When the journey is just as important as the destination, travelling is less stressful and you can really appreciate things along the way. Over the years, we’ve learned to appreciate and look for what we call “on the way” travelling. A couple of easy ways to do this is by building in extra travelling time or paying attention to flight layovers.
Sure it sucks to be stuck on a five-hour layover in the airport, but what if you opted for a longer layover that lets you leave the airport and check out a city you might never have visited otherwise? What if you scheduled an extra day or two on your road trip so you can sightsee or take in some attractions along the way?
On the way to our recent family vacation at the Home Ranch in Clark, Colorado, we built in some extra time in Colorado’s capital city, Denver, by flying in the day before. Flying in on Saturday rather than Sunday somehow made our flight almost a third cheaper, and gave us just under two days to explore Denver before driving out to the ranch.
We wanted to visit some fun and educational attractions for kids while we were in the city, but with so little time and so many things to do, we had to choose carefully. After much research, we decided to visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Children’s Museum of Denver, and the Butterfly Pavilion.
Denver Museum of Nature and Science
We spent our first day at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. This huge three-level building houses a massive assortment of fascinating and interactive exhibits from a real Egyptian mummy to a replica limestone cave, a mock-up of the Mars landscape to life-size models of dinosaurs and prehistoric flora and fauna. There’s so much to see and do here that I can’t possibly describe it all. Plan to spend a full day here or you’ll miss a lot of cool stuff!
Upon entering the museum, the Space Odyssey exhibit is located just off the atrium on the first floor. Space enthusiasts will love the hands-on activities and Mars surface diorama, as well as the Gates Planetarium.
The other major exhibit on the first level is the Coors Gems and Minerals Hall, an exhaustive catalog of gems and mineral samples housed in a gallery designed to look like a mine shaft. Much of the information was a bit dense for kids, but they liked looking at the colourful gems and minerals and touching the giant quartz crystal.
Up on the second level is Expedition Health which explores the human body and how it is constantly changing and adapting to stimuli. The second floor also houses the museum’s IMAX theatre, exhibits of Russian gem sculptures and Mexican folk art, and the North American Indian Cultures Hall showcasing the diversity and artistry among different Native American groups through reconstructed dwellings and samples of tools and handcrafts.
Multiple wildlife halls on both the second and third levels contain over 90 incredibly detailed displays and dioramas spotlighting birds and animals from North America to the South Pacific Islands, Africa to Australia, and a gallery dedicated to native Colorado wildlife on the third floor.
When the kids start getting antsy, bring them to the Discovery Zone on the second level where they can get the wiggles out with some water play, uncover “fossils” in a big sandbox, pet a hissing cockroach, climb a Parasaurolophus dinosaur, and pretend to be a pizza chef. According to the sign, this area is targeted to children aged 3-5, but we saw lots of older kids here, and my own 6-year-old and 9-year-old found lots of activities to keep them busy.
Speaking of dinosaurs, the Prehistoric Journey exhibit on the third floor is a must see. This massive gallery traces the evolution of life on earth from single-celled organisms, prehistoric life under the ocean, the age of the dinosaurs, the rise of mammals, and early hominids.
Pick up and touch real fossils!
Highlights in the Prehistoric Journey exhibit include an 80-foot Diplodocus skeleton, dramatic Allosaurus and Stegosaurus fossils locked in battle, a replica skull of an ancient Dunkleosteus fish, and the chance to observe staff working on and preparing real fossils in the Earth Sciences Lab.
Housed in the back hall on the third level, Our Senses: Creating Your Reality explores the science behind our senses with interactive exhibits and activities. Learn about our specialized sensory systems and the senses beyond sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. This is a particularly kid-friendly exhibit with a fun live show teaching kids how their senses work to create reality.
When we were here, the Museum was hosting the Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius exhibit. The generously sized hall was packed full of working models and reproductions of his work, and a multisensory cinematic experience exploring da Vinci’s life. The kids tried out the Leonardo-inspired catapults, and we met historical enactors dressed in Renaissance attire conversing and singing.
