These hikes are a great introduction to Rocky Mountain National park for families with young kids. They are appealing for both the adults and the kids and most are not very strenuous.
Sunrise at Bear Lake
To keep most young children interested during a hike, you need an appealing destination. A waterfall servers this purpose pretty well, especially because you can hear it well before you see it. Several foot bridges along the way also break up the hike and hold interest for small kids.
Though not as scenic as some hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Alberta Falls hike is the easiest of the hikes mentioned here. At 1.3 round-trip miles, it is doable for almost all ages. The trail is smooth and not terribly steep. If your toddler finds it too difficult, you can carry them part of the way.
The hike to Alberta Falls begins at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road.
Emerald Lake is the perfect family hike. Why? With several alpine lakes, meadows, and waterfalls along a well-maintained trail, this hike offers so much to see in such a short distance that kids can't get bored! The destination, Emerald Lake, is aptly named. Surrounded on all sides by towering mountains, with a melting glacier in the summer, the lake is an ideal place for lunch.
Emerald Lake Trail
The Emerald Lake trail has both small-scale and large-scale beauty. At the small-scale, abundant wild flowers in early summer, shimmering aspen trees, water lilies, and lush meadows fed by trickling mountain streams. At the large-scale, rugged peaks, dappled with snow fields.
This trail is popular, which is its only drawback. Start early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
At 3.3 round-trip miles with some elevation gain, this trail is not easy, but it provides the most exposure to the beauty of the park in such a short distance.
The hike to Emerald Lake begins at the end of Bear Lake Road, 9 miles from the turn-off at Highway 36.
If some members of your family want a more challenging hike than the others, the Ute Trail is a good compromise. At the Alpine Visitor Center on Trail Ridge Road, drop off your slower hikers. They can hike down the Ute Trail toward Milner Pass. Meanwhile, the stronger hikers drive down to the parking lot at Milner Pass. From there, they hike up the same trail and meet the descending hikers somewhere in the middle. After you hook back up, you can all continue down together or some of you can continue hiking up and get picked up in the car on the return drive.
The bottom part of the trail is steep and heavily forested, but after a mile or two, you begin to break above the tree line, giving excellent views of the surrounding mountain ranges and several small alpine lakes. The top part of the trail traverses open tundra and has extensive views in all directions.
Small Lake near Ute Trail
For small kids, the trail is long at 4.0 miles, but if they are doing only the downhill part, they can manage. When you get back below the tree line, keep the kids occupied by looking for deer and woodpeckers, which were abundant on this trail during my last visit.
A few notes about staying safe on this hike:
- Start early in the morning and stay below the tree line after midday, to avoid exposure to afternoon lightning storms, which are common.
- Because this hike starts well above 10,000 feet elevation, attempt it only after you have been in the mountains for several days and have acclimated to the elevation.
- If you or your kids get car sick, bring Dramamine. Trail Ridge Road, which peaks at 12,183 feet, is exhilarating if dramatic views thrill you. But for some it can induce nausea.
Ute Trail to Milner Pass
The only negative to this hike is that occasionally you can hear the sound of traffic on Trail Ridge Road.
Take Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. The Ute Trail to Milner Pass starts directly across the road from the visitor center.
Located along Lumpy Ridge, the fractured and weathered "lumpy" granite formations make the Gem Lake trail appealing for kids and adults alike. Your kids will especially enjoy the Paul Bunyan boot rock formation, located about halfway to the lake. Look out for small caves created by strategically positioned boulders along the trail. These hiding places might come in handy for shelter if you get caught in a storm on your way down.
This trail is probably best for kids 6 years or older. At 3.3 miles round trip and with nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain, the trail is steep in places.
Even though the trail is well below the tree line, it provides several open rocky areas, offering views of Estes valley and the mountains of the eastern ranges, including a great view of Longs Peak.
Gem lake itself is an ideal spot for lunch. The sandy beach and the smooth rocks for sitting and sunning compel you to stay for a while after lunch. Meanwhile, your kids will probably be busy climbing among the rocks that surround this placid lake.
The kids will love the abundant and inquisitive chipmunks, but be careful because they will jump right into your lap.
In Estes Park, at the intersection of Wonderview Avenue (34 Bypass Road) and MacGregor Avenue, turn north on MacGregor Avenue. Turn right on Devils Gulch Rd. The Lumpy Ridge trailhead is on your left after 1.2 miles. (The trailhead itself is not actually in Rocky Mountain National Park.)