A Guide to Visiting The Rocky Mountains in the Winter


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While the bulk of annual visitation to Rocky Mountain National Park tends to happen between April to early October, travelers and outdoor fanatics shouldn’t write off a visit to the Rocky Mountains in the winter.

In fact, the lack of crowds alone is enough reason to spend some time here between the months of November to March, as the long lines, crowded parking areas, and full trailheads of peak vacation season start to feel like a thing of the past.

What’s more, exploring the roads and trails of Rocky Mountain National Park in winter presents a chance for excellent wildlife watching as animals like moose, elk, bighorn sheep, snowshoe hares, and others settle into their lower-elevation habitats for the cold months.

For more active visitors and fans of winter snow sports, some of the best activities Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer include winter hiking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and even winter fly fishing below Olympus Dam in nearby Estes Park. The wintertime also gives photographers a great backdrop for seeking out shots of wildlife and serene, snow-covered landscapes.

Read on for more information on planning your list of things to do during winter in the Rocky Mountains, along with some other thoughts on being prepared for the sometimes unpredictable winter conditions in the high peaks of Colorado.

Winter Weather in Rocky Mountain National Park

If you had to pick one thing to remember about visiting the Rocky Mountains in winter, it would be to always overprepare when it comes to warm clothing.

Once you drive past the entry kiosks in Rocky Mountain National Park—whether from the Beaver Meadows, Fall River, Wild Basin, or Grand Lake entrances—you can bet on ending up at elevations of at least 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), which means frigid temps, wind, and snow are always possibilities.

Essential garments to always have in the car or backpack include an extra-warm, insulating layer or two like a down jacket, as well as a hard-shell layer made of a material such as Gore-Tex that will shield you from moisture and add additional wind-stopping protection.

Rocky Mountains in the Winter
Rocky Mountains in the Winter

Other crucial items of clothing include warm hats, gloves, and waterproof hiking or backpacking boots, assuming you aren’t going all-out and hiking in snowshoes. A note on this: snowshoes are a lot of fun and can allow you to get to some hard-to-reach places, but the microspikes and Yaktrax-type products on the market nowadays are also a great traction solution for winter hiking on slippery surfaces.

Polarized sunglasses are also nice to have because they cut down on the glare from light reflecting off the snowpack. It’s important to always pay attention to the sky and other shifts in the weather like an uptick in the wind or the early signs of falling snow, and always make decisions based on your intuition.

It’s better to turn back early on a hiking trail if you sense a blizzard coming in and begin to feel nervous about your navigating abilities or level of preparation. If it’s in your budget, GPS trackers made by companies like Garmin and Suunto that also have satellite messaging capabilities are a worthy investment.

Is Rocky Mountain National Park Open in the Winter?

While some of the RMNP visitor’s centers and the Moraine Park Discovery Center are either fully closed or closed periodically for major holidays during the winter, access to trails and roads in the park during wintertime is mostly excellent, depending on weather conditions.

One of the bigger variables when it comes to winter transit through Rocky Mountain National Park is Trail Ridge Road—one of the highest paved roads in the United States—which tends to close between mid-October to May, depending on weather.

Conditions can always change and have an impact on what roads and areas of the park are open in wintertime, so be sure to check the nps.gov website, as well as any of the NPS social media accounts, ahead of time for the latest updates.

Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road

Winter Driving in Rocky Mountain National Park

Having a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle like an SUV or truck isn’t as crucial when winter driving in Rocky Mountain National Park as simply having a good, relatively new pair of tires.

Out of all the areas you might choose to travel in the Rocky Mountains during the winter, RMNP is one of the safer ones in terms of having well-maintained, paved roads and accessible trailhead parking.

Roads that tend to stay open all winter in the park, depending on weather, include Bear Lake Road, Fern Lake Road, Wild Basin Road, the Twin Sisters Trailhead Access Road, and the Upper Beaver Meadows Road.

