From Dexter to the Rocky Mountains with Kids

“Grandpa, are there ghosts here?” Drake asked me.  We were 1,250-miles west of Dexter at an elevation of 7,500-feet.  My two grandsons were seeing a lot of new things along the way and they hoped ghosts wouldn’t be one of them.  I pretended not to hear.

The Dexter area is a great place to live when it comes to outdoor adventure. There are lakes great and small, with some coming in chains keep water enthusiasts busy year round. Vast tracks of State land provide wilderness escapes for hikers, hunters, campers, runners, bikers, birders, botanists and hunters. The outdoor culture in Dexter is as prevalent as you would find anywhere in places like up north in Traverse City or out west in Fort Collins.

Drake left, Brendan right, at the Stanley Hotel’s famous hedge maze

What Dexter doesn’t have are mountains.  Well, there’s Peach “Mountain”, elevation 1,033 feet, with U of M’s observatory perched on top.  We’ll take it.  But when my son Larry and I get a hankering for some big wilderness adventure, we head out west to the real mountains.  Flatlanders living in thin air for a week.

“Grandpa, are there ghosts here?” Drake repeated.

The doorman at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO, had just told how Stephen King stayed here years ago and the ghost stories inspired him to write The Shining. We were spending the night before heading into Rocky Mountain National Park for a week of camping and backpacking. Larry and I thought it would be fun. The boys were curious/worried.

“Some people think so,” I said.

Drake was ready with his follow-up, closer to his real concern, “But what if we see a ghost?”

“Are we going to see a ghost?” Brendan asked, as excited as Drake was worried.

I thought. “I hope we do see at ghost,” I said.

“Why?” in unison.

Dayhiking near Sprague Lake

“Because then you can see what you’re dad and I do to ghosts or anything that bothers you,” I said. “Tell me again what Rule Number One is.”

“Keep us safe,” they mumbled not quite in unison.

One way I stayed connected to my son Larry during the teen years was to take him backpacking.  Now almost 20 years later, he wants to begin taking his own kids on those trips. Best of all, he wants Dad to tag along. I have a rule that is close to the top of my rules – when your kid invites you into their world, drop everything and do it.  You only have one chance to not miss your kids growing up, even when they’re already grown up.

We survived the night at the Stanley and left Estes Park, a horrible town that I’ll write about later, and set up base camp in the wild of Rocky Mountain National Park at Glacier Basin Campground where we would spend a few days car camping.  Brendan and Drake put on their Road ID bracelets with contact information for Larry and I.  I also presented them with whistles to hang around their necks.  Both were to remain in place for the duration of the trip.

“Don’t take the bracelet off,” I said.  We used them at Yellowstone last year as well as the whistles.  “When do you use the whistles?”


The boys weren’t quite sure so I reminded them. “If you look around and don’t see your Dad or me, blow the whistle right then, even if there are people around.  Don’t hesitate; blow and we’ll come to you.”

We went over this until each boy could repeat it back to me.  “This is important,” I said, “Because you know what Rule Number One is …”

“… Keep us safe,” they said together this time.  It would be an oft-repeated litany throughout the trip.

If Larry and I had our druthers, we would have loaded up our 40-pound packs and marched off miles away from the crowds. But with Brendan (age 8) and Drake (age 6), we want to ease them into the wilderness experience making it as fun as possible so they would have good memories of it and want to continue as they get older.

In the shadow of Rocky Mountain NP’s 14ner, Long’s Peak, camp life in Glacier Basin among the campers, motor homes, and tents is easy for little kids. Pine cone fights, slingshot practice, a cornhole game, the evening ranger program, and endless games of War and Go Fish were enough to satisfy the boys.  It’s a kid trip.  The thin air of 8,500 feet elevation, sun, wind in the pines, peaks, and wildlife were a good setting for things they already like to do.

Brendan at Emerald Lake

Bear Lake is a popular spot and the parking lot fills up early. It is a fantastic 1.8 mile hike that starts at Bear Lake and goes past three more mountain lakes.  But unless you keep kids distracted from the chore of walking, things can go downhill fast.  The boys were grumbling by the time we reached Nymph Lake less than a mile from the trailhead.

By Michigan standards, Nymph Lake is more of a pond than a lake, like the east finger of Pickerel Lake in Pinckney Rec Area.  Clotted with lily pads, it wasn’t much to look at but we took the promised break and broke out the snacks. The boys immediately perked up with sticks, stones, and cones to fling around. We hit the trail again and the energy disappeared. We split up. Larry and Drake slowed down. Brendan and I moved ahead.

“I’m hungry,” said Brendan.

“No you’re not,” I said, “You’re bored.”

“But I am,” he insisted.

East Portal Trailhead

“No you’re not,” I repeated. “You didn’t finish your oatmeal less than an hour ago and only ate half a Clif Bar just a few minutes ago. You’re bored. Food isn’t a toy.”

Brendan gave up.  I didn’t want to win just because I had the power advantage.  If I could somehow make the hike fun, he wouldn’t be bored or “hungry.”  We started climbing boulders along the way. Drake and Larry caught up. Drake climbed boulders. Now the boys are running ahead to the find the next set of climbable boulders.  Make it a game and you’ve got ‘em.

Dream Lake was gorgeous. We took another snack break and moved on toward the prize – Emerald Lake. The trail had become steeper and parents could be heard cajoling their kids to keep moving with promises of a beautiful lake. The problem is that kids don’t care about a beautiful lake. They want fun and attention. Larry and I continued engaging the boys with kid conversation and climbing rocks along the way. It was slow going, but we were going.