We also appreciated the opportunity to view world-class reproductions of Leonardo’s most famous paintings including The Last Supper, La Vergine delle Rocce, and a reconstruction of how the Mona Lisa would have looked when it was first painted.
If you’re spending the day here, I recommend checking out the in-house T-rex Cafe on the main level. You’ll find your typical fast food options like burgers and pizza, but they also have a surprisingly good salad bar with plenty of healthy choices and pretty reasonable prices.
Children’s Museum of Denver
On our second day, we headed to the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus. I’d heard about their new 500-foot Adventure Forest aerial adventure course, and we were really interested in checking it out. But once we arrived, we found so much more!
The Children’s Museum is all about learning through open-ended play. With close to 20 hands-on, interactive exhibits and activities both indoors and out, expect to spend 4+ hours here to see and do everything.
As soon as you arrive, go sign up for the Adventure Forest. (Kids must be at least 5 years old or 44 inches tall to enter, and they must have an adult with them.) While you’re waiting for your turn, turn the kids loose in the water play area, zip lines, and other outdoor play areas in Joy Park.
You’ll get a text when it’s time to head over to the Adventure Forest. After getting your mandatory helmets on, you and the kids will climb nets and ladders, cross bridges, crawl through tunnels, explore nooks and crannies, and exit the course down one of two 70-foot slides.
Every surface inside and out is decorated with colour, designs, linocut illustrations, and inspirational writings. Keep your eyes peeled for hidden surprises and displays of vintage items. The Adventure Forest is both a play structure and a work of art!
Moving inside the 47,000 square foot museum, you’ll find two floors packed full of interactive exhibits. The three-story Altitude climber offers another opportunity for kids 4 and older to explore their physical abilities. Toddlers under 40″ have their own space, Box Canyon, to climb and explore.
Design the perfect paper projectile and fly it across the test room. Discover what variables affect the size of bubbles. Learn about different forms of energy, and experiment with water’s flow, buoyancy, and displacement.
Build your own creations using recycled materials, hammers, screwdrivers, and saws. Explore your creativity and artistic talent in the Art Studio through clay, paint, wood, and more. There’s a ton of stations for imaginative play too, where kids can pretend to be fire fighters, work in a vet’s office, or run a neighbourhood grocery store.
Some exhibits are designed for babies and toddlers, while others are ideal for older kids. The Children’s Museum website states the museum is aimed at kids eight and under. My oldest is nine and there were plenty of things for her to see and do. While we were there we saw lots of kids older than her enjoying themselves, so don’t feel like preteens and even young teens won’t have a good time as well.
Our final stop before getting on the road was the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, about 15 minutes out from downtown Denver. Smaller than the other attractions, it’s a great size for spending a couple of hours with younger children. The entire place is devoted to invertebrates, on land, under the sea, and in the air. Did you know that 97% of all the animal species on earth are invertebrates?
We got up close and personal with bees and beetles in the Crawl-a-see-um, touched sea stars and a horseshoe crab in the Water’s Edge exhibit, and even said hello to the Butterfly Pavilion’s most famous resident – Rosie the tarantula! Friendly volunteers were on hand to educate visitors about the invertebrates on display and help even the most nervous kids meet Rosie.
And of course, our main reason for visiting: the Wings of the Tropics exhibit, a 7200 square foot tropical rain forest pavilion containing 1600 beautiful, free-flying butterflies and 200 tropical plant species.
Don’t miss the live butterfly releases twice a day, and kids can take part in a scavenger hunt and earn a butterfly stamp for finding all the items in the rain forest.
The Butterfly Pavilion also houses a play area for younger guests, outdoor nature trails, and fun and educational presentations throughout the day.
Whew! We sure fit a lot into just two days. If you have more time in Denver, consider visiting some of these other kid-friendly attractions in the area:
- Denver Zoo
- WOW! Children’s Museum (Lafayette)
- Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum
- Dinosaur Ridge
- Denver Art Museum
- Downtown Aquarium
Disclosure: I received complimentary admission to the above attractions in order to facilitate this post. All opinions are honest and my own. Your experience may differ.