Most people go out of their way to explore Rocky Mountain National Park during the summer and fall months. It's a given to go for a hike while it's warm, and do the touristy drive up when all the leaves begin to turn red and gold.. But if you crave true solitude and quiet, the park becomes a wonderland in the winter months that won't disappoint!
The park boasts all the best winter recreation within a one hour drive from Boulder, and eliminates any encounter with the ever-looming drive along I-70. Activities include sledding, snowshoeing, winter camping, cross-country skiing and winter mountaineering. You'll have the opportunity to experience all of this without fighting the crowds if you embrace winter adventuring in RMNP.
The park is open 24 hours a day 365 days a year. The Fall River Visitor Center is only open on weekends. Before heading out, be sure to look over the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website for important info. And if you don't own your own gear or you weren't able to find what you needed in Boulder, you can always rent those last-minute items at various shops in Estes Park or Grand Lake. Most of all, check current road conditions beforehand!
Camping in the chill of Colorado's high country offers peace and quiet, and incredible views. No matter your camping style, Timber Creek, Longs Peak and Moraine Park campgrounds within the park are all open year round. So don't let plummeting temperatures scare you off - as long as you bundle up and pack appropriately, you'll be a winter camper from then on.
If you prefer backcountry camping, RMNP is the perfect place to give it a go. Even if you venture just a bit up into the woods from the road, you're sure to feel all alone in the middle of nowhere. Make sure you pick up a permit from the ranger station before heading out, and collect information about current weather conditions and the potential for avalanche danger. Be prepared - this means packing several layers of insulated and waterproof clothing, lots of water, the right types of food, multiple ways to create fire and/or heat, eye protection and sunscreen. Yes, sunscreen!
Backcountry camping shouldn't be done alone, and it's important to keep your eyes open for wildlife. Things can change with little to no notice when you're doing primitive camping, like sudden weather fluctuations, plummeting temperatures, and gradually shorter days.
Friendly reminder: Leave Fido at home, because dogs are not allowed in the backcountry areas of the park.
Skiing Wild Basin is a popular option, but backcountry skiing offers an authentic experience for any lover of winter sports. The old, abandoned ski area within the park is called Hidden Valley, and it is considered one of the best places to backcountry ski. If you're looking for something inclusive for the whole family, it is also prime sledding area! It was in operation from 1949-1992 and no longer has any lifts, but it does house a warming hut for people to use during their visit.
If you'd like to experience RMNP when snow's on the ground, but you aren't feeling up for anything extreme, you can simply hike the trails you normally do during the summertime! The entire place will be blanketed in snow, allowing you to easily spot animal tracks in the snow and enjoy the landscape in an entirely new way. There's something very fun about spending the day pretending you're wandering through uncharted Arctic territory...
If you decide to venture out without the aid of snowshoes, be cautious and don't hike through really deep snow. It leaves holes behind you that can be a hazard to skiers and snowshoers you come along after you.
Aim for lower valley areas and the eastern side of the park, below 8,500 feet.
Maybe you're into exploring an area and forging your own path, so to speak. Though setting out to explore is a great winter escape, make sure you are prepared for any condition you may encounter. Most commonly, hikers begin on a trail thinking they don't need snowshoes or poles and then realize they do as they climb higher. Here are a couple trails that are particularly rewarding in the colder months..
Chasm Falls Trail - Five miles long with about 400 feet of elevation gain makes this trail good for those with limited experience in winter hiking and exploring. You'll begin at the West Alluvial Fan parking lot, strap in and head 1.5 miles tot he junction of Endovalley Road and Old Fall River Road. All along this portion of the trail you'll soak up tons of great scenery, so take your time and enjoy it! About a mile further up along Old Fall River Road will take you to the falls. This is a nice spot for some off-trail exploring and even ice climbing. If you following signs to Chasm Falls, you'll eventually end up in Horseshoe Park.
Deer Mountain - Though difficult, this 6 mile round-trip hike dangles views of the Continental Divide when you reach the summit, making the 1,000+ miles of elevation gain totally worth it. Go along Highway 36 about 4.5 miles and then make your way up to the summit and prepare to be amazed! Hint: You'll want to bring your camera.