touring Colorado's National Parks-Kids to Parks 2016

Celebrate the National Park Trust's initiative May 21 by visiting one of 4 national parks

Rocky Mountain National Park's popular Bear Lake is an ideal stop for families. Photo by Michael Mundt

Rocky Mountain National Park's popular Bear Lake is an ideal stop for families. Photo by Michael Mundt

As a native of Colorado, I know I’m lucky to live near the Rocky Mountains and some of the most stunning wilderness in the world. So it’s a no-brainer to support the 6th Annual Kids to Parks (KTP) Day on May 21, 2016, a National Park Trust initiative to encourage kids, adults and communities to get outside and revel in nature.

And what better way to promote KTP than tout my own state’s four national parks? From the high, alpine tundra to windswept sand dunes, there’s something for everyone in Colorado’s protected lands.

For the wildlife lover—Rocky Mountain National Park (1915)

Elks graze at dusk in RMNP's Moraine Park. Photo by Michael Mundt

Elks graze at dusk in RMNP's Moraine Park. Photo by Michael Mundt

Among the highest national parks in the U.S. and home to iconic fourteener (above 14,000 ft.) Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in the state’s north-central region is practically my backyard, located just an hour’s drive from Longmont, where I grew up and live. Many times as a child, and often when we hosted out-of-town visitors, we’d head to the Park’s eastern gateway, Estes Park, for glimpses of the historic Stanley Hotel and souvenir shopping along Elkhorn Ave. Afterward we’d venture inside the Park to spot its celebrated elk and hear their legendary bugling, oftentimes followed by a drive along Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the U.S. (elev. 12, 183 ft.).

Now as a parent, my two boys love visiting RMNP to spot wildlife. Several times we’ve seen moose at one of our favorite stops, Sprague Lake, including one bull who bathed near a group of fly-fishing students, unperturbed by their presence. Another favorite stop for kids is Bear Lake, featuring a 0.8-mile walk around the lake with interpretive guides along the route, where you may be lucky enough to see a moose. And a surefire site for wildlife spotting is around the popular Moraine Park Campground, where we’ve often viewed many elk grazing in the meadow, even a handful of bighorn sheep.

For the thrill-seeker—Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (2004)

You're sure to get an adrenaline rush while boarding down the dunes. You're also sure to get very dirty. Photo by Michael Mundt

You're sure to get an adrenaline rush while boarding down the dunes. You're also sure to get very dirty. Photo by Michael Mundt

Ever wondered what it’s like to ride a sand board at top speed amid North America’s tallest sand dunes? Then head to the San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado toward Great Sand Dunes National Park& Preserve and its tallest dune, Star Dune, towering 750 feet from base to crest.

But keep in mind the area comprises 30 square miles of sand, or, according to my mathematician husband, about 10 billion cubic meters’ worth, roughly enough to cover the entire state of Colorado in more than an inch of sand. In other words, there’s a lot of sand to negotiate before you get to the top, and it’s not easy going. Not only is it difficult to walk on sand, but at its peak temperature of around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s more than an uncomfortable nuisance in your shoes.

So if you visit with kids, at the very least, wear good shoes and socks. All the better if you wear hiking shoes and long socks, as well as a shield of some sort around your mouth and eyes—like a scarf and sunglasses—to protect against inevitable gusts of sand. And don’t bother trekking much farther than the hills at the dunes’ base, where there’s plenty of fun to be had sledding or boarding down smaller dunes. As well, be sure to buy or rent gear made for the sand, and use sunscreen. Oh, and if you don’t want to walk in the dunes? Just play in Medano Creek, the stream fed by runoff flowing along the base of the dunes through spring and summer.

For the adventurer—Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (1999)

This western-Colorado gem is the one I’ve yet to experience, and this year of the National Park Service Centennial is the perfect time for me to change that. With 2,000-foot-tall canyon walls plummeting to the Gunnison River, this “vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky,” according to the National Park Service site, would be the perfect place for a summer adventure.

Named the Black Canyon for the perpetual shadows on the walls—it’s said that parts of the canyon receive as much as 33 minutes of sunlight daily—there are numerous outdoor options, aside from the area’s world-class rock-climbing spots. The Colorado.com tourism site suggests taking scenic drives, where can you peer over the often guardrail-less edge to view the Gunnison River 2,000 feet below, as well as hiking and fishing. I look forward to experiencing it all firsthand with my kids.

For the historian—Mesa Verde National Park (1906)

Visitors can take a ranger-guided tour through the famous Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde NP. Photo by Michael Mundt

Visitors can take a ranger-guided tour through the famous Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde NP. Photo by Michael Mundt

Located in southwest Colorado just 35 miles west of Durango rests the state’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park. The largest archaeological preserve in the U.S., it contains nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here for over 700 years. But it is most famous for its some 600 cliff dwellings, including world-renowned Cliff Palace—the largest with 150 rooms—and Balcony House.

Depending on the age of your kids and the time you have to tour the Park, there are many ways for families to explore the area. If you have older or teenage kids, the half-day bus tour is a good way to see the Park’s highlights and learn its history. But if you have younger children, who might have difficulty with a four-hour bus ride—and the fact that they cannot touch or run around a majority of the sites—consider driving on your own schedule along Mesa Top Loop Road. See the sites and take breaks at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center—where you buy tickets for ranger-guided tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House—and the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

And if you have time, you may consider heading to Four Corners Monument (Four Corners Tribal Park), about 66 miles southwest of the Park, to view the only spot in the U.S. where four states meet at one point (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona).

Participate in my Kids to Parks giveaway!

Earn chances to win by:

  • Taking the KTP Pledge here. Register by May 21, 2016, to be eligible for prizes from the National Park Trust.
  • Signing up for Momfari's quarterly newsletter (on homepage here)
  • Following me on social media by clicking on icons below (each follow=extra chance)

E-mail me at heather@momfari.com by May 20, 2016, and tell me how many chances you've earned. Winner will be drawn and announced May 21, 2016!