by Kari Bradley
While visiting Colorado with my two young kids (ages 4 ½ and 6), I set out to find fun activities for them so we could enjoy the gorgeous scenery together. We made two day trips to Estes Park (an easy hour drive from my mom’s house in Fort Collins) to try out a couple of the different hikes the National Park Service recommends for families: Sprague Lake and Bear Lake.
Our first adventure was stopping at the picnic area near Sprague Lake. The air was distinctly fresh and smelled of pine – which was a new experience for our “city noses!” The kids gobbled their lunches in a hurry so they could explore the area and look for the different flowers and wildlife.
After our picnic, we headed to a ranger station to pick up the official Junior Ranger Activities Booklet for ages 5 and under. The booklet includes eight fun activities for the kids to do while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. In order to become a Junior Ranger, they must complete the activities in the booklet, then take it to any visitor center and speak with a Park Ranger about what they saw and did. The Ranger will sign their booklet and give them an official Junior Ranger badge (and what kid doesn’t love collecting “official” badges?).
Booklets in hand, we drove off to our first hike. We noticed several cars on the side of the road, so we stopped to see what everyone was looking at. There were two HUGE male elks, just hanging out, patiently letting people take pictures of their very impressive antlers. It was a thrill to see them up close and personal!
We arrived at the Sprague Lake trail for our first hike. This lake hike is short (about ¼ mile) and flat, so it was no trouble even for novice hikers. The kids had a blast racing ahead of us to look for animals. We played “Eye Spy” from the Junior Ranger booklet and they saw fish, squirrels, chipmunks, and a family of ducks with their 3 ducklings. They also enjoyed seeing a man fishing in the lake, and several families either fishing with poles, or using nets to catch fish in a little stream leading up to the lake. One young boy excitedly told about catching his first fish! We’ll have to bring fishing poles next time.
The kids also enjoyed completing the Scavenger Hunt in the booklet. They were prompted to look for something prickly (pine needles), something soft (baby chipmunks), something that smells good (flowers), something moving (water), something an animal eats (pinecones), something tall (trees), and something blue (bluebell flowers). It was so much fun, and encouraged them to slow down and truly observe the nature surrounding us.
Sprague Lake has beautiful views, with many scenic points to stop and take pictures (like this one with Hallet Peak in the background). All in all, it was a perfect introduction to hiking with young children.
Our next excursion was to Bear Lake (which is a bit longer than the Sprague Lake trail, and not quite as flat). The first thing the kids noticed as we headed down the path was a patch of snow. Mind you, this was the end of July! Our kids loved it and they were throwing snow balls along with several other kids. It was an unexpected summer treat for everyone.
Near the path were lots of fun rocks for the kids to scurry up. We weren't sure how they would do on these hikes, but found there is so much to see and do that they were totally occupied and discovered a newfound love for hiking.
About halfway around the lake, my son exclaimed “I see something moving in the water!” We followed him over to the side of the lake - and lo and behold, he really had seen some fish. There were three of them huddling under the tree branches in the little stream that ran towards the lake. The kids were excited to watch them and notice their colorful scales.
Overall, our two day trips to Rocky Mountain National Park were wonderful. One tip I would share with other parents is to be sure to bring along bug repellent and good shoes for the kids to climb over the rocks and run around comfortably. Your little explorers will thank you for it!
Here's a final shot taken from Bear Lake. A thunderstorm just missed us, but it was fun to listen to all the birds and animals, along with the boom of thunder just down the mountains. I highly recommend visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park with your little ones. We are so glad we had this chance to expose our kids to the awesome sights of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Kari Bradley is an enthusiastic family explorer and part of the team at Estes-Park.com.