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Best family fun vacation ideas for Colorado, Part One

(This is a guest post by tourism expert, Mom and all-around great gal Sarah Page. She rocks communications for the Colorado River Trail and is the sort of friend who responds cheerfully to my “Hey, write guest post for me?” right after her relaxing vacation.  Part Two of this series will post on Wednesday, September 1.)

Our Rocky Mountain High, Family-Style

My love for Colorado began well over 20 years ago in high school and college, and on vacations with my cousin and her family several times during the 1980s.  My cousin Robin worked at the YMCA of the Rockies for a couple of summers, so we spent lots of time up in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.  That area (and the whole state of Colorado really) quickly became one of my favorite places.

So when we began talking about where to go on our family vacation this summer, the decision was a no-brainer for me.  My husband had only been to Colorado on ski trips and the kids had never been at all.  It didn’t take much convincing, actually.

To get to do things outside?  In the summer?  During the day?!  Tell me where to sign up!  If you’ve ever spent time in Texas in the summer heat, you’ll understand.

Being back in Colorado with my family was just as good – if not better – than the time I spent there in college.  The best part was watching my kids (ages 8 and 6) discover what I’d known all along.

With that in mind, here are some of the highlights of our favorite kid-friendly places to visit and things to do from our trip.  These are the places we enjoyed the most, and where our kids had the most fun.

Colorado Springs

Pike’s Peak and the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway

The best way to see Pike’s Peak is a trip up the mountain on the Cog Railway.  Someone else drives, so both parents are able to enjoy the view.  The tour guides do a great job pointing out interesting things to see and telling funny stories.

Pike's Peak, Colorado (courtesy Sarah Page)

While we didn’t see any wildlife, they say it’s not unusual to see elk, bighorn sheep, and marmots at the upper elevations.  Marmots?!

Once at the 14,115 foot summit, the views are breathtaking; so gorgeous in fact that the song “America the Beautiful” was inspired by the views.  The elevation is breathtaking too; we all felt some effects of the high altitude, but they went away quickly as we made the descent.

On top there are decks and other platforms to help you get the best views.  Visitors can walk around, do a little climbing, visit the café and gift shop, and take lots and lots of pictures before it’s time to head back down.

Tips:

  • The ride up is 1 ½ hours and there are NO bathrooms on the train, so make a potty stop before boarding.
  • To help combat the effects of the altitude, bring and drink lots of water.  Keep your empties and refill them from the fountain in the gift shop.  The water is delicious!  Please refer to the tip above.
  • Plan for at least a half day.  It’s a 3 ½ hour round trip, plus you’ll probably want to add in a breakfast and/or lunch.
  • Manitou Springs, the place where you board the train, is a cute and funky little town.  There are lots of fun shops and eateries, and most are family-friendly.  There are also lots of equally cool and funky lodging options.
  • Make your reservations a couple of weeks in advance.  This is a very popular attraction that tends to fill up quickly.  Adults are $33, kids are $18, and children 2 and under are free.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods, Colorado, conquered! (courtesy Sarah Page)This free park is definitely worth a stop, even if all you do is drive through and marvel at the views.

If  you have the time, stop and take in the sights up close on some of the many walking and hiking trails throughout the park.  In the park you’ll see sandstone rock formations, many of which are over 300 feet tall.

The hiking trails are beginner level, so they’re great for young children.

Our 6-year-old son discovered a new-found love for hiking and climbing during our visit.  He’s now a self-proclaimed expert hiker!

Tips:

  • It’s always a good idea to have water along with you on a hike.  Even though it’s fairly cool in Colorado in the summer, the dry air makes you thirsty quickly.
  • Most of the trails are a mile in length or shorter – great for hiking with kids.
  • You can even tour Garden of the Gods on a Segway!  Call the park to make sure your kids are old enough.
  • The Visitor and Nature Center is worth a stop.  It has lots of great hands-on exhibits on the geology and cultural history of Colorado.  The gift shop is also quite nice.

Celestial Seasonings Tour

I know, I know.  A tea factory doesn’t sound like anything your kids would want to see.  Trust me.  They will.  Before the tour starts, you (and your kids) can sample tea to your heart’s content.  A teabag is your ticket to begin the tour, which starts with a short video about the company’s history and mission.  Then it’s on to the tour!

This is one of the only factory tours I know of where you actually get to walk on the production floor.  In most cases, you’re just a few short feet away from the machinery or the people doing their jobs.  You get an up-close and personal look at how the tea is produced and packaged.

The coolest part of the tour, though, has to be the mint room.  If you have a stuffy nose, you’ll be breathing clear by the time you leave!

Tips:

  • Since you’re on the production floor, a hairnet is required at all times.  Men with beards must wear “beardnets” too.  My husband sure did look cute!
  • Due to the close proximity of the machinery, make sure the kids keep their hands and fingers to themselves.
  • No photography is allowed on the tour.
  • You’ll want to bring along some extra cash.  The gift shop is amazing!

Denver

Hammond’s Candies Tour

There should be no arguments from the back seat about stopping for this tour.  Our two kiddos were practically out of the car before we had it in Park!

Hammond's Candies in Denver, Colorado (courtesy Sarah Page)

Hammond’s has been around since 1920; it’s probably best known for its candy canes, but they also make chocolates, toffees, taffy, and lollipops too.

And they do it the old-fashioned way.  I mean really old-fashioned.  When they use machinery, it’s equipment they’ve had since the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Most of the time, the candy is made and cut by hand.  Even though you can’t go on the production floor, the huge plate glass windows make it possible to see everything very well.

The various work stations are well signed and often have large mirrors to help you see the detail work.  You won’t be able to resist the candy store at the end of the tour.

It’s no use – your mouth is already watering before you even get there.

Tips:

  • The Hammond’s Candies building is right off IH-25 and is pretty easy to get to.  It’s in a fairly industrial and warehouse-y part of town, which could be off-putting to some.  But don’t worry, it’s safe.
  • This will take much longer than you expect.  The video and tour last about 45 minutes, but you’ll spend at least that long trying to get your kids out of the candy store!
  • Take all the pictures you want!
  • The tour is free, but sadly, the candy store is not.

Check back on Wednesday, September 1 for Part Two, covering the fun in Estes Park/Rocky Mountain National Park. Horses are involved! 🙂

(Guest poster Sarah Page also blogs about technology, social media and tourism at Tourism Tech, where she tells the real story behind my startup project, Tourism Currents.)