There are few better ways to entice the family outdoors and away from all those screens—that means you, too, mom and dad—than to head to the mountains. But don't worry, you won't need to drag out the tent from your garage or take out a loan because, in the Denver area, free and low-cost outdoor fun can be enjoyed by day while nights are spent in a comfy family-suite hotel.
The Mile High City is not that many miles from an abundance of mountain parklands. Dozens of trails surround the outdoor mecca of Boulder, 40 minutes from Denver, with the most popular paths heading straight toward the dramatic rock formations called the Flatirons from the Chautauqua Park trailhead. The trailhead is only blocks from the University of Colorado campus. Multiple trails for all fitness levels also branch out from Echo Lake Park, one hour from Denver on the road to 14,260-foot Mt. Evans, highest paved road in America.
While Echo Lake Park is one of 22 Denver Mountain Parks located outside the city, families intimidated by the idea of high-altitude hikes can be content picnicking or enjoying recreational activities at one of Denver's city parks. Bike paths, boat rentals, horseshoe pits and massive Frisbee fields are among the options at sprawling Washington Park. Waterskiing in Denver's largest lake is popular at Sloan's Lake Park. And at City Park, there's a huge playground for younger kids, tennis courts and a public golf course for everyone else.
If encountering mountain lions and bears in the Rockies sounds a little too real for your family vacation, City Park is where you'll find the Denver Zoo ($17/adults, $12/kids). There you'll see not only lions, tigers and bears, but also elephants, emus and eagles—and an adorable red panda—among the 4,300 resident animals. This was America's first zoo to replace cages with natural enclosures, including the 10-acre Toyota Elephant Passage (giving new meaning to the idea of “trunk space" in a Yaris). Just for fun, mixed in with the real animals through Halloween are “Dinos!"—19 life-size animatronic dinosaurs.
Elitch Gardens, America's only downtown theme and water park, isn't cheap ($40/adults, $35/children purchased online). But if you account for the number of hours you'll spend there with the family—probably all day—the math works out nicely. Daring kids and adults will get a rush from 13 thrill rides (the newest is a 17-story-high swing ride), little ones can choose among 13 pint-sized rides, plus there are dozens more family rides and water rides, four live-entertainment shows, and weekly free concerts and movies throughout the summer.
The great indoors
When families need a break from the Great Outdoors, Denver delivers. The Denver Mint has been punching out coins since 1906 and remains the world's most prolific coin-maker; free tours are offered Mondays through Thursdays. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science ($17/adults, $12/kids), a Smithsonian-affiliated gem with an IMAX 3D theater and planetarium, was massively expanded in 2014 and features hands-on exhibits focused on everything from dinosaurs to outer space. Smaller children may prefer the Children's Museum of Denver ($13), where they can enjoy pint-sized zip-lining and boulder climbing; create masterpieces in the art studio and chef-supervised teaching kitchen, and pretend to be firefighters or veterinarians.
If you go
United Airlines offers flights to city of Denver from dozens of cities and MileagePlus Rewards can help pay for your car rental and a family-friendly hotel once you arrive. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your vacation.