Rocky Mountain National Park
When my son Cole was 1 year old I took him in our Airstream to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We had a terrific time. Just a dad and his son celebrating the outdoors, our National Park System, and spending time together. It was such a fun trip (and because I had already checked one off for his first birthday) that I decided to make it a tradition. Each year for Cole’s birthday we would take a trip and visit a National Park.
For year two, Covid-19 was still in full swing and so we opted to keep things close to home and simple. We visited one of our newest National Parks, Indiana Dunes. It was easy, fun, and a nice getaway given the global circumstances, but nothing to write about it. Its a sandy beach on Lake Michigan in Indiana. It’s not the Grand Canyon.
As I started to plan his third birthday trip, I had eyes on another National Park close to home that wouldn’t need a great deal of planning or money. I was eyeballing Hot Springs in Arkansas. Hot Springs is about 10 hours away from our home and offers plenty of outdoor recreation via the Ozark Mountains. That was the plan for about 6 months leading up to his birthday.
It was not until I sat down one night and started to map out the trip plans for the next 15 years of all the National Parks and locations we would want to visit, that I realized I needed to step up to bigger and better Parks now if we were going to do this right.
I started to explore the idea of doing Rocky Mountain this year. On somewhat short notice.
Having never used the National Park permit system, I have to say I was unnecessarily worried about it adding difficulty to our trip. I quickly learned that booking a campsite is your de facto entry permit and you do not need to do anything additional to book your place at the park during your stay. You still have to pay the park entry fee, but that was always the case.
So I quickly booked an available site during the last week of reservation camping in Moraine Park and started researching what hikes we would do and the best places to try to see various kinds of wildlife.
It all worked out very well. Despite cold temps overnight, the days were warm and sunny and the elk rut was in full swing for our stay. Bellowing and prancing around continuously for our entire stay. Their songs were a constant reminder of the wild.
I was very impressed with the shuttle system at Rocky Mountain. It runs on time and I found it easy and pleasant to navigate, without having to use our own vehicle to get to trailheads and visitor centers. With our GFC rooftop tent as our quarters, it’s really nice to not have to close that up each time you want to leave the campground.
All the rangers were kind and generous with their time. Cole became a Jr. Ranger on our second day at the park. He was very proud. The bus drivers were friendly and knowledgeable as well.
Camping in Moraine Park was ideal. Spacious sites with nice tree protection and views. The magpies and ravens would visit and play with Cole each afternoon. Flying in to wait for him to drop a snack and then taking off as he tried to get closer to them. The elk would walk right by our campsite each day. The red squirrels would chatter at us as we walked to the restrooms. The walk from the campground to Moraine Valley (were most of the action is with the large bull elk takes place) is pretty easy maybe a quarter mile.
Our schedule was pretty consistent. In the late afternoon we would walk from camp to the valley to watch the elk herds move about and battle. Also taking in the incredible scenery of Moraine Valley at sunset. On our way back to camp we would top off our water bottles and pick up a bundle of firewood. Then I would start a fire and make some dinner. It was cold in the evenings, so we were typically in the tent by 8pm for bed.
The mornings were particularly cold. About 28*F. As we woke up, I would bundle Cole up and sit him in the front seat of the car. Starting it up to get the heat and heated seats going for him, while I made oatmeal and coffee out of the back of the 4Runner. We would eat together in the warmth of the front seats.
After breakfast we would walk over to the shuttle stop and catch our bus ride to our trailhead for the day. We hiked the Bear Lake circuit one day and Sprague Lake / Alberta Falls trails another. I would pack lunches and supplies for the day and we would return to camp in the later afternoon for a relax before heading out to the valley again.
My research paid off with wildlife viewing. IN addition to the abundance of elk sightings near our camp, we also had a great experience at Sprague Lake with two moose. Watching them emerge out of the woods and into the lake for feeding. We watched them for almost two hours as we hiked along the lake and had a shore lunch.
It was a wonderful trip and one I am really glad we made. I hadn’t been to Rocky Mountain National Park in nearly 30 years. My memory of it from the mid 90’s was so tied to Estes Park and the family condo mini golf scene. Big changes have been made to separate the growing town from the Park experience now and think the park is much better for it. It feels special to be there and the transportation system within the park runs so well that you really can do a lot in just three days.
Would recommend this trip to anyone with kids looking for a fun camping experience that isn’t too demanding but highly rewarding.
Great write up Paul! You’ve got your priorities right. These trips and experiences are a big deal in the big picture. Really enjoyed the article!