Spend the day in 105-year-old Rocky Mountain National Park with a 5-month-old baby and still have the best, most peaceful, most adventurous time ever.
A mountain-loving Midwestern Mom who will take any opportunity she can to breath that fresh Western air.
You know in video games when the character you are playing has to collect certain items in order to regain “heart power”?
For Mario it’s mushrooms.
For Link it’s fairies.
For Donkey Kong it’s bananas.
I’m probably wrong about all of that, but you get the point.
For this girl, that high altitude air fills me with life (even when I’m Big-Bad-Wolfing-It on my walk from the parking lot to the totally “rustic” outhouse).
We lived in the Mountain West for three years while my husband was completing his residency.
We knew no one and I had no plan and definitely no fallback plan, I had to sink or swim. So call me Michael Phelps.
I vowed I would use my time wisely to experience as much as I could while I was there and while I achieving that goal, I realized I had accomplished so much more.
I had grown more independent, more confident, and more connected with who I authentically was and, when our time was up, I left a piece of my heart in the mountains when we made our way back to Wisconsin.
Since being back in Wisconsin, close to family and friends who have known me since childhood, it’s been easy to fall back into the habits, roles, and rhythms I was in before my Great Western Adventure.
It was my greatest fear, actually, when moving back home: reverting back to the person I thought I should be instead of being the person I had learned I truly was.
While I don’t believe I’ve completely lost sight of the gal I became while I was “Out West”, I definitely feel like I worry a little too much about what other people might think and allow that to become an obstacle to me doing some things that I really want to do. But like I mentioned in my last post, having Baby Dagny in my life has reopened my eyes to the type of role model I want to be for her and the way I want her to look at the world around her.
After two years away, I was eager take Baby Dagny on her first vacation and go back to the place that inspired my independence and inspired the idea behind this Project.
The weather was perfect, traffic from Denver International Airport was minimal, my quest to spot elk was successful, the big skies didn’t disappoint, and I even ran into my amazing Wisconsin-based yoga teacher twice within the 415-square-mile Park.
The universe was in my favor and if there was ever a sign to get started on this Project, Rocky Mountain National Park was delivering it on a silver platter.
Because there are about a thousand places on the internet to compile your list of “Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park”, I won’t try to compete with their infinite knowledge.
Instead, I would like to share with you what we did and how traveling with an infant doesn’t have to be a stress-inducing, freedom-sucking nightmare.
Get up in time to watch the sunrise.
I get it, if you are traveling with an infant (and your infant sleeps anything like mine) sleep may be a coveted prize. And if you’re not traveling with an infant, you might be of the belief that vacations are for sleeping in.
But trust me, you’re going to want to make sure you get at least one early morning, hot coffee drinking, quiet Rocky Mountain sunrise under your belt (even if you go back to bed after it’s over) because it is so beautiful, it’s going to make you want to lay face down in the grass and count backwards from ten so you don’t pass-out.
The Park is almost always busy (read over 3 million visitors every year), so this may be one of your only opportunities for some peaceful Big Sky viewing while (most of) the rest of the park’s visitors are still sleeping.
You probably won’t be quite alone, though, as these early hours are also the time when a lot of the wildlife will be out walking around.
Stay in a cabin with amazing views.
While there are many great hotels in the area (including The Shining famous Stanley Hotel), almost every time I have stayed in Rocky Mountain National Park, we have rented a cabin through VRBO, AirBnB, or a similar online house-renting site.
This time we rented the Million Dollar View cabin through SkyRun and the name of the cabin did not disappoint. It literally looked like a Bob Ross painting outside of every one of our windows.
Two cabins were actually included in our rental (one of which we didn’t use), but the four bedroom, two bathroom camp would have been plenty of space for eight people.
We were only about 10-minutes from the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park and from downtown Estes, but it was enough distance from the “hustle” that we were able to enjoy quiet campfires each night and neighbor-free sunrises each morning.
Eat at Bird + Jim.
We went to this restaurant for our second lunch of our trip and it was so good that I finished my meal before the two grown men that I was with … like several minutes before them. It may have been because they were too busy planning out their next-day fishing trip, but, probably, it was because it was so delicious.
This restaurant is only two years old, but easily the busiest and most popular place in Estes Park, so make reservations if you are there on the weekends.
It has epic views of the mountains on its outdoor patio (and from most of their indoor window-adjacent tables), but, if you toting around a baby (or small children, or a Baby Demigorgon, or just anyone who doesn’t like direct sunlight), know that they don’t have any shaded outdoor spaces.
Eat huckleberry ice cream.
There are about twelve ice cream shops lining the streets of downtown Estes and while I won’t ever truly understand why there are so many salt water taffy shops there (considering, ya’ know, the lack of salt water in Colorado) I will always understand why there are so many ice cream shops.
Because it’s delicious.
Really, you can indulge yourself in any flavor, but if you want a taste of something a little more local, go for some Huckleberry because it’s the rock-climbing, no-makeup-selfie-taking, sunrise-hiking sister to Strawberry.
Take in the views.
My husband famously makes fun of me for wanting to stop to take pictures at, literally, every pull-out when we first went to Yellowstone National Park, but, eight years later, I will still demand that he stop as often as possible. In Rocky Mountain National Park, there are 77 mountain peaks that are over 12,000 feet and the chance to see the Continental Divide.
