Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park opens up a whole different set of activities and ways to enjoy the park from sledding and winter hikes to snowshoeing, skiing and even ice climbing.
Things To Do In The Winter In Rocky Mountain National Park
If you plan to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter, it is a very different experience than the summer, but there is still much to do and much to see. Enjoy a gentle snowshoe through the woods or experience the thrill of backcountry skiing.
The most popular winter activity in Rocky Mountain National Park is snowshoeing. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. The snowshoes help keep you up on top of the snow and allow you to get around with considerable ease, at least when compared to trying to walk through soft snow without them.
The most popular area for snowshoeing is around the Bear Lake area, including Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, and Bierstadt Lake. This area of the park is always one of the snowiest areas on the east side of Rocky, allowing you to snowshoe from mid-November through mid-May.
Snowshoes can be rented from most outdoor stores in Estes Park and generally rent with poles for $10-$20 per day. Some of the best places to try are: the Estes Park Mountain Shop, Outdoor World, or Kirk’s Mountain Adventures. Some lodges in town also offer them for free to their guests.
If you are in Grand Lake, you can rent snowshoes from Never Summer Mountain Products in downtown Grand Lake for $20 per day. They will be able to point you to some of the best spots for snowshoeing, such as up the East Inlet Trail, the North Inlet, or through the Kawuneeche Valley.
Sledding with the family is always fun. It can be a time of laughter and joy for the kids and adults. There is one sledding hill in the park, located at Hidden Valley. The slope is quite gentle and not very long, but the kids and adults alike love it. There is often a ranger at the bottom keeping watch and there is a warming hut as well as bathrooms with heating and flush toilets nearby.
In the past, the National Park Service was more relaxed about where one could sled, and many people brought sleds to areas like Bear Lake. This has changed and now sledding can only be done at the Hidden Valley sledding hill. It is not allowed at any other location in the national park.
This sledding hill can be quite exposed, so choose a day that is not very windy. The best time to come is immediately following a snowstorm. It may take a few runs to get the sled working after a storm, but then it’s all fun from there on out.
Although Colorado is known for its world-class ski resorts, there are no ski resorts in the park or right near the park. Most of Colorado’s main ski areas are located off of Interstate 70 and are a 2-3 hour drive from Estes Park. The closest ski area to Estes Park is Eldora, near the town of Nederland. It is about an hour drive south along Colorado Highways 7 and 72. This is a small ski area that primarily serves the Front Range area.
If you are visiting Grand Lake, then you have more options as there is Granby Ranch ski area about 30 minutes south of town. An hour drive south of Grand Lake will bring you to Winter Park Resort, one of Colorado’s best.
Nonetheless, there is some great skiing to be had in Rocky Mountain National Park. You just have to “earn your turns”. A growing sport in Colorado is alpine touring (AT). This is a combination of downhill skiing and cross-country skiing. It involves special skis and boots that enable you to ski up the hill under your own power, then when you get to the top you lock your heels in and ski back down just as you would if you were downhill skiing.
To do this requires a good deal of fitness, skill at skiing variable and sometimes difficult terrain, avalanche knowledge, and the right gear. This is not a sport for those new to skiing.
Currently, AT equipment can be rented from the Estes Park Mountain Shop on Highway 34 in Estes Park. The cost for a full-kit is about $70 per day.
Two of the main locations for alpine touring in Rocky Mountain National Park are Hidden Valley and the north side of Flattop Mountain. Hidden Valley used to be a ski area from 1955 through 1990. Today the lifts are gone, but the remnants of old ski runs can still be used. It can get pretty windy and icy up there, but some days it is absolutely perfect. The Flattop Mountain location is accessed from Bear Lake via a two-mile ski up to an area known as “The Banana Bowls”. This is an open north-facing slope that generally is below the angle at which avalanches form. There are also some short slopes that are good for tree skiing between here and Bear Lake.
If you are in Grand Lake, there are some areas, though more limited, for AT skiing. You can rent a full kit and get personal guidance on where to ski from Never Summer Mountain Products in downtown Grand Lake.
Another way to enjoy Rocky Mountain National Park is on cross-country skis. Unlike AT skis, these are best used on generally flat terrain. There are only a handful of places where they work really well in Rocky Mountain National Park and some of these require just the right conditions. Cross-country skis can also be rented from the Estes Park Mountain Shop on Highway 34 in Estes Park. The cost for a full-kit is about $25 per day.
Almost all winter long, you can find good cross-country skiing from Bear Lake up to Bierstadt Lake. The route around the lake can be very peaceful, especially after a fresh snow. Another option is to ski from Sprague Lake up to the junction with Glacier Gorge. This route parallels Bear Lake Road and is relatively flat. If there is a heavy snow, then Wild Basin Road and Old Fall River Road are good for cross-country skiing.
