Have you ever thought about visiting a national park?
We've visited quite a few local and state parks - all beautiful -- but nothing compares to our visit at Rocky Mountain National Park this summer!
I was so enthralled with the beauty of the park, the abundance of wildlife and the amazing back-to-nature connection that our family experienced, I feel compelled to share our visit in the hopes that you too will consider a trip to one of our national parks!
The Beauty (& Space All To Yourself)
The first thing that strikes you when you're in the park isthe views! Everywhere you turn it's just breathtakingly beautiful.
I love that our kids were able to see so much undeveloped land in one place, to experience what it's like when a storm moves in, and to smell the fresh pine air. It's almost impossible not to slow down and just enjoy it ~ and don't we all need to slow down just a little bit!
We visited Rocky Mountain National Park in August when the park usually averages more than 600,000 visitors that month -- but we frequently had a whole area to ourselves!
Unlike many other places that we've vacationed, there are so many sprawling acres of wilderness, you hardly ever find yourself in a crowd. The park covers over 400 square miles with 355 miles of hiking trails!
We visited many locations throughout the park. This is the view as we hiked up to Alberta Falls one evening.
Like I said earlier, SPECTACULAR views!
We also spent a few evenings hiking around Bear Lake, which is a very family-friendly area. The trails and paths can be navigated by young and old alike, and Bear Lake has quite a few places to sit and enjoy the view or take photos.
Wildlife Around Every Corner
You would not BELIEVE the number of animals we saw on our visit!
This was truly the highlight of our visit. Park rules state that it's important to be respectful to the animals. We agree! You are visiting their home while you're there.
Park residents (aka, wildlife) can frequently be seen grazing by the roadside and walking through open areas. Some animals prefer certain areas of the park so ask a park ranger where you're most likely to see some of your favorites.
On our drive across the park, we were treated to a viewing of 3 moose! There were two bull moose (one older and one younger) along with a cow moose.
Yes, a great horned owl (and in the middle of the day).
I guess that just goes to show that owls can be awake during the day :-) This beautiful guy took up residence in the tree right outside our back door.
The park has quite a few deer too.
We saw deer in groups around the park, usually in the early part of the day or later in the evening.
And elk - EVERYWHERE!
I think we saw elk 5 of our 7 days in the park (and also outside of the park right in the town area of Estes Park).
Some of these creatures are very large ~ as you can note above by the size of the elk that we followed while driving thru the park one afternoon.
We were also treated to the sight of bighorn sheep!
The rangers told us that the sheep come and go as they please so they may not come down off the mountains for days. The best time of the year to see them is in the Fall. We learned that the sheep come down to the marsh area near Sheeps Lake in order to eat the mud, which has essential minerals for them.
Great Family Activities
There are a number of wonderful things that families can do at the park. Our vacation included a set of grandparents too, so we ranged in age from 9 years to 70 years and we all had a wonderful time!
First, hiking (or walking) is available throughout the park. There are many trails that accommodate young children and older adults. The trails around Bear Lake are paved and easy to walk. If you'd like more of a challenge, I would suggest a trek to Nymph Lake or Alberta Falls (we saw parents with kids as young as 2 at all three of these areas).
And if you're really up for a hike, head up Deer Mountain or crawl thru the boulders at the Alluvial Fan -- or do both!
Ranger Programs for All
Another wonderful family activity is to attend some of the great Ranger Programs that are available in the park. Programs are available throughout the park and cover a huge variety of topics -- wildlife, plants and trees, astronomy, science and history! The park has a list of all available programs on their website, along with details about weekly programs that are available at their visitor's centers.
We attended two programs during our visit - Big Horn Sheep and a tour of Holowitz Site. The rangers do such a great job involving kids in the programs! And, while we're on the subject, kids will also enjoy becoming a Jr. Ranger in the park.
There are booklets available at any of the 4 Visitor's Centers for kids ages 3 - 12. Jr. Ranger books are filled with puzzles, activities and learning opportunities so kids have a fun way to explore the different areas of the park.
Kids can be 'sworn in' as Jr. Rangers at any of these locations. Park rangers make a big deal about this and turn it into a mini-ceremony which is so much fun for the kids!
When a child has completed their Jr. Ranger activities,
- a park ranger will ask them a few questions about what they enjoyed,
- the ranger will announce to everyone in the center that there is now 'a new Jr. Ranger' in the park,
- some rangers will have your child take an oath, and
- kids are then awarded their Jr. Ranger badge.
You can also purchase Jr. Ranger patches or other items at the Visitor's Centers.
If you'd like to learn more about all the Jr. Ranger programs at our National Parks, you'll want to take a look at our post on Why We Love Jr. Ranger Programs.
Drive the Park
Take a drive across the park. There are few roads in the park but two will take you from east to west across the park. In order to see the alpine area, cross the Continental Divide or view the glacier areas - you must drive Trail Ridge Road. And this isn't one of those 'let's just get there' drives - you really want to take time to stop and get out to enjoy the sights.
Some of the roads have sharp turns and run along the side of a mountain. I would highly recommend that you review the National Park Service's details about driving thru the park before you head out.
We were able to visit the park when the Old Falls River Road was open (it's closed from October - May due to snow and ice). This is a one-way drive through beautifully wooded areas and above the tree line.
Do Some Animal-Watching
Large and small, you will see animals everywhere in the park. It's so much fun to just stop and watch them.
A squirrel having a snack on one of our hikes.
We watched this hummingbird for 20 minutes as he flew from flower to flower. It made the time fly by while we were waiting to head off to lunch.
Take Amazing Photos
If you have a junior shutterbug at home, you will definitely want to make sure they take a camera on this trip. There's so many ways to use a camera - panoramic shots, catching wildlife in action, or just things kids see as 'beautiful'. Check out this great water shot my son took on our hike up the Alluvial Fan.
We have 58 beautiful parks across the country ~ check out the National Park Services website to find one near you. Park entrance is very reasonable (we spent $20 for a week's pass to Rocky Mountain National Park).
The National Park Service also offers free entrance days ~ the next one is September 29th!
I'd love to hear about your visits to a National Park - please leave me a comment below to tell us about your trip.
I hope that I've inspired you to check out one of the National Parks!