If you do happen to have a high-clearance vehicle like a Jeep or even an all-wheel-drive car like a Subaru, that certainly won’t hurt your peace of mind when it comes to driving in the snow. Park visitors who have two-wheel-drive cars may want to use more caution or even consider renting a car for a day in RMNP where weather forecasters are calling for a significant chance of snow.

And finally, a few things to always remember when driving in slick or snowy wintertime mountain conditions: break early, break lightly, and go slowly. If you’re driving downhill on a steep incline in the snow or on ice, consider downshifting to allow for a nice consistent slowdown and to reduce wear and tear on your brakes.

If you need to rent a car for your trip to the Rocky Mountains, you can browse Rentalcars.com which aggregates results across major suppliers.

Winter landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park
Winter landscape in Rocky Mountain National Park

Which Month to Visit the Rocky Mountains in the Winter?

Some of the best months for visiting the Rocky Mountains in the winter, especially in terms of having the highest snowpack levels and the thinnest crowds, are December, January, and February.

Whereas October and November still see the park at times flooded with autumn leaf-lookers and wildlife enthusiasts hoping to see the rare sight of two bull elk locking antlers and bugling during the rut season, Rocky Mountain National Park in December is a winter wonderland of mountain seclusion.

By this point in the winter, the pines are draped with snow, the trails have turned to lines of hardpack surrounded by powder fields, and the animals are all settled into their lower-elevation safe zones.

If you’re considering a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in January through March, you’ll find the same lack of crowds and ever-increasing levels of snowpack. It’s usually not until April that the frozen park streams begin to thaw and the high country starts to melt off and on, depending on weather trends and overnight temperatures.

Elk Herd in Rocky Mountain National Park,
Elk Herd in Rocky Mountain National Park

Safety Tips for Visiting the Rocky Mountains in the Winter

Along with the already-mentioned clothing and gear essentials that help prepare you to face the elements, there are some other things to keep in mind when it comes to wintertime safety in RMNP.

No matter your planned activity during winter in the Rocky Mountains, always be sure to tell at least one person who won’t be going out with you exactly where you’ll be and when you plan to return. This is especially important if you’ll be venturing out on any trails or into areas where you won’t have cell signal or the ability to send out an electronic communication.

GPS trackers and satellite-enabled communication devices are good to have for anyone, and they’re practically essential for anyone planning on exploring away from marked trails with snowshoes or cross-country skis.

You should also plan on bringing more than enough food and water with you—even enough to last you more than one day or overnight in the event of a worst-case emergency situation.

Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake

Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

The immediate Estes Park and Grand Lake areas don’t have too many opportunities as the kind of downhill resort skiing that draws so many to Colorado in the wintertime (this goes even more for the Eastern Slope).

But despite this, there’s a long list of things to do when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter, especially for those who enjoy the solitude of the coldest months.

The list below includes a lot of activities geared toward the most active park guests, but less fitness-inclined people should keep in mind that a day of touring the park—with occasional stops to get out, look around, and do some sightseeing—can always be in the cards too.

Winter Hiking and Wildlife Watching

Contrary to what some might believe, you don’t actually have to be wearing a pair of snowshoes or Nordic skis to find yourself hiking a couple of miles on a trail like the Fern Lake, Cub Lake, or Glacier Gorge trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.

As mentioned earlier, a pair of waterproof hiking or backpacking boots with good traction and high ankle support is key, and additional pieces of gear like gaiters and/or microspikes and Yaktrax can really help you cover ground on slick trails in the dead of winter.

When hiking, be sure to keep your eyes open for chances at spotting wildlife. Having a good pair of binoculars can really take your wildlife watching to a whole new level during the wintertime. The stark white contrast of the snow against everything else sometimes really makes animals like elk stand out, and it also can make spotting smaller animals such as birds easier from afar.

There are even some local outfitters, such as Yellow Wood Guiding, that offer guided tours geared toward putting clients in the best possible position to see rarer animals such as moose in the winter.

Winter hiking in Rocky Mountains
Winter hiking in Rocky Mountains

Winter Fly Fishing below Lake Estes

Though many might think of winter fishing and automatically think of drilling a hole in the ice, Colorado has a rich supply of dammed “tailwater” rivers, such as the Big Thompson River below Lake Estes, where anglers can catch trout 12 months out of the year thanks to human-controlled flows.