If you are in Grand Lake, then you will have a lot of great cross-country skiing options. Some areas along the Kawuneeche Valley have ski trails that are regularly maintained by locals and rangers; however, they don’t use the machinery that you would find in some designated cross-country locations because these are wilderness areas. You can rent cross-country skis and get the latest trail reports from Never Summer Mountain Products in downtown Grand Lake. They charge $20 a day for a full-kit and are some of the nicest people you’ll meet.
During the winter, most of the trails in the national park are covered in snow. When the snow is soft, snowshoes are required, but some of the more popular trails can often see enough traffic that the trails turn from soft snow to ice. At this point, it is best to hike with microspikes. These little metal spikes can be slipped over your boots, enabling you to walk on icy trails with no fear of slipping. It can make hiking on a trail almost as easy as it is in the summer.
You can rent microspikes at almost any of the outdoor stores in Estes Park such as Estes Park Mountain Shop, Outdoor World, or Kirk’s Mountain Adventures. If in Grand Lake, visit Never Summer Mountain Products in downtown Grand Lake. These microspikes will make you smile as you walk right past everyone who isn’t wearing them.
A couple of great hikes to do with microspikes are Dream and Emerald Lake, Mills Lake, and if you are there after a busy weekend you may even be able to hike up to The Loch with microspikes.
One advantage of visiting during the winter is that you can walk on roads that are closed. Drive to Many Parks Curve on Trail Ridge Road, where you’ll find that you can drive no further due to the road closure. From here you can walk the road. It may vary from snow covered to dry road. Another road to walk is Old Fall River Road. You can often walk as far as Chasm Falls during the winter without needing any snowshoes or microspikes. Other great roads to walk are Beaver Meadows Road or Wild Basin Road. During the month of April, these can all be great places to walk and avoid the snow.
Lumpy Ridge just outside of Estes Park is another good location to avoid much of the snow. Enjoy a hike up to Gem Lake or along the Black Canyon Trail. There may be a few icy spots where microspikes will help, but for the most part you may find that the trails are mostly dry.
When hiking in the winter there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Firstly, if you see ski tracks on the side of the trail or off the main trail, don’t walk on them unless you are also wearing skis. Skiers like to have a smooth surface and your walking on their tracks will break that smooth surface.
- Secondly, if the snow is soft enough that your feet are sinking in a couple of inches, put on snowshoes or skis. If you don’t have either, then turn around. Walking on soft snow without wearing floatation devices makes a miserable trail for everyone who follows after you. You’ll make large holes in the trail and then during the night it will freeze solid and make it a pain for others for an extended time.
- Third, if you find that you need to pee while out in the snow, walk off trail for some distance, away from any lakes or streams and do it there. No one wants to see yellow snow while hiking in a pristine snow-covered forest. Always pack your toilet paper out with you.
Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park is wonderful, but it does present a new set of challenges. Here are a few that you should be aware of:
From mid-October through April the winds tend to howl through the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. In the lower elevations they can often gust up to 50mph while at the higher elevations it can be more than double that. On windy days it is best to avoid the forests as the winds tend to blow down many of the dead trees, making it an unsafe place to be. Above tree line should also be avoided on high wind days as the wind can simply pick you up and throw you onto the rocks or off a cliff. It is important to check the forecasts before you go to see what the expected wind speed is for the area you plan to visit.
If you plan to spend any time in the mountains during the winter, you should be avalanche aware. Colorado is very prone to avalanches and each year numerous people die as a result. It doesn't matter if you are on a trail or off trail, avalanches don't care. The most important thing to know is that slopes with an angle between 35 and 45 degrees are the ones that are most likely to have avalanche issues. These slopes should be generally avoided unless you have proper training to assess them. One of the most dangerous times can be right after a fresh snow, though this is certainly not the only time. Before you head out into the mountains be sure to check the current avalanche forecast at: https://avalanche.state.co.us/. If you plan to regularly spend time in the mountains during the winter, consider taking an avalanche training course. There are several groups offering avalanche training courses in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Here's a little video that gives a good overview of avalanche concerns.
The high winds in Rocky Mountain National Park can turn a snowy slope into an icy one. These slopes can occasionally turn to almost impenetrable ice making them very dangerous to try and cross without crampons and ice axes. If you encounter such a slope and don't have the right equipment, turn around or find another way. It is not worth the risk.
While the lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park freeze during the winter and can be safely walked on, early in the season or late in the season these lakes need to be approached with care. The last areas to freeze and the first to thaw are the areas around the inlets and outlets of these lakes where there is moving water. Even in the middle of winter, these areas of the lake are often weaker. Do not walk on a lake until we've had several of weeks of consistently below freezing weather. When the month of March arrives, it is time to treat the lakes with much more caution. Also, if we have a particularly warm winter, you should be extra careful around the lakes.
Streams are even slower to freeze and often melt out sooner, so take extra care when crossing frozen streams.