For desert dwellers, I find myself drawn to towering pines and greenery because it’s such a stark difference from our landscape here in the East Valley. As we were planning our recent adventure through Colorado, I knew we needed to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.
About 90 minutes from Denver, you could absolutely make this a day trip if you’re staying downtown (or at the Gaylord Rockies like we did in Denver!), but because day trips can sometimes be hit or miss with little ones, we chose to pack up our suitcase and spend an overnight nearby the national park.
This would be the ideal fall (or spring) break trip for families, it’s a 13 hour drive from Mesa, and it’s being outside of Denver, it’s easy on family budgets, too. Read on for a few ideas on exploring Rocky Mountain National Park!
Where to stay
Grand Lake, Colorado, is a small mountain town (it looks like the backdrop of Virigin River!) and is six miles from the entrance to the park. Named after the huge lake (biggest in the state) that is two blocks from Main Street, this is a tiny town with big adventure, from kayaking to ATVing to hiking, there are endless activities to plan (especially with elementary or older kids).
Grand Lake is most famous for being the largest and deepest of all the natural lakes in Colorado, covering more than 500 acres and plunging almost 400 feet deep.
We stayed at the Western Rivera Lakeside Lodging in their one-room apartment style room (the only lakeside hotel in town). Complete with a separate bedroom, living room and kitchen it was spacious and ideal for our stay.
With views of the lake from our room, we were less than 50 yards from the docks and one block off Main Street, plus it was still under $200/night, perfect blend of location and affordability for family travel.
Need to knows for the National Park
Being a six-minute drive from our hotel to Rocky Mountain National Park, it didn’t take long to get there! It’s an easy, scenic drive.
Rocky Mountain National Park is testing new pilot temporary timed entry permit reservation system; I didn’t know this until the night before we arrived and I was freaking out.
If you plan ahead, the open reservations one the first of every month for the following month, or, for last-minute vacationers (like me) they open a select number the night before at 5 p.m. for the following day.
I set my alarm for 5 p.m. and was waiting on my laptop to snag our reservation, and we got one! But it was stressful to do, I’m most certainly recommend planning ahead and pre-booking them.
Inside the park
We hiked Coyote Valley Trail with Maverick, a one-mile loop trail. He walked the entire thing and did great and loved being able to explore on his own! The trail had a little bit of everything, from a beautiful meadow, to a tree tunnel and even a babbling brook that’s part of the Upper Colorado River.
One thing to be aware of: in 2020, the East Troublesome Fire burned 10 percent of the national forest; when we first drove into the park, it was heartbreaking to see the devastation and we were worried if the trip had been for nothing.
A bout 12 miles after the ranger station, the landscape shifted from devastation from the fire to untouched mountain beauty. Don’t let the fire discourage you from going!
Exploring Grand Lake
The lake is Colorado’s largest natural lake, so obviously there’s water sports from standup paddle boarding to kayaking and even paddle boats. If you’re a boat family, pontoon boots are also available to rent.
We picnicked a lot on the water for breakfast and lunches. The weather was lovely, the views were incredible and there are ample picnic tables. There are two grocery stores nearby to stock up on essentials for easy picnics. Many of the restaurants also offer takeout if you want zero-effort picnics.
Also on Main Street is a bustling playground that we went to daily. It was perfect to burn energy for Mav, and I got insider tips from local parents on activities and hidden gems to explore.
Be sure not to pass up BBQ from Sagebrush BBQ & Grill. They had a great kids meal that offered more than the typical mac ‘n’ cheese, nuggets and burgers, which is always a big win for us. I ordered Mav the kids brisket and he loved it.
Although we were here in the summer, I’d love to return in the winter, Grand Lake is known as being the ‘snowmobiling capital of the world!’
Another activity I’d like to explore upon return are the natural hot springs, about 20 minutes from where we stayed. (Note to self-bring a babysitter next time!)