Colorado First: State park activities for kids

Amber Johnson
March/April 2018

“Twee, tweeee!” My 1-year-old daughter Hadley enthusiastically squealed as she traced her finger up the spine of the aspen tree, awestruck by its leafy rooftop of gold coinage. Her communication was limited to “mama” but her world—and vocabulary—exploded on her first camping trip to Golden Gate Canyon State Park, the first of Colorado’s many state parks our family would visit over the years.

“From wildlife viewing to water sports, there is something for every age and interest across Colorado’s 41 state parks that cover more than 210,000 acres,” says Travis Duncan, Colorado Parks and Wildlife communications specialist. “If mountain biking or off-highway vehicles are your thing, there’s a park for that. And the character of our parks can really change with the seasons. Parks that offer great boating or hiking in the summer can become excellent spots for ice fishing and snowmobiling in the winter.”

It’s tough to play favorites but here are some unique offerings in Colorado’s state parks for kids of all ages.

Barr Lake State Park

Ages 1-3, Early Explorations
13401 Picadilly Rd., Brighton, 303-655-1495

I’ve hiked with my two children since they were infants, and it didn’t take much to captivate them. A bird dive-bombing for food. A bug scampering across the path. A breeze rustling the leaves. Through a child’s eyes, this natural world is sheer wonder, and Barr Lake State Park’s programs nurture children’s intrinsic curiosity for the outdoors.

Just a short drive northeast from Denver, this state park in Brighton has a major prairie reservoir of more than 1,900 acres that forms the heart of this 2,715-acre urban oasis. The boardwalk’s level wooden surface and 8.8-mile multi-use trail that circles the lake are stroller-friendly, with several wildlife viewing stations, gazebos and benches. The seasonally operated Eagle Express, a 13-passenger cart, is your family’s ticket to easier wildlife viewing.

When I first attempted to reach out to Park Manager Michelle Schuber, she was busy hosting Toddler Time, a popular program held the first Thursday of every month with story-time, a craft and snacks. “Barr Lake’s 3,000-square-foot Nature Center has displays about the park’s wildlife and kids love asking our naturalist questions,” Schuber said. “We have a bird’s nest, craft area and an oasis room where they learn about water. All are very interactive and perfect for young children.”

It’s in the great outdoors where the magic happens. The lake is lined with cottonwoods, marshes, and aquatic plants, and its southern half has been designated as a wildlife refuge to shelter animals. There have been 371 bird species sightings, making it an international birding destination. The state park has been home to a nesting pair of bald eagles since 1986, and the proud mama and papa have produced 54 eaglets—cause for celebration at the Bald Eagle Festival in February (other family-favorites include the Harvest Festival and Holiday Trail).

Fun tip: The best place to see the bald eagle’s nest is at the Barr Lake gazebo, an easy 1.3-mile walk from the Nature Center.

Mancos State Park

Ages 4-8, Fishing and Fish Hatcheries
42545 County Rd. N., Mancos, 970-553-7065

I treasure the many hours my grandpa spent showing me the intricacies of fish behavior and how to hold the pole just right so they’d nibble on the salmon eggs we carefully affixed to tiny hooks. Fishing combines recreation and quality time with kids, and there is no better place to introduce them to the sport than Mancos State Park, southwest Colorado’s hot spot for fishing.

Surrounded by an ocean of mountains near the majestic San Juan Skyway in the Four Corners region, Park Manager Scott Elder says Jackson Gulch Reservoir is the heart of 650-acre Mancos State Park.

“It’s a cool, deep lake,” Elder said, “so that’s why it’s able to sustain rainbow trout, yellow perch and catfish so well. One of our more popular events is the first weekend in June when we offer free fishing for adults (kids 16 and under don’t need a fishing license in Colorado). We have rods that can be borrowed and fishing clinics that teach you everything you need to get started.”

Jackson Gulch Reservoir is stocked from the nearby Durango Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum. Only one of 19 hatcheries and the oldest in Colorado, it dates to 1893. For just 25 cents, kids can feed the fish in the raceways and delight in the eating frenzy. The free guided tour and interactive displays give you a fascinating glimpse at this carefully orchestrated and controlled site that produces thousands of fish for stocking throughout Colorado. Next door, the Durango Wildlife Museum may be small but it boasts more than 100 mounts of birds and animals found in the region.

