As your integrative pediatrician in the Denver metro area, our most recent blog provided logistical tips for safe and fun road trips with your kids during COVID-19. We’d like to take this blog one step further and provide you with some ideas for intriguing road trip destinations in our glorious state of Colorado! Some of these destinations you may already be aware of, and some you may not. Whether you prefer the familiar or the unfamiliar, there is much to explore with your family in the Rocky Mountains region and beyond, should you decide to travel this summer. If travel is in the rest of your summer plans, pack your family’s bags and get ready for your next adventure. Remember, though, before you travel, check for any COVID-19-related closures and restrictions at your intended destination!
Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park is only about a 90 minute drive from the Mile High City and is very picturesque with plenty of tourist-friendly activities! You can take a stroll down Estes Park’s lively downtown lined with coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques or sit on a bench along the Riverwalk. Estes Park is perhaps best known for being a good base for exploring nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, where you can easily spend several days exploring backwoods trails, finding waterfalls, and spotting wildlife (including elk, moose, bighorn sheep, marmots). Trial Ridge Road is considered one of the most beautiful drives in America, stretching for 48 miles from Estes Park on the east side of the park to Grand Lake on the west.
Colorado National Monument
Colorado National Monument, a spectacular stretch of land filled with decaying red rock and deep canyons, is located on the central edge of Colorado, near Grand Junction. Best known for its vistas from the 23-mile scenic drive (or road bike ride) on Rim Rock Drive, the park also is a great place to hike, watch wildlife (such as desert bighorn sheep, coyotes and golden eagles) and stargaze.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The walls of the incredible Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, in western Colorado, plunge an awe-inspiring 2,700 feet to the river below. More experienced and adventurous hikers and rock climbers can venture down into the depths on several very steep, unmaintained trails, while other visitors are free to peer into the chasm from trails lining the north and south rims of the canyon. For those who love to fish, the Canyon is known for its trout fishing. Because there are no bridges across any part of the Canyon, the only way around from the South Rim to the North Rim is a two- to three-hour drive, which allows for plenty of opportunities to enjoy the various overlook spots. The stargazing is legendary at the North Rim campground! At night, there is essentially no ambient light, and the night sky is absolutely breathtaking. In fact, the entire park is designated as an international “Dark Sky Park” so, if you have the opportunity, be sure to ask about ranger-led astronomy programs.
Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Mesa Verde National Park, in southwestern Colorado, is well worth a visit! These lands were once inhabited by cliff-dwelling ancestors of the Ancestral Puebloan people, who constructed homes out of the sandstone from the cliffs and mesas on which they were built. There are hundreds of these sites in Mesa Verde National Park, with the best-known being the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House. Tours of these sites are available, with the Cliff Palace tour being more moderate. (Both tours involve climbing exposed ladders, but the ladders are shorter on the Cliff Palace tour and there is no crawling through tight tunnels, which you must do on the Balcony House tour.) On your way there, enjoy the scenic drive on the Cliff Palace/Balcony House Loop Road. You can also hike the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Trail and see the only petroglyphs in the park. Don’t forget to stop at the the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum to learn more about the Ancestral Puebloans that called Mesa Verde home in the 1200s. The museum is home to impressive dioramas, artifacts, a gift shop and an informative movie.
About 12 miles west of Mesa Verde National Park is the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, an archaeological site with abundant evidence of native cultures. The Monument has been used or inhabited by humans, including the Northern Ancestral Puebloan culture (or Anasazi), for 10,000 years. The landscape contains more than 6,355 recorded sites (and an estimated 20,000+ total sites!) reflecting all of the physical components of past human life: villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges. It’s an incredible and fun learning opportunity for the entire family! Canyons of the Ancients is a nice complement to Mesa Verde in that it is virtually unheard-of and operates almost entirely on the honor system (don’t take any treasures you find!). It is entirely possible that you won’t see anyone else during your visit (unlike Mesa Verde, which is amazing but also crowded), and you may need a 4WD vehicle to traverse some of the roads – especially if they’re muddy!
Dinosaur National Monument
Does your child child love dinosaurs (and what child doesn’t at some point or another)? If so, you should consider making the journey out to Dinosaur National Monument, located on the Colorado and Utah border with parts of the Monument in each of those states. Dinosaur National Monument contains famous fossil finds, dramatic river canyons, intriguing petroglyphs, and endless opportunities for adventure, whether it be a strenuous hike to spectacular views, rafting through a twisting canyon, or sitting quietly and watching the sun set. The Quarry Exhibit Hall, located approximately 7 miles north of Jensen, Utah, on the Utah side of the Monument, is the place for an up close encounter with dinosaur fossils! The exhibit features one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils ever discovered, and is awe-inspiring to witness. The Canyon Visitor Center, located near Dinosaur, Colorado, serves as a gateway to the Monument’s mountains and river canyons, but does not contain any dinosaur fossils.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Great Sand Dunes is a roughly 240 miles drive from Denver. The Great Sand Dunes (the tallest sand dunes in North America!), and most of the forests, lakes and peaks of the Great San Dunes National Preserve, are designated wilderness and can be explored by day hikes or overnight backpacking trips. Remember to start your hike early during the summer months to avoid scorching sand that can reach up to 150° F. There are no trails on the dunes so feel free to hike as short or as far as you like! Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at 750 feet, is a five-hour roundtrip hike. You can spend your evening at a free ranger program or on a ranger-led sunset hike. And don’t forget to star-gaze if you are there after dark!
Although the above only touches on a few of the many amazing places to visit in Colorado, it hopefully at least provides you with some food for thought for planning a fun-filled (and even at times educational!) family vacation. As an integrative pediatrician and your family’s favorite medical home, we take a holistic approach to health care, focusing on your child’s emotional, as well as physical, health. With the proper planning and precautions, a fun, safe family vacation may prove to be a good antidote for these stressful times!