Getting out of the Front Range and up to Rocky Mountain National Park is an obvious (and popular) escape in the summer. But what about in the winter, when so few other souls are there? You’ll practically have the whole place to yourself.
A trip to the park in the winter means you’ll experience something truly unique to Colorado: prime and easily accessed snow-centric recreation in one of the most spectacular national parks in the world. Indeed, RMNP offers some of the best winter recreation within an hour’s drive from Boulder, with sledding, winter camping, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, and ski touring and winter mountaineering in the park’s high country and snowier west side of the Continental Divide. Another bonus? You'll avoid the dreaded traffic on I-70.
Here, all the intel you need to know for visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in winter.
The simplest way to experience the park in the winter is exploring the same trails you do in the summertime. Yet you'll have the entire winter wonderland to yourself, a snow-blanketed, serene landscape where you can spot animal tracks in the snow, drink from Thermoses, and pretend you're on an Arctic expedition far from civilization.
The best spots for hiking are primarily in the lower valleys and eastern side of the park, where trails often remain clear of snow, especially below 8,500 feet. Almost every trail on the east side of the park can be hiked with snowshoes, which basically means you just have to roll in and pull up to your favorite trailhead (and now would be an ideal time to check out those that might seem too crowded or easy in the summer). Using poles is always recommended.
If you decide to hike without snowshoes, proceed with caution, and be sure not to hike through deep snow, as it leaves behind post holes that are hazardous and annoying to skiers and snowshoers.
Places to Explore
One cool idea for a winter hike is the five-mile Chasm Falls trail, gaining about 400 feet of elevation from the West Alluvial Fan parking lot. Strap in and hike 1.5 miles to the junction of Endovalley Road and Old Fall River Road, taking in the scenery. Continue up Old Fall River Road about a mile to the falls. Consider this a place to explore for ice climbing as well, sitting at 8,960 feet. Follow signs to Chasm Falls as Highway 34 runs into Horseshoe Park. At the west end of Horseshoe Park, Endovalley Road leads over a bridge to the winter road closure.
Another recommended but more difficult hike is Deer Mountain. It's about six miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet. Continue on Highway 36 approximately 4.5 miles after passing park headquarters to the Deer Ridge Junction Trailhead. Wind your way to the summit through mixed pine forest for views of the Continental Divide at 10, 013 feet.
Insider tip: This is one of those trails that you start out on thinking you don’t need snowshoes, but when you get to the top, deep snow and snow drifts change the game. So go prepared with snowshoes or skis if you’re serious about exploring.
Winter Camping in RMNP
There's no other way to experience so much blissful solitude and beauty, especially so close to home, than winter camping in Colorado high country. Don't let the temps scare you; just pack up, bundle up, and get out of town.
Whether you’ve got a camper, RV, van or just want to tough it out in a tent, Timber Creek, Longs Peak, and Moraine Park campgrounds inside the park are open year-round.
Snowshoeing in to the Timber Creek and Longs Peak campgrounds with all your gear may be adventure enough for many. And bear in mind that only Moraine Park will have water in the winter and RV dump stations are closed.
Backcountry camping in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter is an adventure, no matter how far you wander. Just be sure to pick up a free permit at park headquarters and get some beta from the rangers regarding conditions and avalanche danger. Assure them you are prepared for winter camping so they don’t try to talk you out of it. That means wearing lots of layers of insulating, waterproof clothing, having plenty of water, high-fructose food sources, several ways to make heat and fire, eye protection, and sunscreen. Never travel alone in the backcountry, especially in the winter, and keep eyes peeled for wildlife. Be prepared for short days, cold temps, high winds, and the potential for quickly deteriorating weather. And keep in mind that dogs are not allowed in the backcountry of the National Parks.
Rocky Mountain National Park is known worldwide for some of most authentic backcountry skiing and split boarding near the Front Range, but it’s also vast and dangerous. While people often talk about skiing in Wild Basin and ski mountaineering routes on the high peaks, the old abandoned ski area within the park, called Hidden Valley, remains one of the best places to backcountry ski. It's also a great spot for sledding with the family. You won’t find any lifts at this ski area, which operated from 1949-1992, just an old warming hut, but you will find gladed bowl skiing at various slope angles, making it a solid choice during most snow conditions.
The basin sits at about 9,500 feet and skiers can get almost 2,000 vertical feet if they're willing to work for it. Trail Ridge Road now divides the old area, and below the road is where the beginner slopes were. Above the road, experts will find steeper terrain. All of the former Hidden Valley Ski Area buildings have been removed and there are new facilities in place. This is a legitimate backcountry skiing experience with variable snow and conditions so, know before you go.
Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The RMNP Fall River Visitor Center is only open on weekends. Before your trip, study the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website for important info. If you don’t have your own gear or didn’t pick it up in Boulder, you can rent in Estes Park or Grand Lake at several shops. And be sure to check road conditions beforehand, too.
From Boulder take Highway 36 through Lyons and on to Estes Park. You can also go through Nederland (119) and the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway (72 to 7) to Estes Park. Or take I-25 to Highway 34 to Estes Park, a route that's sometimes easier in the winter. The Peak to Peak route is the most scenic with cool stops and views of Longs Peak. Pass the Stanley Hotel on the right as Highway 34 becomes Fall River Road entering the park.