Family-Friendly Activities at North Sterling State Park
Although most visitors come to North Sterling for the fishing and boating prospects, there are many overlooked and hidden opportunities for adults and children of all ages to learn about and enjoy the unique prairie environment of the park.
The wide open plains can first appear flat, barren, and monotonous to visitors accustomed to grand mountains and lush forest scenery. But take a closer look at the land where the deer and the antelope play, and you’ll find a special combination of plants, animals, and birds that have learned to thrive in this vast, sun-drenched environment. Take in scenic views of distant wind-carved canyons, exciting new clean-energy projects, and expansive ranches and farmlands full of the cattle, wheat, and corn that eventually make their way into your grocery stores.
Below, you’ll find a variety of suggestions and activities for family fun on the park – whether you have a family of two or ten. Take a look at North Sterling’s Publications page for printable nature activities for your trip, or go to the Colorado State Parks Family and Kids page for other ideas!
Pets at North Sterling State Park
Does your family include a four-legged critter? Read on for some tips and reminders about camping or just spending the day with your furry friend at North Sterling.
Pets are permitted at North Sterling, but they must be on a leash and under control at all times. This is for your pet's safety, your safety, and the safety of everyone else in the park. Your dog loves your family, and will want to protect you from other strange dogs and people that your encounter. Or maybe you have a curious dog that will poke her nose in a rock crevice and disturb a rattlesnake. Or maybe you've never noticed the prickly-pear cactus, barrel cactus, and yucca cactus that grows in the unmowed areas out away from the campsites and trails. There are many hazards that a curious and energetic dog can find and get themselves into trouble, that people know to look out for. By keeping your pet close and on a leash, you're keeping them from stumbling into trouble.
Pets are not permitted on the swim beach or ski beach - and this is strictly enforced! Just like any other public pool or swimming area, rangers must test the water on a weekly basis for E.coli bacteria. If bacteria levels are too high, the swim beach is shut down. To prevent bacteria surges, pets must stay on or above the concrete sidewalk at the swim beach, and in the parking lot at the ski beach. If your family wants to picnic on the shore with your boat and your pet, try the nearby Sunset Cove west of the swim beach, or take your boat to shore on the park property across the lake (see the park map for boundary lines). But also remember that the swim beach and ski beach are the only areas of the park restricted from fishing and glass bottles, so sandals or water-shoes are recommended to protect your feet.
Remember that not all pets will find camping as fun as you do. Some pets will be completely stressed out by the strange surroundings, strange people, strange noises, and strange activities. The heat and weather can be stressful to pets too - make sure they're drinking plenty of water and have access to shade. Never leave a pet closed inside a car or a hot camper!
There are many areas of the park to enjoy with your pet! Short trails near Inlet Grove and Chimney View Campgrounds provide excellent evening walks for families and dogs, while longer trails over the dam and on the south shoreline provide many opportunities for your pet to sniff new scents and explore wooded coves during a longer hike. Why not ask a ranger about thier favorite places to bring thier dogs?
North Sterling State Park BINGO
Challenge your friends and family to a weekend game of Bingo! Print out one of five exclusive park-edition Bingo boards at home and bring it along on your trip. When you see the animal, bird, insect, plant, rock, or park feature, check it off and keep searching! The boards are designed with different levels of difficulty for players from simple animals for young children to rarely-seen species for returning visitors. Choose from the following:
Easy (A) Easy (B) Moderate (A) Moderate (B) Difficult
Is the standard game too easy? Add some challenge with variations - look for an X pattern, a square, or a 'blackout'!
Saturday Night Campfire Programs
From Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend, every Saturday night you’ll find a different nature program offered by a naturalist, ranger, or other field expert at the park’s outdoor amphitheater near Inlet Grove Campground. Topics are always family-friendly, and range from Native American history to Outdoor Survival to Virtual Nature Tours of the region. In bad weather, most programs are relocated to the South Camper Services Building at the top of the hill above the amphitheater. Check our website’s home page or the bulletin boards located at the entrances and on each restroom building for this weekend’s topic and time.
Junior Ranger Program
Every Saturday afternoon in the summer from noon to 2pm our park naturalist hosts the Junior Ranger Program at the Visitor Center. Designed for kids ages 5 to 12, children will learn about a variety of outdoors topics through short lessons, games, short hikes, and hands-on experiences. Children who complete the program receive a special reward at the end of the summer – but kids are welcome to join in as often as they want to, or just once. Parents can join in or drop their kids off – older and younger siblings are welcome too! Check the park website or the bulletin boards throughout the park for this weekend’s topic.
Freebies at the Visitor Center
Several different grant programs have allowed us to offer several FREE services to park visitors, for your safety and enjoyment at our park. All you need to do is stop by the Visitor Center with a photo ID to sign out any of these items!
