Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park in the Winter
In January I was in Denver, Colorado for Outdoor Retailer. After the trade show ended, I decided to spend a couple days exploring Colorado as a winter wonderland before heading home to California. My first stop was Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s about an hour and a half drive outside of Denver, so I checked out of my hotel in downtown Denver, picked up my rental car and headed to the mountains!
It was Friday afternoon, so before checking into my hotel in Estes Park, I went straight to the Rocky Mountain National Park.
I started by just driving around on the open roads, getting a lay of the land, and soaking in the views. It was far too windy to hike, so I just enjoyed the views and decided to come back the next day early in the morning to hike!
On your hike, make sure to have appropriate winter footwear! Wear insulated boots, I wear Salomon X Ultra Winter Boots. And wear some sort of traction device. The trail was packed down so I only needed microspikes. But if you’re going in fresh powder conditions, you’ll want snowshoes.
I also saw a lot of backcountry and cross country skiers.
I also suggest wearing gaiters so if you do step in some deeper snow so it doesn’t get into your shoes! It’s never a fun feeling having wet socks when you’re hiking in colder conditions. Really, it’s never fun having wet socks even in summer.
Where to stay
Stay in Estes Park, it’s right outside of the national park.
There are so many hotels there and honestly so many are pretty affordable! I booked mine last minute during the week in Denver and had many options to choose from for a Friday night.
Sometimes I’m a planner, other times I have a general outline and go with the flow of the trip and book as I go. This was definitely a book as I go kind of trip.
I used Expedia.com to look for hotels.
If you want to camp, you can. Longs Peak, Timber Creek and Moraine Park campgrounds stay open on a first come first serve basis. There’s no water or electricity. You can tent camp, in a trailer or a van.
Trails to hike
There are so many more trials than the ones I’ve listed. Grab a Rocky Mountain National Park National Geographic Map and see what other trails spark your interest.
Bear Lake is a short hike, about 256 feet. In the summer months there is a trail that goes all the way around the lake, but in the winter months, it’s snowed over. Grab your snowshoes and snowshoe around the lake.
The views are amazing! This was one of the first places I stopped when I drove in on Friday. It was extremely windy. So windy it was hard to stand in one place so I didn’t attempt to hike all the way around the lake. Windy conditions are very common so dress accordingly! I left my buff from snowboarding at home and instantly regretted it when I arrived. And wear snow clothes!
Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lake
This is a beautiful hike! You can stop at Nymph Lake or continue on to Emerald Lake. If you continue onto Emerald Lake, it’s 3.8 miles roundtrip.
It starts from the same parking lot as Bear Lake. The trail to Nymph Lake is well marked. Nymph Lake was pretty, but keep going for the absolutely breathtaking views.
Past Nymph Lake, it can be easy to lose the trail, so I suggest using a GPS tracker to make sure you stay on trail. If you go during the weekend, there will be others there so it helps. But the backcountry skiers take a different path. Some sections get very narrow between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake, but they’re doable! Just wear a traction device not to slip.
Dream Lake is a dream. It opens up to vast views of the peaks above. The lake was frozen over but most of the snow was blown off the top exposing the air bubbles in the ice layer.
Once I got to Dream Lake, it was very windy. So windy, for every step, it pushed me back a couple steps. I decided to turn around there. But there were so many others, especially backcountry skiers who carried on to Emerald Lake. I’ve heard from locals that Emerald Lake is a must see. If conditions allow and you feel comfortable, keep going!
This is a 4.4 mile round trip hike which also starts from Bear Lake. This is off of the the same trail you take to get to Dream Lake, the turn off to hike to Lake Halyana is right before Dream Lake. If you choose to hike to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lake and extend your hike to Lake Halyana, it will be 5.8 miles round trip (Lake Halyana adds 2 miles round trip).
This hike also starts from Bear Lake but you head in a different direction than the hikes above. Alberta Falls is a 2 mile round trip hike.
In the early winter months you can see the falls frozen over. Later on into winter, the falls might be fully snowed over and you don’t get to see the ice formations over the falls.
Either way, it’s a stunning short winter hike.
I’ve had the fortune of seeing so much wildlife in the Rocky Mountain National Park, but in the winter and summer months. In the park, drive slowly, there’s wildlife everywhere and the last thing you want to do is hit an animal.
I saw bighorn sheep, and elk. You can also see moose! The bighorn sheep were right in the middle of the road and the elk was right off to the side. I waited for 30 to 40 minutes trying to get a shot with the elk’s head lifted but it just kept munching away on grass.
In the summer months you might also get lucky and see a bear! But in the winter months they’re nice and toasty sleeping.
Remember to keep a safe distance from wildlife at all times and don’t feed wildlife. These photos were taken with a zoom lens on my Canon DSLR.
Hunting is not allowed in the park, and personally I think the best way to shoot any animal is only with a camera!