Rocky Mountain High
May 29, 2013 8:35 AM   Subscribe

After a recent drive from DC down to Tennessee In Which I Realized I'm a Little Bored with the Appalachians, I would like to plan a family vacation this summer (probably July) somewhere in the Rockies. I need some help figuring out where best to stage this grand adventure.

We would be flying in, renting a car, and not camping (lodging could be anything from rustic yurt to modest lodge/cabin/condo, not fancy resort/spa). "We" are my husband, 15-yo daughter, and me. All are somewhat active. Daughter likes to fish, ride horses, and I think she might like whitewater rafting, ATVs, and things like ziplining. She will more grudgingly do some hiking (up to 3-4 hours) but doesn't enjoy bike riding. Husband and daughter both enjoy outdoor photography.

I am thinking 7-10 days total, and while splitting that time between a couple of different home bases is an option (especially if we go for a longer stay), I don't envision any sort of grand tour that involves a lot of park hopping. So first off, I am having a hard time figuring out what area/park(s) to target. Some possibilities I'm considering and investigated briefly include Glacier National Park, Jackson Hole/Grand Tetons, and Estes CO/Rocky Mountain National Park. I think we will not look into Yellowstone this year. I'm not sure I want to muck around with passports but if someone makes a compelling argument for Banff or Jasper that's not completely off the table. Daughter has a low tolerance for heat, so I'm not thinking southwest-ish at all.

One of my main criteria is: big mountains with spectacular views. I don't know how the parks listed above (or a mountain range to be named later) rank in terms of spectacularness. I've been to Colorado as a kid, and it was pretty, but Grand Tetons and GNP always seem so much more spectacular in photos. However, I don't know if this is just a case where "the camera adds 10 pounds of majesty" or is actually true. For sheer majestic beauty, which ranks best?

I'm willing to entertain non-national park destinations, but there does need to be a certain on-the-ground density of lodging, outfitters, and other services so that we can keep busy.
posted by drlith to Travel & Transportation around Montana (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Of the places you've mentioned, I've only been to Estes Park, CO - it's *amazing*. Breathtakingly so.

Also, some cute in town shopping, for a nice break.

We went right as the park opened in late May, years ago, and so did not go through the national park as much as we thought we might, but Estes Park itself is beautiful.
posted by needlegrrl at 8:41 AM on May 29, 2013

I'm not sure I want to muck around with passports but if someone makes a compelling argument for Banff or Jasper that's not completely off the table.

Driving from Calgary, through Banff to Jasper was one of the most spectacular things I've ever done. The further North you go the more glaciers you see, the more wildlife you pass, and the more amazing it gets. Once I got to Jasper I was tempted to just drop out of society and live there like a hermit.

We then worked our way back to Calgary with a mix of hostels, tenting, and hotels. We stayed at the Mt. Edith Cavell Hostel for a couple of nights, right under a handing glacier by a turquoise pond. We sat around the campfire with people from all over the world and generally had an awesome time.

We bathed in hot springs with hundreds of blue-capped tourists from all over. We rafted in the Athabasca River (really fucking cold), canoed on Lake Louise, hiked in open alpine meadows, backpacked though wild mountain passes, came across grizzly tracks, saw brown bears (sadly, we never actually saw a grizzly), moose, elk (tons), bighorn sheep (tons), marmot, and aggressive, psychotic, but oh-so-cute ground squirrels.

We hoped on over to British Columbia for a day and gave a ride to a local woman whose family was picking blueberries when their truck got stuck in the mud. Mt. Robson was socked in so we canceled our hike there but we still had a fun time. The local authorities set up a road block, making sure nobody was smuggling salmon back to Alberta.

We did a grand tour of Jasper and Banff, but I could have easily have stayed in any location for a week or more. If I had to pick one I'd choose Jasper over Banff because it was more wild and less touristy.

Mountains were big. Views were spectacular. It was a really amazing time and I'd recommend it to anyone who loves the mountains.
posted by bondcliff at 8:56 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Durango Co. is possible destination--particularly if you fly to Denver and then cut across Co. and some beautiful mountain passes. Durango offers a wide variety of day activities including horse back riding, white water rafting, kayaking, mountain biking etc. And perhaps the most scenic narrow gauge train ride in the country. Lodgings can be from simple/moderately priced to over the top. A link to Google Images of Durango--you will not be disappointed.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:12 AM on May 29, 2013

When I was a teenager my family spent a couple of weeks in a cabin on the edge of Grand Teton. It was very pretty in spots, but also felt a little too huge and spread out, like we had to drive a long ways to get to particular activities and attractions. In summer, the national parks can really be mobbed with people. Heavy traffic kinda inhibits the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere.

