Helpful Hints, Travel

Road Tripping from Houston to Colorado with Kids: Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Ft. Collins

So far on our epic road tripping journey from Houston to Colorado with kids, we’ve planned our trip, headed up to Canyon, TX to rest our heads and see both Cadillac Ranch and Palo Duro, and explored southern Colorado, including Colorado Springs. For the final post in the series, we’ll use Boulder as our home base to explore the surrounding area, including Fort Collins, Rocky Mountain National Park, and some very special green space in between.

A Quick but Essential Stop in Denver

We had probably visited Denver at least 10 times before, so it wasn’t on our list to really explore, but it was a fantastic stop between Colorado Springs and Boulder for lunch and stretching legs! Here are some recommendations on stops you should make in Denver and why:

  • Cerebral Brewing: It wasn’t open to visit (thanks, COVID), but they had curbside pickup from 12-7. We ordered online that morning and grabbed a 4-pack of delicious Myopic Tendencies micro IPA for our picnic lunch. FYI, this area is the “cool area” and thus super hard to find a bathroom anywhere. The park we’re about to mention had port-a-potties though!
  • Zaps Epiq Sandwiches: The perfect choice for a takeout picnic lunch, ordering was easy and pick up was seamless. The staff were wonderful and had it all ready in advance. Everything we ordered was fantastic!
  • Cheesman Park: A very large and open park for stretching those legs after a long drive, Cheesman Park has nice picnic tables, port-a-potties, and super soft grass for taking a rest after a great meal. The park used to be a thoroughfare for vehicles, but recently many of the roads through the park have been blocked off to make it more pedestrian-friendly. The neighborhood is hard to park in, but you should have success near the southwest corner of the park. We were able to find a spot and walk just a block or two to eat lunch at a nice picnic table in a grove of trees. After we ate, we ran through the grass and explored the monument in the middle of the park.
So much space to play and run at Cheesman Park in Denver!

Spending Time in Boulder

Previous visits to Boulder without kids were filled with strolling down Pearl Street and late night eating and drinking. COVID didn’t allow any of that on this trip, and the kids go to bed early, so it was a different experience this time around. We were lucky to have old friends in the Boulder area that showed us a couple of hidden gems that we wouldn’t have otherwise visited. We enjoyed these the most:

  • Rayback Collective: We drove right past this at least twice and had no clue it was even somewhere fun to go, because it’s back from the road. This is a really neat spot to eat and drink with kids. They do need to stay at the table with you because of COVID, so make sure you have an activity book or something for them to do! There is a rotating selection of food trucks and a big open indoor space as well where there is often live music.
  • Walk the Boulder Creek Path: This pathway runs right along the creek and is a really fun way to spend an early evening with kids. When we went, there were people tubing in the creek, walking, picnicking, and just plain enjoying themselves. It was relaxed, and it helped get a different flavor of the city than just being a tourist on Pearl.
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Center and Trails: We didn’t get to do this, but it’s on our list when we come back, and it was highly rated by our friends. The center itself was closed due to COVID, but apparently the trails are great for kids – they were open at the time – and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

Fort Collins – A Perfect Day Trip

Sort of like Boulder, the last time we were in Fort Collins was without kids, so it was all beer festivals and eating out. This time our goal was to spend time outdoors and of course to visit New Belgium Brewery! Here’s how we did our day trip:

  • Breakfast from Butterfly Cafe: Our kids get up early, so we were on the road by 8 and in Ft. Collins by 9. We grabbed breakfast in Ft. Collins and took it to Lee Martinez Community Park, a large park just up the road from the cafe that’s right next to a small science museum. Takeout from the cafe was easy and delicious, and the park was a 5-minute drive. There were picnic tables, and the kids ran around the baseball fields and played tag. There were also restrooms – big bonus!
  • Wading in the Cache la Poudre River: This seemed to be the hot thing to do in Ft. Collins, because it was well – hot – when we were there! This is a very long river, but a good bit of it goes right through the middle of Ft. Collins. There is an area close to the aforementioned Lee Martinez Park that is easy to walk to. There are miles of trails along this river, so it’s hard to understand where exactly to start. This area is called the Poudre River Whitewater Park. There were tons of families, but it was easy to find a spot to ourselves that was safe for little kids. Bring your bathing suits and towels, because wading in the water just won’t cut it!
  • New Belgium Brewing: We just had to go to this brewery, but when we looked to try and get reservations (there was limited capacity at the time we visited), they didn’t have any. We drove to the brewery anyways to get some beer, and because it was a weekday, they had some space reserved for walk-ups on their very large and awesome patio available. It was restful and fun, and the kids were able to drink apple juice while we enjoyed our beer. If you want to go here and capacity is still limited, especially on a weekend, get reservations well in advance!
The walk along the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins is beautiful.

