Head to YMCA family camp in the Colorado Rockies

Rocky Mountain National Park’s gorgeous valley on the drive to Bear Lake.

Like special effects on cue, a double rainbow arced over the mountains when we discovered the YMCA of the Rockies’ Estes Park Center in Colorado. How appropriate. It was our nirvana during a family vacation road trip to see Rocky Mountain National Park. This place, with an historic log welcome center that’s older than the park itself, was the perfect fit for our kids after a few nights of minding their manners at a B&B and a night at a past-its-prime resort. Here they could run through our cabin snarling like dinosaurs, then quietly marvel at the deer munching her way through the grass out front.

YMCA welcomes non-members to resort

This Colorado YMCA deserves its own zip code with beds for 3,500 guests in seven lodges and 206 cabins scattered throughout an 860-acre valley. Wow. It’s both resort and conference center plus a command central for family reunions. YMCA of the Rockies members get first dibs on vacation dates each year, but reservations opened to non-members last week. We were there in early June without any reservations and were lucky enough to score two nights mid-week. It was perfect.

Jackson Stables trail ride into Glacier Valley.

Saddle up for trail ride fun
What we wanted was an affordable, basic cabin with horseback riding nearby. Our son, who was 7, was considered two months too young for most trails rides. Most also use the huge horses that leave you bow-legged and wobbly. Jackson Stables uses delightfully smaller quarterhorses at Jackson Stables on the YMCA property. They had wonderful wranglers who talk you through what you need to know. Even better, our girls, despite being 3, also were able to ride ponies (“Strawberry” and “Shortcake”) and be led around a short course.

A snowy early June drive to the Alpine Visitor Center.

Do-it-yourself camp itinerary
Besides the memorable trail ride, the YMCA offers a jaw-dropping lineup of activities and facilities that are open year-round. Half-day or day-long summer camps give kids the chance to try everything from archery to rock climbing while parents enjoy down time. Families preferring to stick together can go swimming, mini-golfing, roller-skating, sightseeing, or sign up for hayrides, campfire sing-a-longs and stargazing. You can do as much or little kum-bay-yahhing as you want. It’s all there. My favorite? The mother of all craft halls with piles of hand-woven baskets, tie-dye T’s, hand-painted scarves, clothespin guns, leather crafts and pottery galore.
During our afternoons, we took day trips into Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to see lush meadows and marmots, climb across boulders, and drive up purple peaks that left us breathless from the altitude.

Kids camp in session near YMCA of the Rockies lodge.

A sweet, sticky finish
Our favorite night out was the YMCA’s evening hay ride and marshmallow roast capped off with a short lesson in being a cowboy. Our wrangler gathered a circle of kids sporting gooey white mustaches. He bent over, showed them how to jump skyward, and let out a rip-snorting whoop of joy. On the wagon ride back, with sticky, happy kids piled into our laps, we had one of our best family vacation moments. This is hands-down as one of the coolest family destinations in America.

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