At 10,110-feet elevation, Emerald Lake is an iconic mountain lake surrounded by 12,000-foot peaks and a blue sky. We put on our jackets and I had Brendan sit in the rooty nook of a dead tree that I myself had sat in 17 years ago. I was surprised the tree was still standing. While Brendan munched his Honey Stinger Waffle, Drake chased a begging chipmunk around the rocks. A couple of teenagers arrived blaring music over their phone, ruining the peaceful setting. I asked them to use earbuds and they turned it off. Other hikers thanked me. We took a long break before heading back down.

all happy at the hidden waterfall

Our backpacking half of the week began at the East Portal Trailhead. Leaving the activities of camp life at Glacier Basin behind, we were now down to the rugged business of carrying our gear. Drake and Brendan each had a school backpack with their clothes and some snacks. Larry and I carried everything else; ludicrously loaded with our own stuff as well as the boys’ sleeping bags, pads, and gear. We looked like we could be out there for months when we were actually only going a mile.

The trail was a steep uphill that soon took its toll on the boys, mentally more than physically.  They were elated when a passing hiker told us about a hidden waterfall nearby.  We threw down our packs and went exploring.  The boys loved it and were hopping around on the rocks; the tedium of the trail momentarily forgotten.

Drake and Brendan learned how to pitch camp when we arrived at Wind River Bluff.  The sun, the wind in the pines, the fresh thin air, and lack of anyone else around provided a lazy day of card playing, chipmunk watching, and exploring.

So many things can happen in the outdoors; number one is getting lost even a short distance from camp or the trail and then there are the injuries. Animals weren’t as big a concern but rattle snakes were on my mind because of the terrain. There aren’t many black bears in Rocky Mountain NP relative to its size, but if there was a bear or even a cougar nearby, the kids could be seen as fair game.  The probability is incredibly low, but you only have one chance to make sure you beat even the smallest of odds.  Larry and I had already decided the boys would never be out of our sight or proximity, ever.

Supper was lasagna out of a bag, reconstituted with hot water and we watched an elk hanging around camp that evening. Watching the elk was fun. Larry and I have seen elk. But watching my son watch his sons watch the elk was special. The elk was in no hurry and it entertained us for some time until dark. Brendan and I went to our tent.  Larry and Drake to theirs.

The next day’s hike was less than a mile to Upper Wind River campground. It was grueling for the boys, especially Drake.  Instead of filtering water, we drank right out of the stream and it was delicious.  If the water is running fast, clear, and deep (“deep” for me being 9”) up in the mountains, it’s safe to drink.  I wouldn’t drink from any stream, river, or lake around Dexter. Too many people doing things.

elk watching

Brendan, Drake, and I spent the afternoon playing cards.  Larry took the map and went off exploring.  He returned around 3:00 p.m., I think.  We didn’t have phones or watches so we told time by the sun.  Dark clouds were tumbling in but looked like they’d miss us.  It rains every afternoon in the Rockies.  Larry and the boys went to his tent.  I grabbed the camera and went exploring.

Ten minutes later I was running back to my tent in a downpour.  I dove in the tent as the rain drummed down on the tent.  Rain was pooling on the rain fly and soon began seeping in.  I stuck my leg up in a ludicrous ballerinic pose and used my toe to push up the low spot so the rain would run down the sides. The rain turned to hail and hurt my toe.  With a grunt I scissor-kicked and switched legs. I could faintly hear the boys jabbering excitedly in the other tent.

I lifted Brendan’s sleeping pad to check if water might be leaking in.  What the…?  The tent floor undulated like a cheap waterbed. There was water under the tent, a lot of it.  I bolted up and unzipped the flap to find my Keen’s floating in about 4 inches of water. I splashed out into the storm and into my boots.  Water was streaming down the mountain right into the tent site which was filling up like a wading pool.  The hail had turned back to rain. I jerked the tent out of the water and ran over to Larry’s tent with the boys.

“Got room for one more?” I yelled above the downpour.

“No!” Larry shouted back. “Everything in here is wet!”

Later he would tell me he didn’t realize I’d been flooded out.  He thought I just wanted to be social.  Upon hearing my voice, the boys started yammering something but for the first time ever, I ignored them and ran to huddle under a pine tree.

The storm stopped shortly after.  It rains every afternoon in the Rockies, usually not too long.  Larry and the boys crawled out of their tent.  We looked things over.  Everything was wet.  Our gear was wet.  We were wet.  We didn’t know how we could dry anything out to keep us warm in the chilly night ahead at 10,000 feet elevation.

It was here that we had made an unwitting but brilliant move.  Being a kid trip, we didn’t want the backpacking to become a death march for the boys.  We found campsites fairly close to the East Portal Trailhead to keep the hikes short.  As a result, we were less than two miles from the Expedition – the length of Silver Lake Trail in Pinckney Rec Area.  We packed up our sodden belongings and hiked out.

at Emerald Lake

Putting Estes Park in the rearview mirror, we found a motel in Boulder. Larry looked up restaurants and found the Boulder Chophouse.  Larry and I recapped our week sensationalizing every event into feats of courage and strength.  The boys caught on and began adding their own chapters about apocalyptic pine cone wars, withering hikes, and scaling monolithic boulders.

I spent a shameful amount on the meal, but I’d do it again.  I was watching my boys grow-up, a rite of passage appropriately celebrated with a feast.  The boys had a little more man in them, my son grew into a little more of a dad, and me … I learned how to use a laundromat the next day.

You only have one chance to not miss your kids growing up.

You can read more of Doug’s writing at


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