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Exploring Colorado’s National Parks with Kids

Colorado's National Parks- A Guide to Exploring Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, & Black Canyon of the Gunnnison with Kids

Since moving west 15 years ago, I’ve fallen in love with Colorado’s national parks – even more so since having children. My family and I have traveled to all four of Colorado’s national parks, and my 10-year-old daughter has completed Junior Ranger activity booklets at each, earning badges along the way. I’ve loved introducing my children to some spectacular natural landscapes and geological wonders, and I’ve had fun hiking my way through the awesome settings.

For your next family vacation in my home state of Colorado, I highly recommend visiting at least one of our awesome national parks. Here’s a peek at what you might see and do.

Exploring Colorado’s National Parks with Kids

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is a sprawling and beautiful place for families to hike and explore.

Soaring mountain peaks, pristine high-altitude lakes, and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing are found in this Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Denver. Take your time motoring along Trail Ridge Road, which snakes across the Continental Divide; it is the highest paved road in the United States, topping off at more than 12,000 feet. At the high-altitude Alpine Visitor Center, you can climb 168 steps that comprise the Alpine Ridge Trail; if you reach the top (crazy steep, but do-able for little legs), you’re rewarded with 360-degree views of peaks as far as Wyoming.

One big draw for kids: Holtzman Historic Site, which was a tourist lodge in the early 1900s. Here, children can try on period clothing, wash socks on an old washboard, and learn how to rope a wooden “calf.” A couple of easy walks for kids include the half-mile loop trail around Bear Lake and the path that skirts Sprague Lake.

Check out more fun & details of exploring Rocky Mountain National Park with Kids.

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Splash, climb, and roll through the family fun at Great Sand Dunes National Park

It’s a geological mystery precisely why the country’s tallest sand dunes collect at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The whole family can learn about their evolution – and why scientists continue to debate the specifics – in the informative visitor center here. But the true highlight for all ages are exploring the dunes themselves – you can hike up the massively tall formations that reach more than 700 feet and stretch for 50 miles. And then run, roll or somersault down the gigantic piles of sand!

When we visited the Great Sand Dunes in June, Medano Creek at the dunes’ base was flowing like crazy with spring snowmelt. The creek was shallow, and kids had a ball splashing and playing in the  water. Next time we’ll bring some inflatable rafts to this natural waterpark in south central Colorado near Alamosa.

Read parent-approved reviews of Great Sand Dunes National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

Climb your way through ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National park

A World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, near Durango, was inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans for more than 700 years. They left behind fascinating cliff dwellings, some of which are accessed by tall ladders. My then-two-year-old scrambled up several 10-foot ladders to reach Cliff Palace on a ranger-led tour. The next time we go, we’re aiming for the “adventurous” tour, which includes climbing a 30-foot ladder and crawling through a 12-foot tunnel to access Balcony House.

With 600 dwellings, 4,000 archaeological sites, and myriad hiking trails and driving routes, there’s plenty to see and do here. Consider spending a night or two at the park, and conveniently stay at the on-site Far View Lodge, open April through October.

Read up on all the kid-friendly fun at Mesa Verde National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one the nation's most beautiful canyons. Explore the hikes-- some are even okay for small kids.

If you’re afraid of heights, you may not want to get too close to the edge of the look-out points at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. My kids think it’s hysterical when I stand waaaay far back from railings and fences at just about any canyon overlook, but this one is especially daunting. Sheer cliff walls drop 2,000 feet down to the Gunnison River.

While many hikes are moderate or strenuous here, there are a couple of easy treks for kids, including the Cedar Point Nature Trail and the Rim Rock Nature Trail. Do note that some rim edges don’t have guardrails, so keep a careful eye on young children. Stop by the visitor center on the South Rim (enter via Montrose) to find out what ranger talks (typically available daily at all U.S. national parks), might be especially appealing for children.

Bonus Site: Colorado National Monument

The Colorado National Monument is a great base location for hiking, canyon exploration, and family camping experiences.

Do you know the difference between a national park and a national monument? The former is appointed by U.S. Congress, the latter can be declared by the U.S. President. Regardless of the terminology, Colorado National Monument outside Grand Junction contains amazing, otherworldy rock formations – and I had to include it in my list of must-see natural attractions in Colorado.

My family camped here last summer, and we found it absolutely fabulous for viewing massive, free-standing sandstone monoliths, rugged buttes and steep canyons. If you motor along Rim Rock Drive, there are plenty of opportunities to pull off and snap photos of the amazing scenery.

Exploring national parks with kids. Tips & tricks for exploring every national park across the United States.

Excited to visit national parks with your kids? We are too! Visit our National Parks with Kids page for extensive coverage, tips & tricks for all our nation’s National Parks.

Kara Williams is a freelance travel writer who makes her home in the Colorado Rockies with her husband and two school-age children.  Read about her travels at the blog she co-founded, TheVacationGals.com, and learn more about Kara at KaraSWilliams.com.

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2 Responses to Exploring Colorado’s National Parks with Kids

  1. Rick September 21, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Another National Park Service site in Colorado that kids just love is Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta. They enjoy exploring all the nooks and crannies of the reconstructed fur trading post and love the fort animals including oxen, horses, a mule, chickens, peacocks and the resident cat.

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