Chances are you've never been as close to the sky as you'll be at Rocky Mountain National Park, most of which is at least 8,000 feet high. Up here, the air is so thin and cool you'll feel giddy, the sun's UV rays so intense that sun block and sunglasses are a must. It's a land of ponderosa pine, gnarled alpine tundra, heathery slopes, bare granite, dizzying views, and so many elk they'll browse right up to your campground. The Continental Divide slices across the middle of this compact park -- you can drive over it on Trail Ridge Road, that stretch of U.S. 34 that cuts across the park east to west -- it's 48 miles of truly spectacular mountaintop views, much of it above the timberline. The park also has laid out several short nature trails that kids will enjoy -- check park maps for the Moraine Park Nature Trail, the Sprague Lake Nature Trail, and the Bear Lake Trail; the Beaver Boardwalk near the beginning of Trail Ridge Road is a great place to scout out dam-building beavers.
But the best way to plunge into this wilderness is to swing into a Western saddle and take a ride on horseback. Ever since this park was founded in 1915, it's been a popular high-country riding area. While many national parks offer only a standard 1-hour circle ride, at Rocky Mountain you can take guided trail rides from 2 to 8 hours, or even book overnight pack trips; early-morning trail rides that include a cowboy breakfast are always a hit with kids. An ample network of worn dirt trails -- some 260 miles of them -- wind into the glacier-carved countryside past steep, craggy mountain slopes and small, round reflecting lakes. Children as young as 6 can have a horse to themselves, while younger children ride with a parent.
There are stables all over the area, several of them run by Sombrero Ranch Stables (tel. 970/586-4577; www.sombrero.com). On the more developed eastern side of the park, there's one at Moraine Park (tel. 970/586-2327), another near the Glacier Basin Campground on Sprague Lake (tel. 970/586-3244), and one just outside the park opposite Lake Estes Dam on U.S. 34 (tel. 970/586-4577). On the west side of the park, there's another just outside park boundaries in the Grand Lake area (tel. 970/627-3514). Also in Grand Lake, the family-oriented Winding River Resort offers 1- and 2-hour trail rides, plus pony rides for younger riders.
Nearest Airport: Denver International, 65 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ Glacier Lodge, 2166 Tunnel Rd. (CO 66), Estes Park, south of park entrance (tel. 800/523-3920 or 970/586-4401; www.glacierlodge.com). $$ Winding River Resort, 1441 C.R. 491, Grand Lake (tel. 800/282-5121, 970/627-3215, or 303/623-1121; www.windingriverresort.com).
Best Time: Mid-May to Mid-September.