Outdoor adventures provide a magical combination of elements for my family that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. Whether it’s exploring our home state or planning a vacation in a locale full of fresh air, the beauty of nature and (let’s be real) plenty of snacks, my fab five becomes our best selves when we’re disconnected from the outside world and highly tuned in to each other. Because of the pandemic, our recent getaways have, by necessity, prioritized outdoor fun and socially distant spots. Our family vacation to southern Colorado gave us the perfect opportunity to commune with nature and each other. Check out our five day itinerary full of outdoor adventure!
Where to start
The Colorado outdoors are stunning statewide, so it can be overwhelming to choose which part (and in which season) to visit. For our summertime trip to colorful Colorado, we chose to explore the southern part of the state with a home base close to outdoor activities suitable for our young kids, ages 9, 6 and 4.
Both Pagosa Springs and Durango are resort towns offering plenty of family fun, popular both during the winter ski season and the summer months. We opted to stay in the smaller town of Bayfield, about equidistant between the two, which offered lower lodging prices with the same vibrant vistas. We often find renting a home through VRBO or AirBnB to be a cheaper lodging choice for our family of five, with the added bonuses of a full kitchen for breakfast and evening meals and washer and dryer (outdoor fun = messy kids and clothes!). From Durango to Pagosa, the area is full of vacation rentals, cabins, hotels, resorts and even ranches, with options to fit every family’s needs and budget.
It’s a long drive to Colorado, y’all — about 11.5 hours from Oklahoma City to Bayfield. In addition to packing plenty of activities, books and car snacks, we planned stops with interesting sights and opportunities to stretch our legs along the way. Don’t miss Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, where the hulls of old cars are sunk into the ground and are constantly being spray painted by amateurs and artists alike.
A few hours later, a drive through Santa Fe, N.M., provides an opportunity to marvel at the architecture and, in non-pandemic times, a walk through the historic Plaza area, full of local music, artisans, museums and restaurants. Loretto Chapel is home to a historic phenomenon: a miraculous staircase with no visible means of support. For older kids, the Meow Wolf Art Complex invites families to explore the fantasy world of this immersive art experience while younger children can get the wiggles out in Santa Fe Children’s Museum’s interactive exhibits.
We stopped in Pagosa Springs for an afternoon treat at PS FroYo, where specialty flavors and wild toppings are always on tap. A stroll to enjoy the sights or shopping in the quaint resort town is a welcome opportunity to stretch those legs after being cooped up in the car. After a long day of travel, our family was eager to enjoy the breathtaking views in our Bayfield rental over dinner outdoors, followed quickly by bedtime.
Knowing we’d be adjusting to the altitude, we opted for an easy morning hike on our first full day in Colorado at Church Camp Meadow Trail just north of Durango. The first section of the 3.5 mile trail meanders through a beautiful meadow of wildflowers, with a mild climb leading to gorgeous vista views.
In hiking with kids, I’ve learned to pack more water than you think you’ll need, no matter the temps outdoors, and pack extra in the car for a cold drink when you’re through. Hiking snacks are always a must! We also travel with plenty of sunscreen, insect repellent, antibacterial wipes and Band-aids.
After working up an appetite, we made our way to our favorite eatery of the trip, James Ranch Grill. The 400 acre working ranch in the Animas Valley includes a sprawling lawn with three terraces dotted with picnic tables, all surrounded by red rock cliffs and big blue sky. The “table on the farm” menu is most known for their juicy, grass-fed beef burgers, like the Signature with Belford cheeses, caramelized onions and rosemary garlic mayo or the Green Chili Pico with fresh and spicy pico de gallo, avocado and lime crema.
You can pick up James Ranch and other locally-grown and made products at The Market, with tempting fare like artisan cheeses, vibrant fresh flowers, skin-care products, organic meats and fish, sweet treats and much more.
Nearby Santa Rita Park proved a pretty stop to walk off lunch. With plenty of parking, pathways for walking or biking and a playground for the kids, the park is nestled along the Animas River, and there are several spots to wade in the refreshing water. Water shoes are recommended as the bottom is rocky and slippery.
One of the top reasons we selected the Durango area was the kid-friendly whitewater rafting available in the summer months, a bucket-list adventure for us. Because the water levels are down, the rapids are less intimidating and the ride is a bit slower and smoother. The family rafting trips include Class I, II and III level rapids, with a squeal-inducing run through multiple rapids in the Whitewater Park. An expert guide ensures safety and plenty of fun on each raft, and ours was excellent with our kids, eager to answer endless questions and empower them to participate in steering the raft.