Rocky Mountain National Park

No trip to Colorado is complete without visiting Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP as the locals call it – and we will to because it’s hard to type the whole thing), so we reserved 2 days at the park in advance. What we did was amazing, and we don’t regret it, but we’d do it a different way next time. Here are some lessons learned so your trip can be better for it:

  • There are two main ways to get into RNMP – Estes Park, which is the way everybody goes and knows, and Grand Lake, which is closer to Denver. This is a HUGE park, people!
  • One day was enough, because we found more accessible and less crowded places by accident that were really spectacular.
  • The AllTrails app was right and told us that the very popular trail to Nymph Lake/Dream Lake/Emerald Lake was “heavily trafficked,” but we didn’t believe them because at the time we went, the park was operating at 60% capacity. That was a mistake! Literally every family in the park was on this trail, and the trail head was out of parking, even at 10am when we went. We had to wait in line for the Bear Lake shuttle and that was just weird, even with everyone masked up. The trail on the RMNP map also said it was a “stroll,” and it was most definitely a moderate trail for someone from the Gulf Coast used to flat landscapes – be warned!
  • The most awesome experience was when we decided to not do any other big hikes and just drive through the park on Trail Ridge Road. It was wonderful driving up through the freezing cold tundra and through the windy switchbacks for breathtaking views! We went in the Estes Park entrance and out the Grand Lake entrance – do not underestimate the drive once you get OUT of the park from Grand Lake to Boulder. It was literally hours, but we were fine with it. Just be prepared!
You just can’t go this area of the country and not enjoy the views at Rocky Mountain National Park!

When we go again to RMNP, here’s what we’ll do:

  • Use Denver or Greeley as a base: Boulder was great because we enjoyed the city and went up to Fort Collins, but if we were to focus on Rocky Mountain National Park again, we would probably stay in Denver and access RMNP through the Grand Lake entrance.
  • Go visit the Continental Divide again: The picture at the sign is cool, but the real gem is the nearby lake and stream so you can see the water drain to the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other. We had the most fun exploring this area, and there was nobody there!
  • Hike the Coyote Ridge Trail: This is on the same side of the park as the Grand Lake entrance. While we didn’t do it, it was highly rated and AllTrails said it was great for kids. This part of the park was not busy at all and it would have been really fun to explore.
  • Visit the Alpine Visitors Center: We probably wouldn’t drive through the whole park again – instead, we’d go from Grand Lake to the Alpine Visitors Center and back. It would have been fun to hike around there and see a totally different and superbly chilly landscape. Just remember to bring pants and a coat – we couldn’t get out of the car for any length of time because we had shorts and hoodies!

The Real, Unexpected Treasure – JeffCo Open Space

Probably the most surprising and fun drive of this part of the trip was on the way back from Grand Lake out of Rocky Mountain National Park and back to Boulder. We were really exhausted from driving all day and just wanted to get home, but because it would take the same amount of time either way, we opted for a back road from Idaho Springs to Golden two small towns on the route), rather than the larger I-70. This smaller road, US Route 6, was a super fantastic drive through wilderness, forested mountains, and our favorite – TUNNELS! There were 5 tunnels on this route to drive through, whitewater rafters on a river next to where we were driving, and the whole family loved every moment. We vowed to go back the next day and explore this area.

Turns out US Route 6 is right through the middle of Jefferson County – this particular county has something called JeffCo Open Space, which is an organization that has preserved 56,000 acres of nature, 27 open space parks, and 244 miles of trails. Why have we never heard of this before? Here’s an interactive map (best viewed on desktop) of the whole thing, and here’s a pdf if you’re on mobile or want to save it.

The next day after we made the drive, we went back to check the rest of it out. US Route 6 is part of the Peaks to Plains Trail, a trail that is currently being constructed that will eventually be 65 miles of trails connecting 4 counties and 7 cities. Wow!

The part of the Peaks to Plains Trail that is finished that we visited was Clear Creek Canyon Park. There were several trail heads along US Route 6 that had easily accessible entrances with parking lots, but we chose the Big Easy Trail Head. There are restrooms, you can wade in the cold, clear water, there is a really neat bridge, and it connects to miles of walking trails. These trails are paved and 10-ft wide, so it’s perfect for strollers. We didn’t have a stroller, so we spent most of the time in the woods after crossing the bridge over the river. There was a dirt trail that was easy hiking to a rock climbing wall. We didn’t do the wall, but it was fun hiking the trail! Note that this whole area is near the highway, so you will hear road noise. We didn’t care one bit.

One of the best parts of the Big Easy Trail Head area was playing in the water. Bring your bathing suits and towels! There are about a half dozen areas to get down into shallow water with a rocky bottom that young kids will absolutely love. We felt safe, even though our kids aren’t swimmers yet, and there were no families even close to us.

The water and trails at the Big Easy Trail Head were safe and enjoyable for families of all ages and abilities.

After that, it was back on the long road back home, with stopovers in Pueblo and Canyon.

That’s where this road trip ends – we hope we’ve been helpful to you in planning your trip to Colorado. When you get back, let us know what your favorite moments were!