Kids are born naturalists. They access the natural world by asking questions, which sometimes come in bunches. Introducing children to the outdoors can begin at any time, but why not begin early? And why not start them out in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the country's premier outdoor wonderlands.
Infants can be carried in a front pack, which can be tucked inside the jacket if it's chilly. Hike anywhere. The youngster will be enthralled by the stunning scenery and the fresh mountain air, so enthralled that he or she will fall asleep in short order.
When they reach the toddler stage, children begin to more actively interact with nature. It is a time of observation, of making initial connections and stockpiling notes. It is a wonderful time to introduce them to one of the many discovery trips found around the park. A few suggestions.
Explore the edges of Bear Lake while enjoying the guidebook-guided trail tour that explains the area's natural and human history. Water holds an amazing variety of plant and animal life that will pique a child's curiosity.
Discover Rocky Mountain's amazing array of wildlife. At particular times during the summer (ask a park ranger), the bighorn sheep come down to Sheep Lakes. Kids especially enjoy watching them cross the road after the lambs are born. Find a ponderosa pine forest and watch for Abert's squirrels. Their dark color and busy activities catch a toddler's eye for contrast and movement.
Kids that are a bit older develop a more complex understanding of the world around them. While some children might enjoy expending energy hiking along a trail, most seem happiest thoroughly exploring a smaller area. On any hike with 3 to 5 year olds, it's a good idea to include a magnifying glass in the backpack. Textures of trees, plants, bugs and rocks are exciting close-up.
Kids love climbing on rocks. The trail to Gem Lake is a rocky paradise lined by boulders that are perfectly arranged for climbing.
In the early summer, enjoy the amazing floral colors found along the trail to Cub Lake. Have the youngsters keep an eye out for hummingbirds that may be visiting the flowers. Watch for beaver along the way in the Cub Creek drainage. Beaver dams are easy to spot in this area and stream banks are ideal places to look for animal tracks.
1) The park has a "Rocky's Junior Ranger Program" for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Emphasis is placed on park preservation, flora and fauna facts, and environmental education. When kids complete the Junior Ranger booklet, they earn a badge. Check at a visitor center for information.
2) "Children's Adventure" is a ranger-led program for kids 6 to 12 years old. It focuses on hands-on activities that teach kids about the park's geology and wildlife. At the "Skins and Skulls" talk, kids touch animal skulls and stuffed animals while learning about moose, elk, bighorn sheep, bobcats, and other creatures.
3) "Rocky's Engineers" is a terrific program led by a park ranger. Kids and adults learn how beavers make the harsh Rocky Mountain environment their home. Bring your Junior Ranger Log Book to earn credit for attending. Check at a visitor center for times.
4) Explore the park at night by attending "Rocky After Dark," led by a ranger. The whole family will learn about animals that see well in the dark, plus how to identify trees by touch. Bring jackets and flashlights.
5) The Beaver Boardwalk near the beginning of Trail Ridge Road is another place to visit with young beaver fans. The trail takes you over a pond recently inhabited by an industrious colony of beavers. Their story is told on signs along the walkway.
6) There are plenty of hiking trails that kids can enjoy (a half mile or less). See what plants and animals they can identify on the trail. The Moraine Park Nature Trail tests observation skills. Scout the shores of alpine lakes on Sprague Lake Nature Trail and Bear Lake Trail.
7) Saddle up a horse and ride into the high country. This is a wonderful way for older children to see more alpine country than possible on foot. Sign up for one of the guided rides that allow time for fishing for brown, brook, rainbow, and cutthroat trout. (A state fishing license is required.) Call 970.586.3244 or 970.586.2327.
8) Try this car game: Describe what the mountains, clouds, and other features look like. The Mummy Range, for example, looks like a sleeping Egyptian mummy. What other shapes do the mountains seem to take?
9) At the Moraine Park Museum, see exhibits designed especially with kids in mind. The "animal, vegetable, mineral" game is a natural to play after learning about the geology and wildlife of the Rockies. For example: "I'm thinking of something that's speckled when it's warm out and white when it snows." (A ptarmigan.) 10) In late July, the mountains ring with music and fun during the Rooftop Fair and Rodeo in Estes Park. A rodeo with Colorado cowboys, a parade, and country-western concerts are all on the agenda. In the winter, go to the Winter Carnival at Grand Lake to celebrate this snowy wonderland. There are snowmobile events, snow sculpture contests, and more.