A Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park with a Toddler

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After staying home for seven months (the longest we have gone without traveling in more than five years), we finally took the plunge and hopped on a flight to Colorado to spend a weekend hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

To be honest, domestic travel has never been a top priority for us. After all, I figured there is so much to explore outside the United States that is wildly different and “more exotic” than what we have here in America.

Well, this year changed all that.

As we shifted our focus to closer to home, I came to more fully appreciate the incredible, diverse landscapes we have within our borders. Our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park was an experience we won’t soon forget.

That said, it was also our first trip with Claire since she became a toddler. And we quickly discovered that traveling with a toddler is a completely different experience than traveling with a baby (something we did frequently!).

Here is everything you should know about traveling to Rocky Mountain National Park with a toddler.

 How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park

If you’re flying, the closest major airport is Denver International Airport. From there it is an approximately 2-hour drive to the park gates (depending on traffic). We highly recommend renting a car for the duration of your trip, as doing so will give you maximum travel flexibility—something that is essential for traveling with a toddler! We also recommending a vehicle that has 4-wheel drive if possible. We rented ours online through Budget, our preferred rental car provider (though we had to wait in line for 2 hours to pick up our car on this trip. #2020).

Where to Stay at Rocky Mountain National Park

There are no overnight accommodations within the park, so you will have to stay nearby. There are two park entrances: Estes Park (east entrance) and Grand Lake (west entrance). The more popular choice is to stay near the Estes Park entrance, since there is a greater concentration of trails near that side of the park. We chose to stay on the Grand Lake side, mostly because it was cheaper. But we actually preferred the west side of the park, because it was significantly less crowded than the Estes Park side when we visited in mid-September.

We stayed at a two-bedroom Airbnb in Fraser, which is a town about a 45 minute-drive from the Grand Lake entrance. Though it would have been nice to be closer, staying a bit further away from the park was a lot more affordable.

Eating in Rocky Mountain National Park 

In the summer, there is one place to eat in Rocky Mountain National Park—the café at the Trail Ridge Store.

But we highly recommend going to a grocery store at the start of your trip and stocking up on everything you need for picnics. There are beautiful, scenic picnic benches scattered throughout the park (often at the trailheads. Most also have restrooms.) and we enjoyed taking long, leisurely lunches al fresco and letting Claire run around collecting rocks and chasing birds. We found the picnic spots on the Grand Lake side of the park to be much less crowded.

We also opted to self-cater our breakfast and dinners in our apartment, which (for us) was much easier with a toddler than trying to drag her out to restaurants after long days of hiking. 

Best Hikes for Families in Rocky Mountain National Park

The number one attraction in Rocky Mountain National Park is hiking, and there are plenty of trails for all skill levels—even toddlers! We did half a dozen hikes. Claire did some of them mostly on her own. On hikes that were more challenging, Sam wore her in our hiking backpack carrier. If you are traveling with a toddler, we highly recommend packing a hiking carrier backpack. We bought this one by Osprey for the trip and it was a total lifesaver!

These were some of the family-friendly hikes we did in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sprague Lake (0.9 miles)

This nearly one-mile hike around the lake is beautiful and easy enough for toddlers to walk on their own. With only 10ft of elevation gain, it is quite flat. The trail is made of hard-packed gravel, which was easy for Claire to navigate, though she did end up riding in the carrier for the last part of the hike. It may be possible to use a stroller as well, but we didn’t pack one.

Just bear in mind that this hike was also the most popular one we did, so expect crowds unless you arrive early in the morning.

Coyote Valley (1 mile) 

Another super easy one-mile hike is the Coyote Valley trail. The trail offers lovely views of the Kawuneeche Valley and passes by peaceful streams (Claire was quite thrilled to watch the “wa wa”).

Another great thing about this hike is that it is nearly flat (only 15ft of elevation gain), and the trail is paved. So feel free to bring the stroller along on this one if you think your little hiker may be getting pooped!

Holzwarth Historic Site (1.3 miles)

Also known as the “Never Summer Ranch,” (how’s that for an appealing nickname??) the Holzwarth Historic Site is where a German immigrant and his family started a homestead and cattle ranch back in 1917 after he had to abandon his career as a saloon keeper due to the prohibition.

Many of the original buildings are still standing, and in summer it is possible to take a tour. We didn’t go inside, but exploring the outside made us feel like we had stepped back into the Wild West.

The trail that leads to the building winds through a lovely open meadow. The trail is fairly level (only 70ft elevation gain), though it does get pretty windy.

Irene Lake (0.9 miles)

Another pretty hike is along the trail circling Irene Lake. Though this hike is fairly easy (only 95 feet of elevation gain), we did find that the uneven footing in parts meant we had to either hold Claire’s hand or carry her to be sure she stayed safe. But she was able to complete most of it on her own.

There are picnic tables and bathrooms at the parking lot.

Alpine Ridge Trail (0.6 miles)

This one is the shortest but also one of the most challenging hikes on this list. Starting at the Alpine Visitor Center, the Alpine Ridge Trail is short but steep! It is also located at an elevation of 12,000 feet. But the views from the top are epic, and the path is made up of paved steps, which makes it a bit more manageable. While older children should be able to complete this hike unassisted, we definitely recommend taking a carrier for toddlers. Claire rode most of the way up on Sam’s back.

Hidden Valley (2.2 miles) 

Another more challenging hike, the Hidden Valley trail winds through a beautiful forest of spruce and fir trees. It also crosses over several creeks. We enjoyed the scenic landscapes and how uncrowded this hike was, but we found it pretty difficult with a toddler. The trail gets increasingly steep (especially near the end), so we didn’t end up doing the whole thing. Claire ended up riding for most of it in the carrier. But I wanted to include it on the list, because we believe it’s worth doing even just a section of it to experience the pretty landscapes.

When to Visit Rocky Mountain National Park 

If you are interested in hiking, we recommend visiting Rocky Mountain National Park sometime between May and September. Peak season is during school summer holidays (June and July). We went in shoulder season (mid-September) and found that to be the perfect time. We enjoyed beautiful weather with fewer crowds.

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