Rocky Mountain play
A Popular YMCA camp in Estes Park, Colorado
By SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING
Special to the Orange County Register
As my daughter approached her first year in high school and my son his first in middle school, I felt a deadline moving in.
Our best times as a family have been spent on the road. There are huge swaths of the United States I've yet to see. But how much longer would our children find trips with Dad and Mom such a blast?
Part of the frustration was the limitations dictated by real life. Most of my family is in Texas, so our travel plans tend to take us back to the Lone Star State. Our family trip last summer had to be to someplace new that was close enough to keep up old ties.
We decided on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Neither of us knew a lot about it. But Colorado was one of the many locales I've never visited, and close enough to the Texas Panhandle that we could work in a weekend there with relatives.
I got busy combing my "Fodor's National Parks of the West" for hotels around Estes Park, the gateway to the park. The stately Stanley, which famously inspired Stephen King's novel "The Shining," proved too expensive for us. I tried a few hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts. No vacancies.
As a last resort, I called the YMCA of the Rockies (sounded a bit too rustic for my sensibilities). All 204 two- to four-bedroom cabins were booked – not surprisingly, given their reasonable prices ($109 to $334). So I nabbed a room in one of the lodges: two queen beds, $129 a night. It turned out to be the absolute best last resort I've ever resorted to.
We flew into Denver on a sunny mid-August morning, rented a car and headed out. On the 65-mile drive to the YMCA center, we stopped for lunch at the Stanley. If we couldn't justify its $400-a-night price tag, we at least could experience the century-old hotel over soup, sandwiches and salad.
The 138-room manse was, of course, lovely, the grounds beautiful and the cuisine delicious. Still, we expected it to feel more remote – perhaps because we were under the influence of "The Shining," shot at a different location. If Shelley Duvall had been holed up with berserko Jack at the Stanley, she could've quickly escaped to a nearby fast-food joint.
Thus, we were delighted and relieved to pull into the 860-acre YMCA compound. No Golden Arches in sight – just breathtaking mountains and wide-open space. We checked into our comfortable, no-frills, typical motel room – typical, that is, but for its spectacular view and lack of a noisy TV.
Then we struck out on a walk. Immediately, we wished we'd scheduled more than two nights and one full day at this retreat. There's enough to keep you busy – or relaxed, if you prefer – for a week or more. It's a sleepover camp for the entire family. And with three eateries, a general market, a library, a post office, Internet access, a pool and a playground, you need never set foot off-site.
Our first stop was the activities office, where visitors register for group programs – most of them free. Erin and Matt requested archery ($2 per person), but the next day's sessions already were booked. (Advice: Get an early jump on that sign-up sheet.)
Other options include hikes, basketball, volleyball, biking, fishing, a climbing wall ($10), scavenger hunts, crafts and campfire singalongs. We decided on an afternoon kickball game.
Eventually, we wandered over to the miniature golf course, which is free to guests. It's a charming, well-maintained course that kept us laughing and challenging one another to rematches until nightfall. We had so much fun that we missed out on the cafeteria, which closed at 7 p.m., so we munched on hot dogs at the snack bar.
The next morning, we breakfasted on cereal and pancakes from the all-you-can eat buffet ($6 for adults, $3 for children), then trotted off to the stables. (Luckily, it had occurred to me to reserve saddles a couple of months prior; one-hour rides are $30.)
Two dozen or so folks – most of us nervously chattering about our low-level skills – mounted gentle horses and followed our leader up a steep trail into the Rockies. The sure-footed animals guided us through sparkling fresh air and a fairytale forest to beautiful panoramas.
Afterward, the kids played pool in the game room while my husband and I relaxed on the balcony outside our room. Lunch in the cafeteria that day featured rather bland Asian fare and a bottomless platter of irresistible brownies.
A spirited game of kickball ensued, with our family splitting between the two teams. The competition, involving mostly preteens and teens, was overseen by one of the obligatorily wholesome college-age camp counselors. Once again, we shared many a hearty laugh – mostly at bumbling Mom's expense. Next, we just HAD to play one more round of miniature golf.
That evening, we drove into Estes Park's cute little village for a change of scenery – and a long wait for mediocre pizza. We would've been just as happy back at the cafeteria. Who needs a change of scenery when you're in paradise?
Lickety-split, it was time to head off to see Uncle Tom and Aunt Lucy in the teeny town of Clarendon, Texas. Also unforgettable, but probably not worth a detour for you.
I'd gladly retrace our vacation's footprints from start to finish. But there are so many other places to go. And I'm on a deadline.