Fun tip: Mancos State Park offers some of the best ice fishing in Colorado thanks to the comfortable winter camping accommodations in their two heated yurts.

State Forest State Park

Ages 9-12, Geocaching
56750 Highway 14, Walden, 970-723-8366

Geocaching is available in 23 state parks, and the first time I took my son, he raved. “It’s like Pokémon GO—but in nature!” he said. Indeed, the old-fashioned scavenger hunt has gone high tech with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device that is used to hide and seek containers called “geocaches” at specific locations marked by coordinates.

My kids, ages 10 and 12, love the outdoors, but as tweens they’re easily bored and are ready for a greater backcountry adventure. Enter: State Forest State Park. Vast. Wild. Secluded. With a staggering 70,000 acres of jagged peaks and alpine lakes, Colorado’s largest state park in north-central Colorado feels like a national forest.

It is here you will find 12 geocache boxes, the most of any Colorado State Park.

Ranger Cody Rarick says there are four geocaches that are perfect for kids 12 and under:

  1. Land of Hidden Treasures Geocach [N40 - 30.698/W106 - 00.615].
  2. Ranger Mystery Geocache [N40 - 30.170/W105 - 58.114].
  3. Gould Loop Geocache [N40 - 30.293/W105 - 58.848].
  4. Pennock Trail Geocache [N40 - 33.276/W105 - 58.935].

“Kids can expect to see a good variety of plants and wildlife ranging from differing habitats such as lowlands with willows and aspens, to higher areas with lodgepole forests, spruce forests and alpine habitats,” Rarick said. “You will often see moose, elk, deer and other smaller animals like songbirds, chipmunks, pikas, marmots and occasionally birds of prey like ospreys, hawks and eagles.”

Rest assured, Pokémon GO cannot compare to geocaching State Forest State Park with your kids.

Fun tip: There are 10 GPS units that can be checked out Memorial Day through Labor Day or whenever the visitor center is open ... or just bring you own.

Lory State Park

Ages 13-18, Volunteer projects
708 Lodgepole Drive, Bellvue, 970-493-1623

Parents of teenagers rejoice! Lory State Park has a productive way to pry your teen off their smart phones and contribute to the world in a meaningful way… while maybe even paving the path to their future career.

Thirteen-year-old Olivia Guerrero first fell in love with this state park 8 miles west of Fort Collins through their Junior Ranger program where kids ages 7-11 learn about plants and animals in their natural habitat.

“When I aged out of that program, I was encouraged to become a volunteer,” Guerrero said. “I love educating younger kids and helping lead the hikes. I work about 15-20 hours per month and they’re flexible with my schedule.”

All of Colorado’s State Parks offer Junior Ranger programs and youth volunteer opportunities to varying degrees. Lory State Park’s Interpretative Naturalist and Outdoor Educator Alicia Goddard says their Youth Volunteer Corps gives teens ages 12-18 meaningful work experience in the summer.

“Their help is invaluable with our preschool programs, Junior Rangers, trail restoration, invasive weed control and butterfly monitoring,” Goddard said. “We also partner with the Wildland Restoration Volunteers who do seed collections of wildflower and grasses to be used in restoration projects.”

The impact of volunteering in a state park can be more far-reaching than instilling an ethic of environmental stewardship and civic responsibility. Olivia’s mom, Sara, says volunteering has made her daughter more confident and comfortable working with large groups. She has also found her happy place.

“As soon as Olivia enters Lory State Park, she feels relaxed,” Sara said. “It’s a great outlet that has helped her find her passion in life—she wants to someday become a naturalist.”

Fun tip: Lory State Park is flanked on the east by Horsetooth Reservoir. The park’s 26 miles of trails meander through hills, valleys, and reservoir coves, and connect with another 29 miles of trails in Horsetooth Mountain Open Space.

AAA Resource

Before heading to one of these Colorado state parks, download the free AAA app. Audible navigation will guide you to your destination, as well as provide you a list of AAA-Approved hotels and restaurants, AAA discount partners, AAA-Approved auto repair shops, and other nearby services. Visit AAA.com/app to learn more.

Amber Johnson is a mom of two, former Denver Post columnist, family travel writer, editor of Colorado’s largest social media community for moms, and 9News contributor.