You'll certainly feel like you're high above earth as you drive Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road, nicknamed the "highway to the sky," because at its highest point -- 12,183 feet -- it's higher than any other paved highway in the nation. The winding Trail Ridge Road, at the western edge of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, offering you a perfect spot to stop for a picnic, a selfie or a walk!
Rocky Mountain National Park is one giant outdoor playground offering more than 350 miles of hiking trails, many from Trail Ridge Road, 114 mountain peaks and 147 lakes that stretch 415 square miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake. No wonder it is a top draw with National Park goers, the fifth most visited park in the country right behind Yosemite and Yellowstone. This summer is a particularly special time to visit, since, throughout September, Rocky Mountain National Park and the towns that surround it are all celebrating the park's centennial with special activities and talks and walks with rangers.
Take the Across the Divide GeoTour -- a free GPS geocaching adventure across the Continental Divide. (Download the official Across the Divide "Passport Map" and find 10 or more geocaches for souvenir commemorative coins at the Estes Park Visitor Center.)
Check out the Centennial Exhibit at the wonderful interactive History Colorado Center, if you are passing through Denver. Also encourage the kids to visit WebRangers on the park's website.
Once you get to the park, stop in at a visitor center so you can find out what special family activities are scheduled -- maybe a campfire story? The kids can pick up the free Junior Ranger activity booklet, earning a ranger badge when they're done. (There are activity booklets for those five and under, 6 to 8 and 9 and older in English and Spanish.) Make sure to visit Junior Ranger Headquarters at Hidden Valley along Trail Ridge Road, open all summer starting June 20, for special kids' activities.)
Kids can't help but love this place, especially the wildlife. "We saw a bunch of elk and a coyote right next to the road," said Cam, 13, visiting from Indianapolis.
In fact, Colorado has North America's largest elk herd -- 260,000 -- with thousands spending their summers on the lower edge of the tundra. Check out those antlers! The antlers on a bull elk can weigh 25 pounds and span 5 feet.
"Last time we were there we saw a moose!" said Abel, 12, one of the Colorado kids I interviewed for my Kid’s Guide to Colorado, one in a series I've written designed to help kids lead the way on family adventures.
Watch for hawks and eagles to fly by. In May, golden eagle chicks hatch in nests all over Rocky Mountain National Park, which is home to several pairs. There is also a pair of bald eagles that nest just outside the park.
Look for Big Horn sheep clinging impossibly to the cliffs. Their sharp hooves not only give them traction on the cliffs, but also serve as weapons against predators. Kids love watching the beaver, industriously working on their dams and lodges.
A tip: You'll have the best luck seeing animals early in the morning or late in the afternoon when they are most active. Just don't feed the animals or approach too closely. And move slowly so you don't scare them.
Got your hiking shoes on? A jacket would be helpful too. Many hiking trails branch off from Trail Ridge Road. You might start in a forest of Aspen trees, but in a just few minutes, you'll be above tree line in conditions you'd find in the Arctic. It will be 30 degrees colder up there, too cold for trees to grow. Over one-third of Rocky Mountain National Park is tundra.
Glacier Gorge Junction is one of the most popular areas for a wilderness walk. Hike 2.5 miles from the trailhead there to Mills Lake or take a hard 5-mile hike to Andrews Glacier. If your family is in good shape, you can climb Long's Peak, one of Colorado's famous "fourteeners." At 14,255 feet, it's the tallest mountain in northern Colorado.
Archaeologists think Native American families came here more than 10,000 years ago, just as we do today, for summer fun -- hiking, camping, fishing.
"I like to camp here because you can go fishing and eat what you catch!" said David, 11, another Colorado boy I interviewed.
Take time to stroll through the town of Estes Park, if you enter the park from the east. There are shops selling everything from Christmas tree ornaments to sweatshirts you may need to stuffed moose and freshly baked cookies. Check out the big old Stanley Hotel up on a hill in Estes Park. At one time, it was the fanciest resort in the Rockies and was the inspiration for Stephen King's horror novel "The Shining." There's a new permanent 10,100-square-foot maze on the front lawn and a kid-friendly ghost tour of the property. "You shouldn't leave Colorado without visiting the Stanley Hotel," said Coloradan Lacey, 14.
The Estes Park Museum, located behind Town Hall, is free and has a new "Climb On!" exhibit that allows you to experience the vertical side of Estes Park, home to some of the nation's most spectacular rock climbing.
Memo to kids: Remind parents to always stash plenty of water, snacks and rain jackets in your packs. You don't want to end up hiking in a downpour like we did once, though it did make for a funny story -- once we dried off.
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.