Life Jacket Loaner Program
Have you checked your life jackets this season? Life jackets save lives - that's why state law requires you to have one personal flotation device (PFD) of a USCG-approved type for each person on board in good and serviceable condition and in a readily accessible location in your vessel. Additionally, children under 13 years of age MUST wear theirs at all times while on board - and it's especially important for children to wear the right size!
That's why the U.S Coast Guard has teamed up with Colorado State Parks to provide free loaner life-jackets (PFDs) for boaters. We have numerous spare PFDs in sizes from infants to adults to make sure you have what you need to be safe on the water. Not sure if your PFD is the right size for you or your kids? Look at the USCG approval stamp inside the PFD - the small print will give you an approved size range for that life jacket by weight, age range, and chest size. What about wear and tear? The sun can degrade materials over time, and ripped seams and broken buckles won't help you in an emergency. Still not sure? Stop by the Visitor Center and ask a ranger to do a quick check on dry land before you venture onto the water!
Family Activity Backpacks
Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and Colorado State Parks worked together to assemble these backpacks for you and your family to borrow for the weekend! Backpacks include two large bug boxes, magnifiers, field guide books (birds, insects, wildflowers and tree life), binoculars and a nature journal.
Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Colorado State Parks, and the Division of Wildlife have made several pairs of binoculars available for wildlife viewing, bird watching, and stargazing.
Field Guides to… Everything!
From wildlife and birds to plants and stars, the Visitor Center keeps an assortment of field guides and nature books that can be borrowed for the weekend. Have a specific interest? Stop by and ask us!
GPS Unit & Scavenger Hunt Activity
Great Outdoors Colorado also provided North Sterling with a handheld GPS unit for learning about this new mode of orienteering. Borrow just the GPS unit, or take with you a laminated copy of our Geohunt Scavenger Hunt Activity! By answering questions at each location, you'll find clues to lead you to the next coordinates in this fun family activity!
Looking for a short stroll or a tough trek? From end to end, more than six miles of non-motorized trails offer scenic views, wildlife habitats, and – especially important – peace and quiet! From Balanced Rock to the Inlet Footbridge, the trail frequently reconnects with picnic areas, restrooms, and parking lots, while the 3.5-mile stretch from the Inlet Footbridge to the West Trailhead offers unbroken solitude. North Sterling’s trails all have a flat, smooth sand-and-gravel surface, unless otherwise indicated (or damaged by storms).
NEW! Trail Map: Dam Area and Balanced Rock
NEW! Trail Map: Sunset Point and South End
NEW! Trail Map: South Shoreline Trail
Consider these hiking trails on your next visit:
Balanced Rock Trail – 1250ft (Round-Trip)
This short, steep trail spirals up the side of a small hill at the north end of the park, ending at Balanced Rock – a huge slab of sandstone suspended in place while the hill around it eroded away!
The viewing area at the top offers a beautiful view of the reservoir, with a mounted spotting scope to get a closer look at the wildlife and waterfowl. Take a break on a park bench, or read about the history and construction of the reservoir on the informational signs!
Dam Pedestrian Path – 1.0mi (One-Way)
Since the 2010 construction project narrowed the road on top of the dam, it is closed to vehicle traffic – leaving a broad path for strolling, jogging, or bicycling! North Sterling’s dam is exactly one mile long, with a beautiful view of the reservoir to the west and the ranch lands to the east. Hawks, eagles, and turkey vultures frequently take advantage of the warm thermals rising off the face of the dam – bring some binoculars, and watch them lazily soar around you!
Sunset Point Trail Loop – 0.2mi (Round-Trip)
This easy loop takes you out on top of Sunset Point, with incredible views of the reservoir and surrounding countryside in every direction, and – you guessed it – a beautiful spot to watch the sunset! Take a break on the benches at the end of the point, and watch for turkey vultures, hawks, and eagles playing on the warm thermals that rise up off the cliffs.
For a slightly longer hike, explore the side-trail off the south side of the main loop, which brings you back around to the same parking lot. A moderate sloped trail leads down to Inlet Grove Campground from the south side of Sunset Point, or take the sloped trail off the north side of Sunset Point to the shoreline and excellent fishing below.
Inlet Triangle Loop – 1.0mi (Round-Trip)
Starting at the Inlet Footbridge, this triangle of trails offers a moderate-length hike with good wildlife viewing opportunities in a quiet area of the park that doesn’t take you too far from the campground or your car. Watch out for signs of foxes, coyotes, hawks and eagles in the nearby trees, jackrabbits and cottontails, and yes – snakes!
