Rocky Mountain National Park – December 2016

Hannah – 3 ½ years old – National Park #1

In trying to escape the loneliness of the holidays, and establish new traditions and memories, I booked a trip for Hannah and I to Denver over Christmas 2016 (almost 3 years after Jim died).  Immediately after arriving in Denver and getting our rental car, we drove straight to Red Rocks Park as I had never been there and it was not far out of town.  It was easy to find a place to park along the road and we did a relatively short 1.5 mile easy hike there before heading to a friend’s house in Denver for the night.  It was nice to get her out on a walk after sitting in a plane all morning.  The next morning, we headed up to Estes Park, CO for Hannah’s first National Park experience. 

Red Rock Park

When my husband and I traveled to National Parks, we started a “National Park Sign Picture” tradition that many park-goers also partake in, and so I continued this tradition with Hannah.  At 3 years old though, she was determined that her Disney princesses that she had brought with on the plane also be a part of this picture. 

Rocky Mountain National Park

We drove in at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (map of Rocky Mountain NP), drove north on 36, and looped around on Hwy 34 passing the Fall River Visitor Center, stopping for every animal we saw along the way.  Thankfully, our first drive through the park was already full of wildlife.  We saw a huge field of elk, and although I was hoping for a moose, Hannah seemed pretty amazed at the elk. 

Elk in a field behind Hannah

We stayed at a place called Murphy’s River Lodge that had a good breakfast and an indoor swimming pool that was pretty chilly in December, but Hannah did not seem to notice – she swam every night we were there.  The front desk also had movies to check out and bring to your room!    Hannah selected “The Land Before Time” and I recalled liking that movie as a child, so we grabbed that during check out and watched it our first night in the hotel room.  Spoiler alert:  the mom dinosaur DIES!  If you are trying to escape the loneliness and sadness – I’d advise against this movie!  Hannah, however, didn’t seem fazed by it, so only one of us was crying at this point.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake

The next day we had big plans!  We drove down the beautiful, scenic Bear Lake Road to Bear Lake.  My plan was to hike around the lake ( ½ mile hike) and maybe do some other hiking around that area.  It was a little busy so we parked near the end of the parking lot.  I brought a backpack with to hold any layers we remove along with some snacks and water.  You can NEVER have too many snacks when it comes to hiking with kids!  We made it all the way from the car to the trailhead when Hannah said loudly, “Mom, my legs are really tired.  Can we take a break?”  Every parent in hearing distance laughed as I secretly rolled my eyes and said, “Sure honey, but you realize we haven’t started the hike yet, right?”  So we sat at the benches between the parking lot and trailhead, eating a granola bar. 

To say I was skeptical that we would ever make it around Bear Lake was an understatement, but to my surprise, the moment we got on the trail, Hannah completely forgot we were hiking and she went into explorer mode.  She climbed all over the rocks and was amazed that the snow went up to her waist when she stepped off the padded down trail.

Sledding in a National Park

Sledding at Hidden Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park

After our hike around Bear Lake, we drove over to Estes Park Mountain Shop where we were able to rent a sled for about $5.00.  As far as I know, Rocky Mountain National Park is the only NP to officially have a sledding hill in it.  Hidden Valley is just outside of Estes Park on Hwy 34.  It is a perfect sledding hill for an afternoon of fun.  EXPERT TIP: Hike first, sled later – giving the kids something to look forward to is a great incentive to keep them going on the trails!

Downtown Estes Park

That afternoon we walked downtown to check out the scene, but by then Hannah was getting a little tired so we decided to just grab a bite to eat.  I had completely forgot it was Christmas Eve, and people were all starting to close up their shops to go home to their families when I realized if we didn’t find a restaurant soon, we’d be eating McDonalds for Christmas. 

Thankfully we popped into The Grubsteak Restaurant just in time and they must have seen the desperation on my face as the waiter said if we order quickly, he will still get our order in.  That’s easy for Hannah – her fave – Mac and Cheese!  I took a quick glance at the menu and said “What are you known for?”  He told me the Elk burgers are amazing, so I took a chance and he was right!  He even sat and chatted with us afterwards.

Lessons Learned

Overall, my first solo trip was both better and worse than I expected.  Better in terms of Hannah’s abilities to hike and keep pace with a vacation that did not include naps, but what I didn’t enjoy was the loneliness, though I believe that to be more because of it being Christmas and less about actually being alone.  I missed my family and was excited to be home with them the following weekend for our Christmas celebration.

I love traveling with my daughter and showing her the National Parks but I should NOT do that again at Christmastime.