We've had the Rocky Mountain National Park on our bucket list for a few summers. This year, we decided to plan our annual vacation around the park... with our 6 month old in tow. Having him with us affected almost all aspects of planning that went into this vacation - where to go?, where to stay?, what activities to do?, how much to do? and more.
The main factors that governed our itinerary were:
- No camping. We agreed up front to stay in a comfortable hotel and drive out to different places to visit every day. Despite adding to our 'driving budget', we felt this was the way to go as it guaranteed a good-nights sleep for everyone. Based on various criteria (to follow and, of course, cost), we chose a hotel in Broomfield, a stones throw away from Boulder.
- No long drives. Our boy hates being strapped in his car-seat and gets cranky quickly. Every hour or so we have to take him out, feed him and allow him to stretch his legs. So we chose routes and places that would have enough small towns or even rest areas to pull into. In general, our itinerary had up to an hour and a half of driving at a time
- Return back to the hotel by 7 PM, so that the baby (and we) gets a good nights sleep. An irritated baby doesn't make for a good vacation
- Places we visited had to be easily accessible. This being the first vacation with the baby, neither my wife nor I were sure about our fitness level and ability to do even moderate hikes after a year of being cooped up at home
Given these constraints, this is how our vacation went.
Plan: Eldorado Canyon State Park, Wonderland Lake Park
We started late morning, had a heavy breakfast and drove to Eldorado Canyon State Park, which is a short 30 min drive away from Broomfield. The whole morning was spent here walking along the FowlerTrail and taking in the beautiful views. The Fowler Trail has a gentle gradient, if any, which helped since we had our baby strapped on to us and were carrying an additional backpack of his stuff (besides the tonnage of my camera bag). After resting and regaining energy at the hotel all afternoon, we headed out to Wonderland Lake Park in the evening. The plan was to spend a couple of hours at the lake till sunset, but we cut our visit short as it wasn't as good as the online reviews made it out to be. It was more a swamp than a lake with mosquitos and bugs abound. The reviewers definitely oversold the park. If your itinerary permits, I recommend investing more time at Eldorado Canyon State Park. For us the day ended quite early, which wasn't all that bad.
Having flown into Denver late the previous night, 'Day 1' helped ease us into the vacation. We were well rested, adjusted to the new time-zone and had kept a close eye on the baby to see if the higher altitude (5000ft from a decidedly low 300ft back home) affects him - thankfully no.
Plan: Lake Estes, Lake Brainard, Peak-to-Peak Highway
We started early, grabbed breakfast to-go and drove straight to Estes Park, about an hour and fifteen minutes. There was plenty of parking at Fisherman's Nook, on the north side of Lake Estes. We spent the whole morning here strolling around the lake, sitting by brooks and taking in views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. A morning well spent indeed.
After lunch in Estes Park (there are a lot of options), we navigated on to the Peak-to-Peak Highway south towards Nederland. Along this highway is the short road up Lake Brainard, about an hour from Estes Park. The drive doesn't feel as long though, because the mountainous road offers sights all around. We spent a good part of the day at Lake Brainard. Located 10,000ft above sea-level it is one of the most picturesque lakes I've visited. Point your camera in any direction and you're guaranteed a postcard worthy image. Late evening, we drove straight back to the hotel via Nederland, which in all took about an hour and a half.
Plan: Alpine Visitor Center, Grand Lake
We didn't anticipate any bottlenecks or the need to beat the crowd, and so started comfortably, around 8 AM. The first break was at Estes Park. While our boy was out stretching his legs and feeding, we grabbed breakfast. From here we drove into Rocky Mountain National Park and took the Trail Ridge Road towards Alpine Visitor Center located nearly 12000ft above sea level. In ideal conditions, this should've taken us an hour - but at these altitudes, the weather is unpredictable. Freezing rain, followed by hail and heavy mist slowed us down. The several stops we made along the way to take in breathtaking views every time the mist cleared didn't help make up time either.
From the Alpine Visitor Center, Grand Lake is an hour away. We were decidedly unprepared for the tundra weather at this altitude. Factoring in the time it had taken us while driving since the morning, we decided to spend some more time here instead of visiting Grand Lake. Continuing on would have added another 3 hours (at least) on the road to our day.