South Shoreline Trail – 3.14mi or 5k (One-Way)
If you’re prepared for the summer heat and the long hike, this infrequently-used trail offers the best wildlife viewing and the quietest setting on the park! Several groves of trees in secluded coves offer shelter and forage for a variety of wildlife that shies away from the busy areas of the rest of the park. Hawks and owls nest and roost along the south shoreline, and small herds of deer hide in the underbrush. If the timing is right and the prickly-pear cactus is in bloom, the grasslands to each side of the trail are covered with brilliant purple and yellow blossoms. Tough buffalo grass grows in patches undisturbed by development, and if you look close, you’ll find coyote dens and the tracks of young pups in the dust.
Hike the whole trail to the end and back, or have a friend pick you up at the West Trailhead Parking Lot. Be careful – cell phone reception is very poor on this trail.
The South Shoreline Trail is the only trail on the park where horseback riding is permitted. Please park horse trailers in the East Trailhead Parking Lot, just south of the intersection of CR-33 and CR-46 (turn left onto CR-33 instead of right towards the main part of the park). You’ll find plenty of room to turn a trailer around in the parking lot. Park passes are required.
Our park offers a number of picnic areas with easy access to scenic views, trails, excellent fishing, or playgrounds. Plan your next outing with one of these areas in mind:
Balanced Rock: Includes large shade shelters and picnic tables. Easy access to the Balanced Rock Trail, the Dam Pedestrian Path, and fishing at the Balanced Rock Shoreline and the Outlet. Nearest restrooms are at the Visitor Center.
South Boat Ramp: Includes picnic tables and barbecue grill pedestals (bring your own charcoal briquettes). Easy access to the South Boat Ramp, fishing on the surrounding shoreline, and the Dam Pedestrian Path. Vault restrooms are available year-round.
Cottonwood Cove Swim Beach: Includes an open-sided building shelter, shaded and sunny picnic tables, and barbecue grill pedestals (bring your own charcoal briquettes). More picnic tables are available further down the shoreline near the overflow parking lot. Easy access to the swim beach (no dogs or boats permitted on the beach!) and the playground. Flush restrooms are available seasonally.
Sunset Cove: Includes picnic tables and barbecue grill pedestals (bring your own charcoal briquettes). Tall cottonwood trees provide plenty of shade. Easy access to excellent fishing at the end of the point, and boats can pull up into the sandy shoreline. Short trails in each direction lead to the top of Sunset Point and to the Cottonwood Cove Swim Beach. Vault restrooms are available year-round.
Please make sure your charcoal is extinguished and completely cold before you leave. Do not throw warm charcoal into the dumpsters!
Don’t miss the wonderful views from the top of Balanced Rock and Sunset Point. Whether you’re looking for your friends on their boat, birds on the wing, the distant Chimney Canyons to the north, or the green-energy windmill project on the horizon, borrow or bring a pair of binoculars to these two areas of the park and take a break from the hustle and bustle!
Wildlife & Plants
Frequent Hawk, Eagle, & Turkey Vulture Sightings:
Raptors (predatory birds that catch food with their talons and feet) like to take advantage of warm air currents, or thermals, that rise along land features like cliffs and hills. These birds love to soar effortlessly on warm thermals with outspread wings, looking for prey or just for fun! Thermal air currents are most active in the early morning, when the sun first warms the day, and in the evening, as cooling air sinks and pushes warm air upwards. Watch the skies above Sunset Point, the Dam, and Balanced Rock for soaring raptors at these times of day.
In the summer, you’ll frequently find turkey vultures in these areas, but keep a sharp eye out for our nesting pair of bald eagles, prairie falcons, and other hawks. In the winter, numerous bald eagles and rough-legged hawks from northern Canada and the Arctic spend the cold season on the park when the food supply is good. Year-round, you’ll see northern harriers – a dark brown or gray raptor with a white patch on its rump - skimming low above the surrounding grasslands as they search for a tasty snack.
Cactus Fields in Bloom:
Prickly-pear cactus grows throughout the park, but nowhere better than the undisturbed South Shoreline Trail. Cactus is a dry-weather plant, soaking up and saving moisture for when it needs it the most. In order to save moisture, prickly-pear cactus will only bloom for a few weeks around June if the weather has been fairly wet. When it does bloom, don’t miss it! Start at the West Trailhead and walk a short way along the South Shoreline Trail, and you’ll find fields full of beautiful, brilliant purple and yellow cactus blooms.
Prairie Dog Towns – and Burrowing Owls:
What would a prairie park be without prairie dogs? North Sterling is home to several small prairie dog towns. From a safe distance, look for the prairie dogs on the surface foraging for veggies for dinner, and watch how an alarmed prairie dog will freeze and “chirk!” a warning to his friends. Many other animals benefit from prairie dog towns, including burrowing owls, who take over holes for their underground nests, and badgers, who will steal a hole and make it larger for their own den. Of course, many predators also find their lunch in these areas, including red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, coyotes, and foxes.
