a young boy runs to catch up to his dad in a field of tall grasses


Hiking and Playing Ideas Outside of Boulder

Rocky Mountain Park Family Portraits

And Ideas for Family Fun Outside of RMNP in the Boulder, CO Area

For the most part, my husband and I avoid Rocky Mountain National Park. It is expensive to get in (unless you have a yearly pass) and it can be super crowded with excess traffic and parking problems if you don’t get there at the crack of dawn (and with two toddlers, we have a hard time being anywhere before 9 10 a.m.). We know of plenty of free and uncrowded spectacular Colorado mountain locations close to Estes Park.

But somehow, Rob sort of forgot about all of this on a weekend in August. He suggested we spend the day at the park. I thought that was a bit weird, but since we had the weekend together (as a photographer, I am often working on weekends), I played along with his idea. We packed food, toys, fly fishing gear, and headed to Estes Park.

We got into the park and then we waited. Traffic. No parking. Shuttle buses only. Eventually, we found a spot on the side of a road and hiked to a small stream. Once settled, it was the perfect way to spend a couple hours together as a family, but the couple hours figuring out what to do were rather aggravating–every trail or lake that we wanted to explore was shut down due to a lack of parking and the boys were getting more and more antsy and Rob cannot stand traffic.

But let’s get back to good part. The stream had little sandy beaches–perfect for our boys to play with their digger trucks and entertain themselves for a while. Rob got to do a bit of fly fishing (no luck though–he thinks it is probably over-fished) in a picture perfect backdrop. We had a little picnic and skipped rocks into water. The boys got wet, but it was pleasant under the hot full sunshine. I actually had a few moments of complete relaxation–the boys were self-entertaining, Rob was set between fishing and exploring our little beachy area, and it was just me and the sunshine.

If you are interested in discovering some easy fun outdoor places for your own family to play in, check out 5 ideas that I have below my family photography.

All images © Susannah Allen 2016

As I mentioned earlier in the blog post, I’ve come up with a list of 5 easy places that my family enjoys playing at outside of Estes Park and Boulder, CO.

5 Places for Outdoor Fun Outside of Boulder

  1. Buckingham Park
    We just discovered this great gem a couple weeks ago. I’ve always driven by it, but I’ve never hiked down to the little creek to hang out. Pack a picnic lunch, some diggers or other outdoor toys, and spend an afternoon having a little picnic and playing along the stream. I’ve been told that in the summer months, there are little swimming holes outside of the stream’s flow that would be great for your kids, so consider packing a bathing suit as well. (I haven’t checked this out firsthand, but plan to visit on a hot day next summer. Or later this year if it doesn’t end up getting cold!) I had those moments of relaxation here as well…the boys were occupied, Rob was happy, and it was just me and my camera taking pictures and just being. This park is a few miles up Left Hand Canyon, and more park info can be found here.
  2. Heil Valley Ranch
    The easy 1.3 mile Lichen Loop is a great little hike to take younger kids on. If they get tired of hiking, you can always carry them part of the way if you have to. Plus, be sure to visit the Boulder Open Space web page for Heil Valley Ranch and print out the Nature Detectives Club Mystery Guide to give your visit more of a purpose and to teach the kiddos a bit about the area. The TH is also up Left Hand Canyon, but not as far up as Buckingham Park. More info at the link earlier in this paragraph.
  3. Caribou
    When it’s hot down low, head up high to Nederland. And then on to Caribou. Hiking trails, old ruins, wildflowers, (hopefully) sunshine, and a bit of moose watching will greet your family. When I’ve hiked here, it hasn’t been very crowded, and I get that relaxed “I’m playing in the mountains” feeling. We brought a kid carrier on this hike. Learn more here and please note that I am not talking about Caribou Ranch Open Space.
  4. Button Rock
    An easy fire road that slopes upward and runs by a stream. If your kids are into it, check out the amazing gushing water where the reservoir outlet is. And if they are still into it, hike up to the reservoir (on “normal” hiking trails). I’d pack camping chairs or a blanket and food and a few toys and hang out by the stream to prolong the day. I’ve seen lots of people fishing here, but not sure what the current (as in post flood) regulations are. To get there, go to Lyons, travel four miles up 36W and turn left onto Boulder County Road 80. More info here.
  5. Chautauqua
    Okay, so it is IN Boulder and it is crowded, but there are so many options here. If your kids have a meltdown while hiking or throw a fit at the prospect, you can still have lots of fun. From kite-flying to frisbee-throwing to playground-playing to nature-learning to ice-cream-eating…Yes, be sure to check out the General Store that is open from May to September for ice cream, Gatorade, old fashioned candy and other merchandise. (In fact, with all these other options, hiking may not become an option in the eyes of your kiddos!) Located around 9th and Baseline in Boulder.

(It goes without saying that Colorado’s weather is crazy. Be sure to pack layers, sunscreen, hats, water, and snacks when outside playing.)

Do you have any ideas that you would like to share with me?! I’m always looking for new, easy places to take my boys and I’d love to hear your suggestions! Post away in the comments.

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I've been photographing families professionally since 2006. I am a wife, mama to 2 boys, companion to 2 cats who are named after members of the royal British family, a former preschool teacher. I love running, hiking 14ers, sparkly clothes, the band Phish, river float trips, St. John USVI, farm CSAs, and Colorado blue skies.