Warmer water is fed out of the dam, meaning that for a certain distance downstream trout can feed year-round in running water that practically never freezes.

The Big Thompson River, which originates from snowmelt high up in Rocky Mountain National Park, is full of wild brown and rainbow trout, and there are a number of local outfitters based out of Estes Park, Grand Lake, and Boulder that offer guided fly fishing trips through the wintertime on this tailwater.

As this part of the Big Thompson River is located outside of RMNP in nearby Estes Park, this is a good option for travelers with multiple winter days to spend in the Rocky Mountains.

Fly Fishing in the Big Thompson River
Fly Fishing in the Big Thompson River

Cross-Country Skiing

This is an especially good option for anyone headed to Rocky Mountain National Park in February, as this can be one of the snowiest months in the park, depending on the year.

Cross-country skiing is especially popular in areas like Sprague Lake, which might be one of the best places for beginning skiers in the whole park thanks to its mellow 3.3-mile loop and exquisite panoramic views of the Continental Divide.

Intermediate to more experienced Nordic skiers have many other options available too, such as the Tonahutu Creek Trail to Grand Lake on the Western Slope side and the Bierstadt Lake Trail off Bear Lake Road.

Ski rentals and even lessons tend to be readily available in the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake on the eastern and western sides of the park, respectively.

Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing might be one of the most popular activities all over the Rocky Mountains in the winter, as these wonderfully simple yet ingenious pieces of outdoor gear allow us to feel what it’s like to “float” while walking on top of fresh powder.

It’s true that a good pair of backpacking boots, some Yaktrax, and some waterproof gaiters can do a pretty good job of getting a hiker into the woods on a snowy day, but there’s no doubt that snowshoes will take your hike to the next level.

Some of the snow-drenched mountain valleys in RMNP, such as the passage to Mills Lake through Glacier Gorge, are ideally traversed with a pair of snowshoes after the heaviest of snowfalls.

Other hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park that are best-suited to snowshoeing in the winter include hikes to Nymph Lake, Emerald Lake, and Dream Lake on the Eastern Slope, and hiking up the East Inlet Trail to Adams Falls and Long Pine Lake on the Western Slope.

Dream Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Dream Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to Stay Near Rocky Mountain National Park

If you’ve decided to brave the chilly weather and visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter, then you’re going to want to find a great place to stay. The town of Estes Park makes for a great base with plenty of amenities very close to the park entrance. If you’re wondering where to stay, have a look at these suggestions:

Murphy’s River Lodge – Located close to the center of Estes Park, this rustic lodge is an excellent choice when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in winter. There are countless rooms available to suit all kinds of travelers, a heated indoor swimming pool and hot tub, and a great continental breakfast is available each morning. Click here to see their availability

Streamside on Fall River – This lodge has a number of fantastic rooms available and is situated in an incredibly scenic location. All rooms are clean and comfortable and some are equipped with a kitchenette or a river-view patio. There are also barbecue facilities and a hot tub available for all guests to enjoy. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own than stay in a hotel, a private vacation rental is a great option for you. There are lots of great properties available in Estes Park, including this grand cabin with panoramic mountain views or this comfortable home in downtown Estes Park. Click here to browse more private rentals in Estes Park!

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Estes!

Lake Estes in Winter
Lake Estes in Winter

There may be more preparation required when it comes to exploring Rocky Mountain National Park in winter, but the extra clothing, gear, and time spent planning are all made worthwhile by the serenity, natural beauty, and chances at spotting wildlife afforded by the winter months.

We all enjoy visiting the Rocky Mountains in the peak vacation seasons of spring, summer, and fall, but anyone who loves the mountains won’t want to miss out on the experience of a wintertime visit to the high Rockies.

Are you planning on visiting the Rocky Mountains in winter? Have you been before? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains. If he could teleport to anywhere on the planet, it would be the mountains of Patagonia in Chile.

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