on our trip we make sure all of our electronics are charged, filled with downloaded content, and ready to go with car adapters. We recently bought the girls new Kid’s Kindle Fire tablets, but limit their use to road trips, so it feels like a special treat.

how to survive long car ride with family

We also stock up on snacks and drinks for the road. While we often still end up buying odds and ends at gas stations (we try to buy something when we pop in for restroom breaks), its great to have a cooler full of milk for the girls and water/Gatorade for us. While it’s a tough balance to avoid too many extra bathroom breaks, we’ve found it to be important to stay fully hydrated on the trip out to fend off altitude sickness at our final destination. For us, it helps driving in to Colorado rather than flying in because our bodies can acclimate a little more gradually to the change. Altitude impacts everyone differently, even those in great physical condition,  so we often advise family and friends who know that they struggle with the adjustment to stay near the Denver area for a night before going further up in the mountains.

Road Trip Backpacks with Activities

Each girl gets their own backpack filled with coloring, activity books and art supplies.  We often listen to toddler radio stations to sing along to before switching to relaxing tunes around nap time.

Our Toddler Travel Bags Include:

  1. Amazon Fire with a kid-proof (pink!) case – we are able to download their favorite videos, the girls can play games, and they love to take pictures with their tablets. We only let them use them on long road trips, so playing with the tablets feel like a big treat.
  2. Our kids favorite books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See?
  3. Tracing books to practice our preschooler’s emerging writing skills
  4. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. You can’t have too many snacks
  5. Water Wow! this is a mess free art activity that the girls can do again and again
  6. Color Wonder Mess Free Coloring our girls love to draw and we love when we don’t have to worry about what they are coloring on because these markers only mark on the special color wonder paper.

Timing

We’ve tried several theories on the best way to time the long trip including leaving late and driving through the night or stopping half way and staying at a hotel. Surprisingly, we’ve found leaving mid-morning works best for our family. Here is our basic time-line:

7:00AM girls wake up, eat breakfast, play to burn off energy and we pack the car
9:00AM leave after making sure everyone has used the restroom and/or has fresh diaper
10:00AM we typically try to make it out-of-town before we start any electronics
12:00PM stop for lunch, bathroom and gas fill-up break
12:30PM get back in the car and hope for nap time
3:00PM stop for snack, bathroom and gas fill-up break
5:00PM we make a game time decision to stop for dinner or keep going
6:00-7:00PM estimated arrival. We gain an hour of sunlight when clocks change to Mountain Standard Time.

Route

Without traffic it’s just about as fast going through Denver and Boulder to get to Estes Park, but we typically take E-470 up by the airport to bypass most of the city. E-470 is a toll road and they will mail you a bill if you plan on going once, but if you plan on going to Colorado frequently, it might make sense to get an express toll pass.

Restroom Breaks

We bring along our own potty training toilet for the girls to use when we are in need of breaks between towns (which is common in the middle of Kansas and Eastern Colorado) or when we decide the toilets that are available are not clean enough to use.

Weather

We pay close attention to weather and road conditions using COtrip.org, KanDrive.org and our weather apps. In the spring and early summer we are concerned about pop up storms that can produce tornadoes. In the late fall through early spring we pay attention to icy roads and snow.

Whether you are going on a 1 hour trip or 10 hour trip, planning ahead, having lots of distractions including loads of snacks, and thinking through potential hiccups will help reduce the stress of traveling with young kids. We hope you enjoy happy and safe travels this holiday season.

We’d love to hear your opinion too. Do you have any road trip survival tips we missed?

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