Why should you visit Rocky Mountain National Park in winter? Because it’s the season of solitude. The bulk of visitors to Rocky go in May through October. July and August are the busiest months. It’s wonderful in summer, but very, very busy especially at places like Bear Ridge and on Trail Ridge Road. If you’re visiting in summer 2022, Rocky is doing to two prong timed entry permit system. One is for Bear Lake corridor and one for rest of park. Don’t want to deal with crowds? Go in winter. Here’s why it’s my favorite time of year to visit this popular national park.
No Crowds – In the season of solitude, even popular trails have less people in winter. You can go hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing and enjoy having trails to yourself. One of my favorite winter trails is Bear Lake to Dream Lake. Usually it’s pretty packed down so you can do it with just spikes like Kahtoola EXOSpikes. If you don’t have any you can rent or buy a pair in Estes Park. Even just wandering around Bear Lake in winter is magical…and windy so dress warm. You can even walk out on iced over Bear Lake. The drive to and from Bear Lake does get sketchy in winter so be prepared to encounter snowy and icy patches on the winding mountain road. Some of my other favorite winter trails are snowshoeing to iced Chasm Falls (you follow a closed road on this one), Wild Basin (Cascade Falls and Ouzel Falls), and Gem Lake (one of my favs year round). I also love cross country skiing and snowshoeing on the west side of the park which is accessible only from Grand Lake in the winter.
Another area I love to enjoy with no crowds in winter is Moraine Park. It’s a very popular area, but in winter you can have the valley to yourself, especially on a weekday like I did. The views and peacefulness by the creek are outstanding. If it’s a nice winter day, have a lunch with a view at one of the picnic tables. I love to grab a sandwich or wrap from Scratch Deli & Bakery near the Beaver Meadows Entrance.
Wildlife Watching – Wildlife like elk and deer come down from the tundra into the valleys. Because wildlife is concentrated to a smaller area, it’s easier to spot them. Bear Lake Road, Moraine Park and near Fall River Road entrance are prime areas to see elk and deer. You can also see bighorn sheep, fox, coyotes, moose (mainly west side) and snowshoe hares in winter. I love to look for wildlife tracks in snow. My favorite tracks are those from snowshoe hares.
Spectacular Scenic Drives – The landscape of Rocky Mountain National Park looks entirely different from summer in winter. It can even look different from day to day in winter depending on snow. In winter the scenic drives on the main road are less crowded and you likely will have no problem find a spot in the pull-offs. The ever changing winter scenery is great for photography. Be prepared for icy and snow packed roads.
Sledding Fun – Hidden Valley is the only place in the park where you can go sledding. It’s pretty popular on weekends, but if you visit on a weekday in winter you might get it to yourself like I did. It’s also a great area for snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
Know Before You Go:
Weather – It changes fast including howling winds and cold temperatures. Check the forecast before you go. Fill up your car before heading into the park and have an emergency kit in your car. Be prepared for winter driving conditions of icy and snow packed roads. For current road conditions, check out @RockyNPS on Twitter. Avalanche danger is always a concern if you’re heading into the backcountry. It’s best to avoid snowshoeing or skiing in steep gullies or below avalanche terrain (slopes of 35-40 degrees) RMNP does not do avalanche control. Make sure to check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) avalanche forecast.
Tell a Friend or Family Member – If you’re hiking, snowshoeing or skiing let someone know where you’re going before you head into the park. Cell service can be sketchy. Also let them know your estimated finish time, especially if you are going on a solo adventure.
Layer Up – It’s often windy in winter. Traction devices for your shoes or boots are a great idea for walking on ice and packed snow. Trekking or ski poles are also a great idea for extra stabilization. Other things to have are waterproof shoes or boots, warm hat and gloves. Windproof and waterproof outer layers will help stave off Rocky’s bitterly cold winds.
Snack Time – Take extra water, snacks and a thermos of something warm like hot chocolate or tea. If you picnic in the park or take snacks with you on the trail, make sure what you take in leaves with you. Follow Leave No Trace and Pack In, Pack Out principles.