With its endless blue skies and hiking, climbing and exploring galore, Colorado is a wonderful place to introduce the kiddos to the great outdoors.
But there’s more to Colorado than peaks and canyons – the state is also bursting with history and culture, from prehistoric times to today. You could spend weeks crisscrossing the state and never truly see it all – but don’t let that stop you from herding everyone into the car and giving it a try!
Is Colorado good for kids?
Colorado’s outdoor wonders, combined with abundant historic sites and kid-friendly cities, make this a superb destination for families. With so many possibilities, consider choosing a few primary destinations – starting off in museum-packed Denver – and link them up with a flexible driving plan.
Be sure to check road conditions before you come. Mountain roads can close in the winter, and the I-70 highway is bumper-to-bumper on weekends and holidays. Snacks and fully charged tablets will go a long way toward keeping everyone happy in case of delays.
If you’re headed to the mountains, bring layers and warm hats; temperatures can vary widely throughout the day, even in the summer. Also pack brimmed sunhats, sunscreen and water bottles, all of which are essential for any outdoor activities.
Whether you’ve been hiking the high country or just walking around downtown Denver, if you or the kiddos start feeling cruddy, it may well be from altitude sickness. Slowing down, resting and hydrating can work wonders.
Discounts for children often apply for tours, admission fees and public transportation – sometimes as much as 50% off the adult rate. Infants under two typically go free. If traveling to Denver, consider purchasing a CityPASS, a prepaid ticket package that offers significant discounts for some of the city’s top attractions.
Take a family escape to nature in Colorado’s fascinating national parks © Tamara Lackey / Getty Images / fStop
National parks serve up energetic family fun
Colorado’s four national parks are spectacular and wildly distinct, and all offer camping and outdoor recreation, kid-oriented exhibitions and fascinating activity programs. Join ranger-led tours and campfire talks – typically offered daily – to learn more about each park.
In the north, Rocky Mountain National Park is the state’s signature park, with hundreds of granite peaks and shimmering lakes, flower-filled meadows and leafy forests. It’s best known for its 300 miles of trails, offering hikes for all levels of fitness, plus opportunities to see wildlife, big and small.
Similarly, families flock to Great Sand Dunes National Park in the south, drawn to its otherworldly dune fields for off-trail hiking and sand sledding down towering slopes (with gleeful wipe-outs). In late spring, the Medano Creek flows alongside the dunes, creating an oasis of sorts – perfect for water play and sandcastle-making.
Equally sensational is Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest. This is the country’s largest and best-preserved Native American archaeological site, and visitors can explore elaborate cliff dwellings, see rock art and delve into the history of the Ancestral Puebloans, imagining what life was like there in pre-Columbian times. Prepare to clamber down ladders, crawl through tunnels and peer over cliffs – a one-of-a-kind experience.
Finally, head to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, also in the Southwest, for spectacular views into the country’s deepest canyon. Most viewpoints are reached by paved roads and short hikes; it’s a good option for older kids, but perhaps less so for toddlers since there are few guardrails.
Encountering Colorado’s wolves is a memorable family experience © rogertrentham / Getty Images
Meet the wildlife in Colorado’s sanctuaries and zoos
For little people who love big creatures, a visit to one of Colorado’s wildlife sanctuaries is a surefire hit. Near Denver, the Wild Animal Sanctuary is home to over 600 rescued predators – lions, tigers, leopards, bears and wolves – that live in expansive natural habitats. A 1.5-mile elevated walkway runs through the site, allowing for easy observation with minimal impact.
Outside of Colorado Springs, the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center offers up-close-and-personal learning programs with its wolves, foxes and coyotes. Varying in length, the experiences are fun and educational (and often end in a group howl).
Raptor fans shouldn’t miss the Nature & Wildlife Discovery Center outside of Pueblo. The center rehabilitates more than 200 injured birds of prey per year, and guided tours are offered weekly. If zoos are more your pace, kids can feed giraffes, elephants and rhinos at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo or wander through the Denver Zoo with its 700-plus species.
Who wouldn’t want to see fossilized dino bones embedded in a gigantic cliff face? © photo / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Dinosaurs abound in the Centennial State
If you’re traveling with dino-philes, you’ve come to the right state. Colorado is one of the top places in the country to see fossilized dinosaur bones and tracks in their original setting. Located in northwestern Colorado, Dinosaur National Monument is the quintessential stop; visitors can touch dinosaur skeletons and see over 1500 prehistoric bones embedded in a dramatic cliff face.
In southern Colorado, Picketwire Dinosaur Tracksite is the largest documented dinosaur footprint site in North America, with over 1300 visible dinosaur tracks. Guided tours by 4WD are highly rewarding (reservations required). If you have strong hikers on your hands, an 11.3-mile round-trip trail leads here too.
Near Cañon City, Garden Park Fossil Area is one of Colorado’s largest Jurassic graveyards, with several walking trails leading through the bone beds. And if you’re in Denver, don’t miss nearby Dinosaur Ridge, where prehistoric footprints and fossils are easily viewed on tours.
Alternatively, guides at the Morrison Natural History Museum lead young visitors through the exhibits, answering questions and encouraging kids to handle dinosaur fossils, most found nearby. Visitors can often help “clean” fossils in the Paleontology Lab too.
The Children’s Museum of Denver is a delight for little crawlers and middle school-aged kiddos © Brent Lewis / Denver Post via Getty Images
Colorado’s museums serve up plenty of educational fun
In Colorado’s major cities, junior travelers should head to the many hands-on museums. Denver has the most interesting options; the Children’s Museum Denver Marisco Campus is a must for the 10-and-under set, with imaginative exhibits and activities, including cooking classes, a maker space and a special section for toddlers.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science is another must-see in town – a state-of-the-art museum with exhibits that range from the fascinating to the bizarre. An IMAX Theater and planetarium seal the deal. Likewise, History Colorado Center has fabulous and constantly evolving exhibits about the Centennial State’s people and places.
Several affiliate museums are scattered around the state, and all are engaging for visitors of all ages. Good choices include the Ute Indian Museum (Montrose), Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Museum (near Alamosa) and Healy House Museum & Dexter Cabin (Leadville).
Old Bent’s Fort is a great place to start learning about the complicated Old West © ericfoltz / Getty Images
Discover the Colorado version of the Old West
Everyone from pioneering entrepreneurs to desperate Civil War-scorched families came to Colorado, lured by gold and the promise of a fresh start. Today, travelers of all ages enjoy exploring the state’s Old West sites, to learn what life was once like here.
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site is a good place to start. The fort was once a bustling trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, and staff in period dress “work” the fort, sharing historical details and stories about prairie life in the 1800s. To the south, Trinidad History Museum has excellent exhibits about the Santa Fe Trail (little ones can stretch their legs – and lungs – in the onsite gardens).
In Leadville, Colorado’s boom-and-bust mining lore is on full display in the town’s National Historic District. Dig in at the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum, with its exhibits on the lives of miners and even a mock-up coal mine. Or take a surface tour of one of the state’s richest silver mines, Matchless Mine, where kids can pan for gold and learn about the riches-to-rags story of famous Baby Doe Tabor.
For DIY Old West experiences, visit Colorado’s ghost towns, where visitors can wander past weathered log cabins, poke their heads into collapsing shops and saloons, and imagine life long ago. Easily accessible sites include Ashcroft and Independence outside Aspen, St Elmo near Buena Vista and Boston Mining Camp along the Mayflower Gulch trail near Frisco.