By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

What’s the most fun?

Maybe the Rocky Mountain hikes, the horseback riding, the chance to do crafts and eat homemade ice cream. We are after all in Estes Park, Colorado, at the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

But as fun as Colorado is in the summer, there’s something more important going on here at the YMCA of the Rockies. “It’s eating and joking around with all of our cousins,” explains Jack McQuillen, 15, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas. “We don’t get to see them very often.”

Playing GaGa Ball at YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park CO
Playing GaGa Ball at YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park CO

“I hear so many family stories I wanted to be able to put the faces with the names,” added Victoria Dennis, 21, who is from St. Paul, Minnesota.

“This is the only time I see the extended family,” said Ben Afflerbach, 25, a grad student at the University of Wisconsin.

Like many families, my husband’s relatives migrated far and wide from Yoakum, Texas, where his mom and her six siblings were raised and in turn raised a gaggle of kids of their own. (My husband is one of 40 first cousins). There are still some Texans in the bunch, but there are also Californians (northern and southern), Seattleites, New Englanders, Coloradans and Midwesterners.

We are here at the YMCA of the Rockies for a big family reunion of my husband’s family — 100 people, ranging in age from infants to late 80s, the fourth we’ve held here over the last 20 years. Just this week, there are 36 reunions here at the Estes Park Center and another 19 at the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch about 60 miles west of here over the Continental Divide. Some have as few as five people; some have hundreds. Most average 30 to 45. Both sites host more reunions than any other venue in the country, they believe, more than 1,000 a year.

View from our cabin overlooking Continental Divide at YMCA of Rockies
View from our cabin overlooking Continental Divide at YMCA of Rockies

Lodge rooms, including breakfast, start at $179 per day during regular season. A two-bedroom basic cabin starts at $154 per night. Pets are permitted in some cabins.

Not only is the 860-acre YMCA resort affordable and in an ideal location (you can hike into Rocky Mountain National Park and the YMCA’s “hike masters” obligingly will tell you which trail heads will be less crowded and even lend hiking boots), but there are lots of free activities (all the mini golf you want to play!) and there’s a reunion staff to help you with everything from reservations to special activities (perhaps a cookout, campfire or hayride?) This YMCA resort, in fact, has just been nominated as one of the top family resorts in the country in USA Today’s 10 Best contests, along with the likes of luxury dude ranches, Orlando mega resorts and posh Hawaii properties.

It’s easy to see why families love this place — and keep returning. There are lots of organized games run by young staff, including “Gaga Ball,” a version of dodge ball inside a small fenced area and “Bubble Soccer,” where the kids get inside giant plastic balls and play a version of human bumper cars on the lawn. The staff is unfailingly helpful and friendly.

For the adults, there’s yoga, a concert series, art talks and landscape painting, chess and cards, guided hikes (one to see the beavers here on the expansive property — some 30 activities a day).

Spending time together doing something fun — whether it’s playing a lawn game or a softball tournament or taking a whitewater rafting trip or a long hike — is a way to encourage the younger members of the family to get to know each other.

The youngest member at the reunion
The youngest member at the reunion

There are teachers and Army officers, business people and newsmen, stay-at-home moms and airline pilots in our group. We have family members of many different faiths, ethnicities and political persuasions. (It’s always a good idea to not talk politics at such events, I’ve learned, and to refrain from criticizing anyone’s parenting style.)

Twenty years ago, when our kids were little, they loved the reunion here — once every four years in our family— for the same reason the young kids in the family do today — so much to do! So many cousins to play (and get in trouble) with!

This certainly is a fantastic playground for the kids, even if you never leave the YMCA’s extensive grounds. There’s softball and tennis, basketball, mini-golf, horseback riding, a big crafts center, playground and all varieties of complimentary organized programs — everything from kids yoga (new this summer) to a kids’ sketch class (learn how to draw an elk or bison with an artist), games with a giant parachute, story time, bingo, learning how to tie knots or learning about forest ecology or astronomy, as well as a community campfire.

Most of our family opted to stay in hotel-style lodges; we preferred a three-bedroom cabin where we had stupendous views of the Continental Divide and were able to comfortably host my husband’s immediate family — more than 20 of them — for dinner one night.

There are also designated “reunion” cabins with as many as 16 bedrooms; others with eight.

Everything’s changed since our first reunion in 1997 and nothing’s changed. It was just as hard to corral the kids to sit for the group picture. The family elders liked nothing better than sitting on the porch visiting. There were jokes and practical jokes. The kids still played UNO in our designated “meeting room” in the evening, but one of the teachers in the family also developed a family trivia game everyone could play on their smartphones via an app.

We still had a white board of where people were going and what they were doing, but Wi-Fi made it a lot easier to keep in touch and meet up.

The key to a successful reunion is planning far in advance. The YMCA reunion experts say their reunions are often reserved two years out. It’s important to have a “designated leader,” or in the case of a big family like ours, a group who in turn can communicate to everyone else. Make sure everyone is not only onboard with the dates and location but also the cost. No one wants any surprises!

There are lots of milestones at our reunion — 25th and 35th anniversaries; 80th, 70th, 60th, 50th and 30th birthdays. One of the grandmothers tried to give the family a quick family history lesson, but, of course, the kids quickly lost interest.

More important, said one of the cousins, “is we all made it.”

The organizers are already at work on the next one.