Every bend around the corner is going to make you want to jump out of the car and sing like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
And those rocks you are staring at? Yea, they’re over two billion years old.
So, if you’re the one driving your adventure crew around, just pull out into to a parking area every so often.
And if you’re a passenger in the car, don’t be afraid to annoy your driver with requests to get out and take pictures because I’ll bet your driver (as annoyed as they might seem) is going to want to wallpaper their bedroom with your pictures from this vacation and will then quit their day job so they can spend more time looking at them.
Drive along Trail Ridge Road.
Get ready to feel like you’re sitting on top of the world.
You’ll climb over 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes, but you’ll have to plan your trip sometime between May and October to check this off your list, but it’s a must-do if you are there while the road is open.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest contiguous paved road in the country peaking at 12,183 feet above sea level (that’s two miles, folks).
The road runs 48-miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake, but we only went to the highest point and then turned back around to head home (because, ya know, Baby on Board).
11-miles of the road are above the tree line, so you will get some epic pictures eye-to-eye with mountain peaks surrounding you.
Be prepared for about a 15-degree temperature difference as you gain elevation. Also, the wind … it’s a bit wind-tunnel-esque, so be prepared for those glamour shots.
Hike around Bear Lake and to the lakes surrounding it.
Alright, first thing is first. Parking. It’s a bear (pun intended).
This is one of the most popular spots in RMNP due to its accessibility and ease of hike. If you are able to (i.e. you are not with a baby or with someone who is averse to public transportation like I was) find one of the shuttle buses that will take you to Bear Lake; otherwise, you are risking circling the parking lot or, on busy days, getting turned away by park rangers.
The stroll around Bear Lake is just under a mile (0.89 to be exact) and you’ll find yourself saying, “Wow!” at just about every point along the way.
If you choose to continue on your hiking adventure, you’ll find Nymph Lake just about half of a mile from Bear Lake (though mostly uphill). Nymph may not boast the most incredible views, but it’s main characteristic are its blanket of lily pads. And who doesn’t love that … especially when you are huffing and puffing and your buns are burning from your 15-minute stroll.
Dream Lake is about another half of a mile from Nymph Lake and, if, like us, you’re not going to do the whole Four Lake trail, I would at least recommend coming this far. If Dream Lake were auditioning for America’s Next Top Model, they would turn it away, winning prize in hand and say, “Girl. It’s just not fair to have anyone else in the competition with you here.”
The trail is still a steady incline, but you get some magnificent mountain views as you make your way to the, appropriately named, Dream Lake that is surrounded by, you guessed it, mountains.
And if you are an Achiever like me (anyone else an Enneagram 3?), you can cross two miles off of the 355 miles of trails within the park.
Spot an elk.
This may, very well, be the easiest task on your To Do List because the elk are everywhere in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you are staying in Estes, you will absolutely see the elk if you are up early enough in the morning. You’ll see them at any time of the day if you are staying somewhere outside of the general hubub of the town.
In the park, you’re likely to see them in the valley right as you are entering the park from Estes.
A couple of years ago, on my hike to Dream Lake, we actually saw elk about 10-feet off of the trail, just “chillin’” as many folks continued their hikes around them.
And, because I am an animal lover, I’ll give you the general suggestion not to be an A-hole. Respect the wildlife and give them their space.
Watch those elk like you would watch your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend in a bar: from a far enough distance where you can see her, but she can’t see you.
Traveling with baby? I’ve got your hacks.
Pack accordingly. Plan on feeding, diapering, and changing your baby from the parking lot. Bathrooms in the park will almost always be outhouses (i.e. no changing tables), so you’ll be changing baby in the car. And even though you, technically, may only be a few miles from your hotel or cabin, don’t plan on just “being able to run home” when the baby needs to eat or nap. Mountain driving is slower and five miles cliff-side could take thirty-minutes instead of five. Not to mention getting back into the park during peak season could take you an hour.
Have someone sit in the back. You’re going to be in the car a lot as you navigate through the magnanimous views. We found it helpful to have someone in the backseat to occupy and talk to the baby. That being said, if you are nominated as the Backseat Babysitter and happen to get occasionally carsick, take a Dramamine.
Know your baby. Have a baby who needs to nap in their own crib? Plan short days (or two vehicles). Have a baby who can just “roll with it”? Enjoy your time, but know that everyone has their limits.
We have a pretty easy-going baby who can nap in her car or her baby carrier like a hibernating bear, so we were able to really pack in a lot during the day. That being said, we made sure to eat dinner at home so that she could just play and relax without having to be confined.
Baby wear (with precautions). Ok, that sounds scary, but do think about it. I am a baby-wearing Mama, so both Dagny and I are comfortable with maneuvering around while being attached to one another, but I still made sure to be careful of the hikes that we chose and the time of day we chose to take them.
Don’t apologize for having requests for your baby. We couldn’t hike for as long as we normally would. We couldn’t go out to eat at all of the popular restaurants. We had to time most things around when the baby would need to eat. And that’s all OK. Don’t feel bad for being your baby’s advocate and, potentially, cramping everyone else’s adventuring style. Plus, if you’re anything like, the baby is a welcome excuse to take extra naps.
Have you been to Rocky Mountain National Park?
What’s on your “Must Do” list while you’re there?
Drop your thoughts in the comments below!