The scenery is breathtaking, and we enjoyed learning about the history of the area along the way. While our youngest was a bit apprehensive in the high-class waters, afterward he declared himself very brave. We appreciated the safety precautions of helmets and life jackets for everyone, thorough cleaning of all gear, masks and social distancing required at all times when not on the water and the ability to travel with just our group in our raft.
Durango’s 11th Street Station makes a perfect stop for lunch with a variety of food trucks on site sure to please everyone’s taste buds and providing carry-out or dine-in. From poke bowls with fresh, vibrant flavors to al pastor tacos served with peppers and pineapple, we refueled, relived our favorite whitewater moments and refreshed for an afternoon hike.
Back toward Bayfield, Vallecito Creek Trail provided spectacular views of Vallecito Lake and surrounding mountain ranges, shady spots to rest, waterfalls and water wading and a few steep drop-offs that made my mama heart race but my kids loved conquering. In truth, the 12.7 mile trail is wide and easy to moderate in difficulty level. We made our way about 2 miles in before turning around. Another key to our family’s hiking with young children is to head back before the whining about being tired, hungry or bored begins! We typically plan together how far we want to trek on each particular hike, depending on how much time we have, how everyone is feeling and the terrain. It helps to have a goal in mind but I’ve found it’s also wise to be flexible.
Our fourth day in the mountains happened to be our daughter’s birthday, so we gave her decision-making power in selecting the days’ activities. Horseback riding was top priority, and based on stellar reviews and horses and staff equipped for kid riders, we chose Backcountry Outfitters outside Pagosa Springs for our morning ride. Winding through the Piedra Valley, the trails offer dazzling panoramas of the surrounding mountains and nearby Chimney Rock National Monument, towering twin rocky spires for which the monument is named. While we didn’t spot any wildlife on our trek, elk, deer and even skunk spottings are commonplace! Giving the hard-working horses some extra pats and treats afterward made our kids’ day.
The birthday girl opted for a pizza lunch, picnic style, in Durango before heading for an afternoon hike near Purgatory Resort base. Purgatory Trail is a 10.3 mile out and back hike (we opted for much less!) that leads down to a lake with creek and water crossings along the way. The hike is mostly downhill on the way in, which means a lot of uphill on the way back. Several open spots make for perfect places to rest (and snack) while enjoying the gorgeous valley and mountain landscape, lush forests and small waterfalls.
We worked hard on this hike, and the birthday girl wanted ice cream, so we made our way over to Purgatory Resort to grab a cool treat and sit at the base to watch the mountain bikers quite impressively flying down what are ski slopes in the winter months.
Purgatory also offers a number of summertime family-friendly activities, including mountain biking, a mountain roller coaster, alpine slide, chairlift rides, paddleboard, kayak and canoe rentals and panning for gemstones.
We (unintentionally!) saved the best hiking for last. After seeing Chimney Rock National Monument from horseback, we decided we needed an up-close view on a hiking tour. The archeological site shares the history and heritage of the ancestral Puebloans of the Chaco Canyon. The remains of ancient homes and ceremonial buildings, coupled with informative volunteers, signage and a map of facts and descriptions of places to stop along the trails, tell the story of the people who once made the area home and help visitors imagine what it might have been like to live there a thousand years ago. The pinnacles for which the monument is named frame multiple astronomical alignments and are a nod to the ways in which the Ancestral Puebloans incorporated astronomy into their community.
Two trails, each less than a mile, can be enjoyed with or without a guide. Along the first paved trail, we learned about the everyday lives of the Puebloan people, like what they ate, how they built their homes and why they settled in the area. The second trail is not paved and is moderate to difficult, and it’s best enjoyed in the morning hours before the heat of the day. The top of the trail offers 360 degree views of the San Juan Mountains and even New Mexico. Self-guided tours are $12 for adults and $6 for children.
Located north of nearby Pagosa Springs, the lush Piedra River Trail made for a fun contrast to our morning hike. We hiked 4 miles roundtrip of the 7.3 mile out-and-back trail along a winding river, with plenty of opportunities for wading. Along part of the trail, we were enveloped by towering canyon walls and enjoyed watching several groups rappel. Occasionally hopping along rocks in the river and dipping our toes in the cold, clear water made for picture perfect breaks along our trip’s final trek.
The long car ride home the following day was fairly quiet as we rested tired legs from more than 14 miles hiked in four days! Through photos and stories, we constantly relive this family vacation as a favorite and marvel at all the fun and connection we had by simply enjoying the outdoors, fresh air, beautiful scenery and each other.