After our fill of the mountains at the Alpine Center, where we spotted a group of elk, we drove slowly back toward Estes Park, stopping frequently along the road to admire the mountains. In all it took an hour to Estes Park. From here Broomfield was another hour away, give or take.
Plan: Echo Lake, Mt. Evans, Summit Lake
We started at 8 AM and headed over to Lakewood, which is on the way to Mt. Evans from Broomfield. Lakewood was ideal to stop at because it is the furthest place along the way to Mt. Evans which has a lot of food options - ideal to have a heavy breakfast and pack a few sandwiches for lunch. Idaho Springs is another option to consider, but the detour needed for it is longer.
The first stop of the day was Echo Lake, about an hour from Lakewood. Having seen Lake Estes and Lake Brainard, this one didn't feel quite as impressive. Still, it makes for a good rest stop before taking the long road up to the summit of Mt. Evans.
The drive from Echo Lake takes between 45 min to an hour - mostly depending upon how many stops you make and how backed up the road is. On the way to the summit is, ehem..., Summit Lake. Now, we knew parking is limited at the summit. So, we opted to directly go up Mt. Evans and hit the lake on our way back. As luck would have it, our strategy didn't work and we ended up parking on the shoulder nevertheless.
Summit Lake is a short 15 minute drive. While the lake itself is spectacular, and unique due to the treeless stark landscape, its not the kind one can spend much time at. Most of the area around the lake is protected tundra grassland - there is only a small trail that goes right up to the water. There aren't any places or areas to sit in either, not that one would want to in the cold wind here.
After spending about a half hour photographing the lake, freshening up we continued back down towards the city. Since the weather was good all day, without a cloud in sight, we were able to stick to the plan almost to the minute - the ideal day in terms of sticking to the itinerary.
Plan: Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake
Bear Lake has a parking lot with limited spots right next to it. This makes the lot very attractive, to a lot of people. So on this day we started as early as possible - around 6 AM. With a short coffee break in Estes Park, we made it to Bear Lake by 8:20 AM. This unfortunately was too late already. So we had to drive back to a bigger lot further away, which meant there was a 20 minute shuttle ride to the lake.
Bear Lake is a beautiful lake, not quite as picturesque as Lake Brainard but several notches above Echo Lake. It has a very well maintained trail, a walking path really, around it. While this path isn't quite smooth enough for a stroller, it is level enough that carrying a baby, his supplies and camera gear wasn't too strenuous.
We also did a short hike, about a mile with an elevation gain of 250ft, up to Nymph Lake. This is a much smaller lake and is filled with water lilies. It must look beautiful when they are in bloom.
Another short hike from here is Dream Lake. It is a further 250ft higher than Nymph Lake. It has a high snow capped peak right next to it, an imposing sight indeed.
We spent the whole morning here around the three lakes before driving over to Sprague Lake. This is a bigger lake than all three we visited earlier in the day and is more accessible due to the more level landscape around it. There is an abundance of picnic tables here, so it made for a good spot for lunch (which we'd bought in the morning at Estes Park).
After a sedate afternoon at Sprague Lake, we drove through Moraine Park, a popular grassland in the national park. Moraine Park is one of those grasslands that you might see in postcards - a vast open space, with a stream running through it and the majestic Rocky Mountains standing tall behind.
The drive back to Broomfield took an hour and half, via Estes Park.
Plan: Red Rocks Park, Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR
We had an early morning flight the next day (before sunbreak!), so wanted the whole evening to wind down, pack and get a few hours of sleep. So this day had the shortest plan of all.
We left at 8 AM, and were quickly on our way towards Red Rocks Park after breakfast to spend the morning among the giant monoliths. 45 minutes later, we were there. Despite the burning sun, we sweated it out and climbed up the steps to the amphitheater. The bright red of the park contrasts beautifully with the blue summer skies.
From here, we drove over to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to see praire dogs, ferrets and bison. The refuge is a vast grassland near Denver Airport and is easily one of the most well maintained I've seen (definitely better than the ones I've visited near the Philadelphia and NJ area).
Colorado and its mountains rejuvenated us. We were apprehensive before the trip thinking about all the things that could turn a relaxing vacation to an aggravating one - cranky baby, tired baby, tired parents, lack of sleep, altitude sickness and more. But everything went according to plan. Shortening our daily outings by spreading the trip over more days, building frequent rest stops, staying in a comfortable hotel all helped. I hope this itinerary helps you too.