Tips for Rocky Mountain National Park with kids

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the United States’ premier family destinations, a jewel in the national park crown. In the summertime, the weather is beautiful, the scenery spectacular, and the opportunity to interact with nature unparalleled. Here are some things to know to help you make the most out of visiting with your kids.

Tips for Rocky Mountain National Park with kids:

rocky mountain

West side vs. east side:

Experts say the west side of the park (accessed via Grand Lake) is less crowded than the east side (accessed via Estes Park). However, our visit was based in Estes, so this post focuses on the east side of the park.

Be prepared:

It storms somewhere in the mountains every afternoon, and even in the valleys, the weather is very cool in the mornings and evenings. Dress in layers. Wear long pants. Hiking boots really do make a difference on the uneven terrain. Use sunscreen and bug spray, and consider investing in rain ponchos.

Trail Ridge Road:

This 48-mile drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake is an all-day adventure that climbs several thousand feet through the tree line and into the arctic tundra. Along the route you’ll find countless amazing overlooks and a handful of hiking trails, as well as the Alpine Visitors Center. Trail Ridge Road can be a great experience, but be aware that altitude sickness is a real thing. Take it slow so everyone has time to adjust, and drink lots of water.

Rocky Mountain

Don’t miss out on ranger-led hikes and programs:

You can learn about stars, wildlife, ecology, and more. Schedules are available in the visitors centers. The junior ranger program is a great way to get the kids invested in the park system. Start early in your visit to give your kids plenty of time to complete the activities.

There’s a reason why the popular hikes are popular:

Many of the hiking trails in RMNP are long, and many of the shorter ones are very steep. So if your family is too young for long or steep hikes, you will be part of the throngs visiting a relatively small number of trails. Based on our experiences, I have two suggestions:

First, get up early—really early. Many of the family-friendly hikes start at Bear Lake, which is a significant drive from Estes, and the parking lot fills early. Have everything prepped the night before; go to bed early and get up at 4:30 or 5 to beat the crowds. Afternoon naps are our friends.

Second, don’t view rain as an automatic death knell to hiking. Afternoon rainstorms often pass quickly. We arrived at the Cub Lake trailhead at the start of a pop-up storm. We waited out the worst of it in the van but then donned rain ponchos and headed out. Twenty minutes later, the sun was out. Two days later we started for Alberta Falls in an intermittent drizzle, and we had the trail almost to ourselves. With ballcaps beneath rain ponchos, we didn’t really get wet at all. You might think you’re sacrificing scenery, but there is a different beauty in hiking amid the clouds. It was well worth the effort. (Caveat: lightning is a different story. As with lightning anywhere, you want to be cautious.)


Hiking with young children:

It is possible to take a stroller on some of the trails at RMNP, but in most cases your best bet is backpack carriers. No need to buy one; they’re available for rent in downtown Estes Park.

If your kids are beyond a backpack, you’ll need to plan carefully. Prep your kids in advance for longer, more strenuous hikes—not just physically, but mentally. My sister managed to get her 4-year-old daughter to Emerald Lake, a 3.6-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 605 feet, by having her pretend she was Wonder Woman.

Park amenities:

  • Expect to be out of cell service most of the time you’re in the park.
  • Stay on top of the bathroom situation. Staying well hydrated is part of an enjoyable visit at high altitudes, so you also have to stay on top the need for bathrooms. There are facilities at many trail heads, but not all.
  • The visitors’ centers have clean restrooms and information desks, as well as a range of services including ranger-led programs, gift shops, and educational displays.
  • The national park service runs shuttle buses in the Bear Lake Road Corridor late May through early October. The buses are free, but park entrance fee is required for the Hiker Shuttle, which boards outside the park. Using the buses helps traffic flow and allows you to enjoy the scenery.


It takes longer than you think it will:

Traffic through Estes Park gets backed up. The lines at the entrance stations get backed up. Construction in the park causes traffic backup. And hiking at altitude is slower and more strenuous than you might expect. Pack snacks or lunch and plenty of water, and take lots of breaks.


Entry fees for Rocky Mountain National Park are very modest at $20 per vehicle for one day or $30 for 7 days. Fees can also be paid per person. You can purchase passes ahead of time online.

Rocky Mountain National Park is located just under two hours west of Denver, Co. Parking and services provided by the national park service are free, although a limited number of adventure outfitters are permitted to operate within the national park.

Our family was offered a media pass to RMNP by Visit Estes Park. My enthusiasm for this amazing place, however, long predates this visit.