Family fun close to home
– By Kylee Coleman
With the country and the world still recovering from the pandemic, national parks closer to home can be the perfect destination for a family vacation.
Colorado is home to four national parks: Rocky Mountain near Estes Park; Mesa Verde near Cortez; Great Sand Dunes near Alamosa; and Black Canyon of the Gunnison near Montrose. Those parks are among 419 national parks nationwide that cover over 84 million acres offering plenty of options for whatever any family might want to explore.
My family’s first experience going to Rocky Mountain National Park was a huge success with our, then, young sons. We packed a picnic and made the hour drive from north Denver through Estes Park. We drove along the harrowing Trail Ridge Road and enjoyed the scenery. We hiked the Alluvial Fan, where giant boulders and broken tree trunks carried down in the 1982 floodwaters from the Lawn Lake Dam failure created a fan-like area great for climbing and hiking near the tumbling water still rushing between the rocks.
The day trip was relaxing and our kids still remember experiencing the outdoors, the mountains and doing things outside their typical day-to-day suburban life.
Got more time?
Consider planning an extended vacation for a deep dive into a national park. Among other benefits, family vacations like this can open up a new world of possibilities — not only in choosing which destinations to explore, but also for giving extended families and multiple generations a shared experience and new ways to relate with each other.
“In today’s reality, traditional and multigenerational families can really benefit from family vacations,” says Christine Tibbetts, travel journalist and member of the TravelingMom.com network. “By involving everyone in the planning and ensuring that each family member is invested in at least one activity on vacation, the travel truly becomes a family vacation, not just a trip that people who are related take together.”
Tibbetts suggests beginning plans for a vacation by asking each family member to suggest a destination and explain the appeal before making a decision. “Once the destination is decided, each person can suggest activities within the vacation that hold a particular appeal to them.”
When our son, Shane, was in fourth grade, his social studies lessons, like those of all Colorado students, were all about Colorado: the development of Colorado, geographic features, chronological historical events, and the roles of individuals and diverse cultural groups who were crucial in shaping what Colorado is today.
Part of those lessons also included learning about Colorado’s rich and abundant national parks. At the beginning of the second semester of that school year, we decided that after the school year ended would be the perfect time to explore Colorado and bring textbook history off the page into a hands-on experience. So, the planning for a family vacation began. We reserved camping spots, bought tour tickets and planned the driving route. We made packing lists and playlists for the trip. The anticipation of adventure was almost as exciting as the actual trip.
With Shane’s grandparents leading the way and his two brothers in tow, we set off for a classic Colorado road trip. Leaving from Denver in late May, we loaded the pop-up camper and the SUVs and headed for southwestern Colorado.
“Family vacations are about much more than spending time together away from home. They can set the tone for your children as they journey through life,” Tibbets says. “They grow up being comfortable meeting new people and understanding the world in new ways.”
Our first destination was Mesa Verde National Park, east of Cortez. The first stop for anyone at Mesa Verde should be at the Visitor and Research Center where there are exhibits and artifact collections. After a look inside the Visitor and Research Center the afternoon we arrived, we set up camp at Morefield Campground located 4 miles inside Mesa Verde.
Established as a national park in 1906, Mesa Verde protects 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years. The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the best-preserved ruins in North America. The park offers ranger-led tours of Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House. Tickets for these tours are required and can be purchased in advance for a nominal fee. There are also several self-guided tours and hikes available at the park.
After a night of camping, the six of us took a guided tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. When we got to Cliff Palace, we started at an overlook where we could see the entire site, which is truly like a small city with 150 rooms and 21 kivas. We all climbed ladders, explored the underground kivas, practiced grain grinding with stones and marveled at the intricate and nearly unbelievable architecture that was constructed 800 years ago. Shane’s eyes lit up as he witnessed in person what he learned about in school and had only ever seen in books.
“It was so much bigger than I even could have imagined,” he remembers. And both his brothers were mesmerized learning new things about Colorado history and a way of life that was so different from their current-day, modern lives.
The Cliff Palace tour was accessible for everyone in our group, both for the kids and my parents. People with mobility issues may want to research appropriate activities before making the trip, as only some of the park is wheelchair accessible. Our oldest son, who has Down syndrome and some mobility issues, did great on the guided tour of Cliff Palace, where there are ladders to climb and uneven surfaces to walk on.
(If someone in your group experiences mobility issues, there is still a lot to do and see at Mesa Verde: Scenic overlooks, bus tours, the Visitor and Research Center, and drives you can take to view much of the park are great options to explore and learn about the area.)
After two days of exploring Mesa Verde, our crew made the three-hour drive northeast to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
First protected as a national monument in 1932, the Dunes were redesignated as a national park and preserve by an act of Congress in 2004. The park encompasses 107,342 acres and the preserve protects an additional 41,686 acres, for a total of 149,028 beautiful acres.
We camped overnight at Piñon Flats Campground inside the park, with great views of Blanca Peak and the Dunes. During our day at the Dunes, we set out early in the morning to explore in hopes that we’d beat the heat. The boys were unprepared for the glory and expanse of the sand dunes, and I think they were a bit overwhelmed by the size.
“I remember losing my flip-flop in the sand and thinking I’d never find it,” Shane recalls.
Beach play at the wide and shallow Medano Creek was a refreshing change from the heat of the sand and a highlight of the day. And although they were too timid to try, the boys also enjoyed watching people sand board and sled down the dunes. Equipment rentals are available at the park or in Alamosa. There are also sand-accessible wheelchairs available. If you don’t want to camp, there are hotels in nearby Alamosa, about a 30-minute drive from the park.
The Dunes are even open at night, and in 2019 the park was designated as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. Light pollution is low at the Dunes, assuring prime conditions for stargazing and catching a great view of astronomical events, such as comets and meteor showers, weather and conditions permitting.
My family still has more national park exploring to do here in Colorado and beyond. Next on our list is a weekend trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
If you are looking for inspiration and information on exploring national parks in your own backyard or across the nation, go online to nps.gov and utilize the tools on the website to plan an amazing adventure. Dedicated travelers could spend the rest of their lives just vacationing in national parks across the country. In Colorado alone, there are the four national parks previously mentioned, plus nine other national monuments, grasslands and historic sites.
Whether exploring the northern, southern, eastern or western parts of Colorado, you can find wonderful and exciting national park destinations. Some may be next door and some may be just a day’s drive away, so you can make a weekend trip out of a visit or start planning now and take an extended vacation to hit several sites.
Whatever you do, round up the family and take the opportunity to explore the national treasures here in Colorado.
As a Colorado native, Kylee Coleman has fond childhood memories of adventuring to the state’s national parks with her parents and brother.