Winter Sports Overview: Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

  • Winter is one of the best times to explore the park because the summer crowds are long gone and the peaks are full of snow. The air is cool and crisp, and you are almost assured bright Colorado sunshine. The park maintains many of the hiking trails during the winter and provides recommended winter hikes in the park's newspaper, distributed at visitor centers. Most snowshoe hikes are suitable for cross-country skiing.
  • The snow is always deep on the west side of the park. Use the Green Mountain Trailhead for a good uphill grunt up Green Mountain Trail. The trail levels out at Big Meadows, two miles into the trail, making a good turnaround point. Remember, that the west side trails are only accessed via Grand Lake in the winter.
  • The road to Bear Lake Trailhead is kept open all winter, and snowshoe trails abound from here. If snow is scarce, try Bierstadt Lake Trail for good snow conditions and shelter from the wind. The trail is easy, well-marked, and only two miles to Bierstadt Lake and two miles back to the trailhead.
  • To test out your new snowshoe skills, a nice, level trail runs along Sprague Lake. Once you get the hang of it and want something harder, drive up the road to Bear Lake Trailhead and take the trail to Emerald Lake.
  • Still craving something more difficult? Start at Glacier Gorge trailhead and go six miles to the Loch. You'll be treated to frozen waterfalls and great views of the surrounding alpine peaks.

One way to beat the crowds at most national parks is to go in winter. Access roads from the east are kept open in Rocky Mountain National Park, and provide the winter traveler with a panorama of the high mountains. The park's winter sports are glorious. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing generally take place in the lower valleys—Bear Lake and Wild Basin areas are particularly popular with the big shoeprint set. Most other areas of the park could be considered "ski mountaineering" rather than "ski touring" with steep climbs and descents, narrow routes, and sharp turns. Check with the Park Service for safety tips regarding avalanches, lake and stream hazards, and other dangers.

The park's east slopes are the hot spot for winter day hiking. Look to the high country for mountaineering.

Three campgrounds are open all year—Longs Peak, Timber Creek, and Moraine Park. Longs Peak and Timber Creek campgrounds are not plowed once the snows begin, so you have to carry supplies to your campsite. None of the campgrounds has water in winter.

If you are going into the backcountry overnight, you will need a backcountry permit, available at park headquarters or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Some areas are closed to overnight camping and the danger of avalanches frequently exists. Read up on winter weather conditions and plan your trip carefully, checking with park rangers for the latest information on the areas in which you plan to travel.

Cross-Country Skiing
For half the year, the glacially carved terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park offers many outdoor experiences for seasoned skiers. Moderate to deep snow fills most high valleys from December into May, and skiable spring snow covers much of the tundra. The snow is usually a dry powder through March, and many winter days are clear. Here is a sampler of ski trails, one set approached from the east side gateway of Estes Park, the other out of Granby in the west:

East Side Trails

As with summer hiking, Bear Lake is the point of departure for many winter trips, short or long. Rangers are often on duty on weekends to provide assistance. Snow pack and conditions are usually more favorable at this elevation and higher. Although summer trails sometimes offer the best route, valley bottoms and stream beds have more snow cover and can be negotiated with care.

Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes
A leisurely one- or two-hour round trip to Nymph Lake involves a climb of several hundred feet. The summer trail from Bear Lake is the most common route. From the west shore of Nymph Lake an easy climbing route on the right side of the gully leads to Dream Lake 1/2 mile farther (small avalanches can occur en route). Emerald Lake, one mile beyond Dream, can be safely reached by traveling up the left side of the valley above Dream for several hundred yards, crossing to the right side of the valley through the trees in the flat area, then continuing west on the right side of the valley. Dream and Emerald Lakes are for experienced skiers.

Bear Lake to Hollowell Park
This is a one-way trip, one to three hours long. It has a short, steep climb, lots of downhill, and some level touring. It is about 4 1/2 miles long. You will find fluorescent orange markers marking the route from the Bear Lake parking lot to the Hollowell Park meadow. Begin on the trail to Flattop Mountain. Where the summer trail turns left, or west, you instead turn right and descend through the trees, cross a plateau, and go down another forested slope to an old logging road. A mile downhill on the road brings you to Mill Creek. Across the bridge the summer trail descends into Hollowell Park. This is a good trip for advanced beginners.

Glacier Gorge Junction to Loch, Vale, or Glacier Gorge
From the parking lot, follow the trail leading to Alberta Falls and Loch Vale. The trail above the falls is often windswept, and you may need to take off your skis and walk for a quarter-mile. An alternate route for intermediate or experienced tourers is to turn right and go up a small valley at the second bridge, about 1/4 mile in from the trailhead. Little pitches and hills lead up the valley to the Loch Vale-Glacier George trail junction. Beyond this, the streambed up to the Loch offers a snowier route than the steep, windswept summer trail, but stay on the right side as the stream is sometimes undercut. Allow four to six hours for this round trip. Beginning skiers will like the trail to Alberta Falls.

