When the final bell rang last June 6, we were at the curb of our son's school, ready to roll on our first-ever big road trip. The van bulged with snacks and luggage. The front seat overflowed with maps. Our destination: the Colorado Rockies, 2,400 miles away.

Why the rush? We didn't want to get sucked into summer activities that crowd out a family vacation. Plus, there's a small window the first two weeks of June or last two weeks of August when you can not only dodge peak crowds, but you may score great lodging without booking ahead.

In our case, we planned. But like Goldilocks failing to find the right fit, the first resort didn't work for our family, which included our then 7-year-old son and 3-year-old twin girls. With some help from the Estes Park Convention and Visitors Bureau, we found nirvana by the next night: YMCA of the Rockies.

Like special effects on cue, a double rainbow arced over the mountain range as we drove into the Y's 860-acre valley and pulled up to the vintage lodge. It felt like a stamp of approval. Ironically, we had seen the YMCA while researching places to stay. We blew right past it, figuring summer was when youth campers took over. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Laid-back family camp

The YMCA of the Rockies can best be described as family camp a la carte. You can do as much kum-ba-yahhing as you want with an exhaustive list of impressive free or small-fee activities or you can simply enjoy the lodging and picturesque setting.

Our kids played three rounds of mini-golf and happily painted souvenir ponies and a rubber band gun in the craft hall. The craft area, which wrapped up a multimillion dollar makeover for this summer, already was a jaw-dropping kind of place for anyone who enjoys art. Lines of tie-dye shirts and painted silk scarves hung above handwoven baskets and kits for leather tooling. Our kids briefly considered joining the half- or full-day action-packed kids' camp, but as our son mulled it over, he said, "Nah. I want to be with my family." Good to know.

Our cabin was nothing fancy, but was clean, spacious and felt perfect. After two nights in a family-friendly bed-and-breakfast in South Dakota and another at a shared-wall cabin, the kids could finally run around like dinosaurs on a rampage.

Buffets ($4-$6 per person) easily filled us up with plenty of options for picky eaters before we hit the road with a backpack full of peanut-butter sandwiches. Rocky Mountain National Park -- three years younger than the 101-year-old YMCA of the Rockies--was less than 15 minutes away. When we told locals how much our kids liked climbing rocks on Minnesota's North Shore, they all pointed us in the same direction. "Go to the Alluvial Fan."

Into the Rockies

We headed up Fall River Road, stopping at Sheep Lakes, where rangers help visitors spot bighorn sheep or one of the park's 3,000 elk. A short drive away, the fan initially looks like a scenic picnic spot with a rocky river popular for fly-fishing. Look at the big picture, though, and the origin of this fan-shaped, vast field of rock is stunning to think about. In 1982, Lawn Lake broke through the mountain moraine and sent 29 million gallons of water -- and car-sized boulders -- thundering 4 miles down to the valley. Kids can't resist the rocky playground. We paused to watch a chubby marmot sunning itself before rain clouds swirled across a distant mountain peak and smudged it from view.

On our second day in the park, we enjoyed another caveat of an early summer vacation: snow. "Touch it! Touch the snow!" the kids kept clamoring as we drove higher and higher on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in the country. Wintry drifts towered above the minivan as we zig-zagged higher and higher. At one scenic overlook, nearing 12,000 feet above sea level, we gasped for oxygen, got a little light-headed and quickly strapped back into the van. As we neared the Alpine Visitors Center, woods gave way to sparse alpine fields and we witnessed firsthand the familiar "America the Beautiful" lyric: "For purple mountain majesties ..." Indeed.


Back at the Y, we let out our inner cowboys. The YMCA's stable lets you get on a horse at age 5. We learned the hard way how many places require kids to be 8. The stable offered a wrangler to help settle each rider onto the horses, which were wonderfully small -- not the kind that leave your legs sticking straight out. While Jonathan fired constant questions at anyone who'd listen ("What if the horse falls?" "What if it broke its leg?" "What does it eat?"), Pedro and Dutchess carefully picked their way up Glacier Ridge and into Rocky Mountain National Park while an icy cold creek rumbled far below.

Back at the stable my husband, Bob, and a handler led our girls, Kylie and Katie, on docile ponies comfortingly named Strawberry and Shortcake. Katie was so enamored, she didn't take off her "yee-haw" boots for three days. The evening wrapped up with a hay ride and marshmallow roast with a short lesson in being a cowboy. Kristopher Casper gathered a circle of kids sporting gooey white mustaches, bent over and showed them how to let out a whoop while jumping for joy.

His ecstatic whoop summed up our feelings on finding this magical place.

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a freelance writer living in St. Cloud.