When I moved to the Colorado Rockies from New York City 19 years ago, I couldn't get enough of the new-to-me outdoor lifestyle here. I bought a bunch of secondhand Patagonia clothing, rode my first mountain bike and visited my first national park.
Six years later, when I became a mom, I had no intention of ending outdoor explorations of my adopted state. Sure enough, my daughter camped for the first time when she was 2 months old, in a tent in the woods near Leadville. My sturdy son climbed the log ladders to reach Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park when he was just a toddler.
I want my kids to grow up appreciating all of the treasures in their backyard — from our high-mountain peaks to our powerful whitewater rivers to our cowboy heritage. Not one to eschew man-made thrills, I love that they like riding the roller coasters at our state's amusement parks even more than I do.
Here are just a few family-friendly Colorado experiences I've enjoyed with my children — now 11 and 13 — over the years. With less than two months of summer left before the school year begins, I'm hoping that this list will inspire you to get out and explore with your kiddos somewhere in our great state in the coming weeks.
Play at a ski area
Summer is no longer "off season" at mountain resorts like Steamboat, Winter Park, Snowmass, Durango and Vail. Their ski hills transform into warm-weather playgrounds for families with scenic chair-lift rides, mountain-biking and hiking trails, disc golf and climbing walls.
Get close to nature at a U.S. National Park
We are so fortunate to have four stellar national parks in Colorado, each so different. My favorite is high-alpine Rocky Mountain National Park with its jaw-dropping jagged-peak landscapes and opportunities for spotting wildlife, but I highly recommend them all: Mesa Verde for climbing to the ancient cliff dwellings; Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve for rolling in Sahara-like mountains of sand; and Black Canyon of the Gunnison for peering into a ridiculously steep canyon. Don't forget to ask for Junior Ranger activity booklets at the visitor centers.
Soak in the springs
After a day of outdoor adventure, one of the best ways to soothe tired muscles is to soak in some hot springs. My go-to nearby springs are Glenwood Hot Springs.
The "world's largest natural mineral springs pool" also has water slides and a large grassy area to stake a spot for the day.
I'm also a fan of smaller, natural pools, like the ones at Redstone's Avalanche Ranch (day visitors need to make reservations) and the pockets of hot water along the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs (on a rafting trip from Grizzly Creek to Two Rivers Park, ask your guide to stop) and the Crystal River (Penny Hot Springs between Carbondale and Redstone). It's fun to test the different toasty temperatures, too, at the variety of pools at The Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs — then plunge in the chilly San Juan River.
Brave thrill rides at a theme park
Elitch Gardens, with its urban location, can be a hot mess in the summer months, especially on the weekends. I advise trying smaller attractions like Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, with its scream-inducing Giant Swing and Cliffhanger Roller Coaster, or, especially for younger kids, Heritage Square in Golden.
Still more thrills
Make friends with the animals
If you haven't yet checked out the Toyota Elephant Passage at Denver Zoo, make this the summer you watch zookeepers care for Asian elephants, white gibbons swing overhead, and a fishing cat hunt for dinner. Another option: the new Encounter Africa with more elephants, plus meerkats, lions and one black rhino, at Colorado Springs' Cheyenne Zoo.
Sleep in a tent
The plethora of campgrounds in Colorado, whether they're privately owned or at state or national parks, means no matter where you are in the state, you're never far from the opportunity to sleep under the stars and tell stories around a campfire.
Two favorite camping spots
Cool off at a museum
With its sunny skies and moderate temperatures, Colorado has some of the most glorious summer weather in the United States. But when the thermometer hits 90 degrees or more a few days in a row, it might be time to find an indoor activity. My kids could spend hours in the air-conditioned Denver Museum of Nature & Science, especially at the hands-on Expedition Health exhibit and IMAX flicks.
Other top contenders
Denver's History Colorado Center , which offers more interactive fun, like trying to place virtual dynamite in a mine shaft or leaping off a ski jump, and the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, which focuses on kid-friendly music, history and science exhibits.
Go for a bike ride
My 11-year-old son and I recently confronted the novice, off-road Rustler's Loop at Kokopelli's Trail in Fruita. He took the dips, S-turns and banks with ease. Me, not so much. I prefer easy dirt roads (no sandstone or loose boulders) or better yet, paved recreation trails like the ones in Glenwood Canyon or on Vail Pass, where you can have an outfitter shuttle you to the top and then pick you up at the bottom of the trail when you have finished your ride.
At many Colorado ski resorts you can also rent a mountain bike to "uplift" on a gondola or chair, then bike down the dirt trails. Try this at the Steamboat Bike Park in Steamboat Springs, a.k.a. Bike Town USA, which is also known for its in-town and around-town network of paved and off-road trails.
Cowboy up at a dude ranch
Among my family's all-time favorite Colorado vacations is our stay at Elk Mountain Ranch near Buena Vista — and we're not even horse people. While we did enjoy the short trail rides we took through high-country aspen groves, I also appreciated the options for fishing, rafting, hiking and hayrides. Even better: three gourmet meals a day and the genuine, warm hospitality from wranglers, child-care staff and owners.
Many Colorado ranches highly recommend (or require) a week's stay — best for bonding with other guests and fully relaxing into the laid-back ranch lifestyle. But if your vacation time is limited, and you don't have time to book an all-inclusive week, some ranches offer partial-week or non-all-inclusive stays, such as upscale, intimate Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford, where my family recently had a ball sampling the new activity offerings: mountain biking and clay shooting.
Get high on a hike
Hands-down, hiking is my favorite outdoor activity to enjoy with children in Colorado. I have no idea how many miles my husband and I have hiked with the kids throughout the state. From the time they were small enough to fit in my front-pack baby carrier, we've likely covered hundreds of miles on foot, through wildflower meadows, across rocky scree, under towering pine trees and to waterfalls.
The beauty of hiking with kids is that really the only gear you need is a good pair of shoes, plenty of water and a daypack full of snacks (bribes) to keep up energy and motivation along the way. The first thing we do at any new-to-us location is stop by the visitor center or U.S. Forest Service office to scope out recommended local trails that are age- appropriate for our children.
"Hometown" trails for school-age kids
Try steep-but-short Hanging Lake and poignant Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail in Glenwood Springs; forested Weller Lake and the ice-cave Grottos up Independence Pass in Aspen; and looming Mushroom Rock, just above Colorado 82, and Thomas Lakes, below majestic Mount Sopris, in Carbondale.
Aspen resident Kara Williams pens a monthly "Out West" column for The Denver Post. She covers family travel, romantic escapes and girlfriend getaways in her blog The Vacation Gals.