I want to suggest the area around Red River, New Mexico, which is in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a subrange of the Rockies that bridges the Colorado / New Mexico border. I only spent part of one day there, stopping for lunch and to buy a fly fishing rod during a cross-country motorcycle ride, but it felt like a really appealing place to spend some time. It's an outdoorsy tourist area, with plenty of amenities and things to do, and I remember it as being more human-scaled than some of the gargantuan national parks.
posted by jon1270 at 9:17 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Death Valley is gorgeous and other-worldly. It is also really well named. Avoid in July. (It makes a great destination in January though.) (sorry...really more of an anti-recommendation/safety notice)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:12 AM on May 29, 2013

About the heat: don't forget that it's significantly cooler at higher altitudes, and the drier air out there makes even warmer temperatures much more comfortable. So, while Red River (Elevation 8,671 feet) is definitely southwestern, it's a world away from the low-altitude deserts. Average daily high in July is around 75F. Average low temps in July are in the low 40's, so mornings are brisk and cool. Don't write it off just because it's southwestern.
posted by jon1270 at 10:31 AM on May 29, 2013

My family did a trip like this forever ago. We flew into Denver from the East Coast and rented a car and made a big loop over the week were there. We didn't do any camping, we stayed in motels and hotels. We went to Breckenridge, Leadville, Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs ... there were many beautiful mountain passes to go through and the scenery was amazing. We went white water rafting and went on trail rides (with horses). I can't give any specific information, because it was so long ago. I was the same age as your daughter during this trip and had a good time.

As an adult, I don't think Colorado Springs is worth visiting other than getting to Pikes Peak. If you went farther west from Denver, I recommend driving to Ouray, CO along the Million Dollar Highway, which has some of the most spectacular views I've seen in a long time. Great Sand Dunes in Alamosa are also interesting and the road from Durango/Pagosa Springs to Alamosa runs through Wolf Creek Pass which is also really scenic.
posted by backwords at 10:58 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Estes is a wonderful destination, and even as a local(ish) it's my go-to getaway. Quick access to the park - try to visit the Alluvial Fan and drive Trail Ridge Road (perhaps on your way to visit the town of Grand Lake).

Estes itself has some shopping, though a lot of it is clearly tourist trap-type junk. There are some really good places to eat (and some really bad). There's horseback riding, go-karts, mini-golf and a lot more.

Feel free to PM me for some specific recommendations if you decide to visit Estes. There's a lot to see and do.
posted by Perthuz at 12:15 PM on May 29, 2013

Best answer: How weird. I am on vacation right now, just left Estes Park for points south.

We didn't get to do a LOT in RMNP - Trail Ridge Road just opened for the season a few days ago, the snowbanks alongside the road are still about 10 feet tall in places! I'm sure that SOME of it will have melted by July :-) If you choose RMNP, check to see that the Bear Lake access road is open. We were unable to get out there this week because of construction. I think they're setting up a shuttle bus system, but it's not ideal.

Estes Park is a neat little town. Stay in a hotel close enough to town, there's shops, neat places to eat, a cute library with long summer hours, a movie theater showing first-run movies, etc.

One more thing: if you're planning on doing this THIS summer, make reservations ASAP with outfitters etc. for tours and hotels. Things'll fill up fast.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:15 PM on May 29, 2013

Response by poster: Estes Park/Rocky Mountain National Park it is! The proximity of all the major attractions/activities we'd like to hit was the deciding factor. We've got a vacation cottage on the creek lined up, plane tickets booked for the last week in July (the main road in the park should be open by then), and are looking forward to a great time. Bondcliff, I bet you are right about the Canadian Rockies, and husband was tempted (he's been skiing in Banff), but She Who Must Be Obeyed AKA teenage daughter is not a huge fan of long drives. So we're going to save a longer driving trip through that area and maybe even out to BC for that a few years hence when--god willing--she is busy with her own life during the summers or old enough to suffer with our choices or stay home.
posted by drlith at 7:42 PM on June 2, 2013

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