Have you ever considered supporting your favorite state park with a family volunteer project? This could be as simple as picking up trash from the shoreline for an hour while you play, or as extensive as signing up for a weekly or monthly project like planting and watering trees, assisting with children’s programs, or joining the Winter Raptor Monitoring Team.
Volunteers who provide 48 hours of service earn a FREE transferable annual pass, plus an assortment of training opportunities, valuable experiences, references for your resume, and the satisfaction of contributing to YOUR North Sterling State Park. Volunteers as young as 12 can work independently on certain projects (with parental permission), or younger children can work under the supervision of their parents on a family project!
Here’s a few ideas for ways to help out on your next trip:
This modern treasure hunt using a hand-held GPS unit has become a popular sport worldwide. Popular websites like www.geocaching.com provide geographic coordinates to the location of a cache (hidden box), but the fun part is finding the cache in the real world! Geocaches often contain journal books to log your “find”, bits and bobs of “treasure” to trade for, or a stamp for your own journal book to show which caches you’ve found.
North Sterling State Park currently has three geocaches in different locations, with a fourth soon to be replaced. Use your own GPS unit, or borrow one from the Visitor Center, and use your treasure-hunting skill and savvy to find them!
Remember, use caution when stepping off the beaten path. Rattlesnakes are active in the summer on the prairie. Never reach a hand into hidden crevices or under bushes – always check with a long stick first!
Looking for some more geocaching fun? Try our unique North Sterling State Park Geohunt activity! Using the same skills as traditional geocaching, you’ll answer questions at different areas in the park to find the coordinates to the next location. Print one at home (coming soon!) or borrow a laminated copy at the Visitor Center.
Sometimes, being in the middle of the prairie isn’t a bad thing at all. North Sterling enjoys broad, clear skies unclouded by excessive light pollution, and amateur and professional astronomers alike enjoy the opportunity to see galaxies, stars, and cosmic features that simply cannot be seen anywhere along the Front Range.
Head out to the stargazing area on Sunset Point for some prime stargazing with the naked eye, or borrow a pair of binoculars and a star guide from the Visitor Center for a closer look. The best viewing is on a moonless night (during the new moon), before the moon rises, or after the moon sets. The full moon rises around 6pm, while the third-quarter (after full) moon rises around midnight, and the first-quarter (before full) moon rises around noon and sets around midnight.
Keep an eye out for announcements in the spring, summer, and fall for seasonal Star Parties. Organized in cooperation with local Northeastern Junior College astronomy professor David Coles, these fun, professionally-guided stargazing events are open to the public on certain Saturday evenings, weather permitting.
Tips for Outdoor Safety with Kids
Although you always want to be prepared and safe in the outdoors, active and curious children can bring their own challenges when it comes to safety. Remember to plan ahead for these considerations, even on a short trip:
Weather: North Sterling is typically hot and sunny, with frequent afternoon and evening thunderstorms that can become severe. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes from sunburn, especially on the water. Bring plenty of water (at least one liter per person on a short hike) and snacks to prevent dehydration. Take breaks and rest in the shade to prevent heat exhaustion. Watch the skies for approaching storm systems, and plan to reach safety (shoreline or shelter) well before the storms reach the park. Severe thunderstorms can include the possibility of heavy rain, very strong winds, lightning, hail, and tornadoes.
Landscape hazards: Of course, the majority of the park is very close to the water, and several sections of the shoreline have eroded into steep cliffs and drop-offs. Keep a close eye on children who may wander towards the shoreline, especially those who cannot swim well. Keep everyone back from the edges of cliffs and drop-offs (anything taller than you are!) to prevent falls and crumbling or collapse.
Vegetation: North Sterling is home to a variety of hardy prairie vegetation, from the tough buffalo grass to several types of cactus, including yucca, prickly pear, and small barrel cacti. Avoid a painful encounter with these cactus spines by sticking to the trails, and don’t allow pets and children to wander into the brush.
Wildlife: North Sterling is also home to a variety of wildlife indigenous to Colorado, including bull snakes, western hognose snakes, and prairie rattlesnakes. Bull snakes and western hognose snakes are harmless, and actually help us reduce the rodent population and compete with rattlesnakes for territory and resources. The western prairie rattler, our only venomous snake species, is a shy creature by nature and will avoid confrontations by moving away from threats or “buzzing” a warning, but will strike if provoked. To avoid coming into contact with an unsuspecting rattler never sit or place your hands near rock crevices, dense vegetation or downed timbers. Keep pets on a leash, and remind children to be watchful as well.