The route to Glacier Gorge turns left several hundred yards beyond the Loch Vale-Glacier Gorge trail junction (past the hitching rack). Beyond the wooden trail bridge, you will be on the summer route to Glacier Gorge and Mills Lake. This can involve steep slopes. Allow four to six hours for this round trip. Beginners will have difficulty with steep climbs and descents above the wooden bridge.

Bear Lake to Fern Lake and Moraine Park
This is a ten-mile trip for experienced ski mountaineers in excellent condition. All equipment should be tested. Parties attempting this one- or two-day tour should have equipment repair material, sufficient items for an emergency bivouac, and adequate clothing for severe wind and low temperatures. The first 1 1/2 miles of the route from Bear Lake are marked with fluorescent orange markers to 1/4 mile east of Marigold Pond.

Turn left at the junction 1/4 mile from Bear Lake, then follow the trail to the top of the ridge and continue west. Use a topographic map and compass for the rest of the trip. Follow the broad valley to the north and stay on the right side of the stream. To reach Two Rivers Lake, work your way to the left as you reach the upper part of the valley. The summer trail on the left side of the valley can be followed, but some of it is on a steep slope and the snow cover is often poor. It can be an area of avalanche danger.

Cross Two Rivers Lake, after testing the ice, and ski the short distance west down to Lake Helene. To its right appears Odessa Gorge. Ascend the ridge between Lake Helene and Odessa Gorge for a short distance, to the first small break in the ridge line. Traverse to the right as you descend, staying out of any avalanche chutes. Look uphill to check hazards. Some prefer to take off their skis and walk straight down the slope. Heavy snowfalls, threatening masses of unsettled snow, warrant aborting the trip down and turning back. Once down, the right side of the valley leads naturally to Odessa Lake.

Beyond, follow the narrow gorge, staying to the right of the streambed for a quarter of a mile. Cross the stream at a safe place, then follow it down on the left side, bending slightly away to the left as you do.

Overnight bivouacs at Fern Lake are less windy than at Odessa. Below Fern Lake, the balance of the route follows the summer trail down to the Pool Bridge. Beyond, the trail to Moraine Park is often dry in places; agile parties ski on the Big Thompson River ice to the trailhead.

Glacier Gorge Junction to Sprague Lake
Intermediate. This one-way, one- to three-hour trip follows the summer trail on the south side of Glacier Creek. The trail turns left after crossing the first bridge, and contours above the valley floor to a large beaver pond. Here the trail cuts back around the east end of the pond and drops down to the valley. Three miles of gentle downhill skiing bring you to Sprague Lake. Another mile of easy going leads to Glacier Basin Campground.

Glacier Basin and Sprague Lake
Beginner. The gentle rolling terrain between Glacier Basin and Sprague Lake is ideal for the beginning skier. A two-mile round trip can be made through the campground and across some beaver ponds to Sprague Lake. Continue above the lake to the Boulder Brook trail junction and return along the Glacier Creek trail as it contours above the valley floor. The snow may be patchy in poor seasons.

Wild Basin
Lower Wild Basin offers level ski touring and few avalanche hazards. Beyond it, there are many opportunities for wilderness touring. Above treeline, precipitous slopes present many slide paths. Wild Basin trips usually begin near Copeland Lake at the winter parking area. Follow the snow-covered road or the phone line to the Wild Basin summer trailhead. The summer trail leads tourers to Ouzel Falls and Thunder Lake. February and March snow cover often permit use of a route to Thunder Lake that is lower than the trail. It leads in on the right side of the St. Vrain River, beginning a short distance above the upper wooden bridge, about 3 1/2 miles in from your starting point.

West Side Trails

East Inlet
Intermediate to Advanced. Follow the "tunnel road" to its end near the eastern shore of Grand Lake. Ski east past Adams Falls (1/2 mi. up trail) and into the first meadow. Here you may depart from the trail and ski out across the meadow, through the trees, or along the frozen river into the second meadow. After the initial two miles, the route steepens to challenge the expert skier.

North Inlet
Beginner to Advanced. From the parking area along the "tunnel road" north of town, trek uphill, turn right at the water works building, and continue to Summerland Park. For 1 1/2 miles, this route is shared with snowmobilers. Beyond Summerland Park there is ski or snowshoe travel only, with a mild incline steepening on your approach to Cascade Falls, 3 1/2 miles from the trailhead.

Tonahutu Creek Trail
Beginner to Intermediate. Leave your vehicle at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, and ski east, away from the parking lot, for an easy two-mile trip down to Grand Lake. For the more energetic, a popular destination via this trail is Big Meadows, four miles from the Visitor Center. This has an elevation gain of 700 feet.

Green Mountain Trail
Beginner to Advanced. This trail, three miles north of the Visitor Center, offers the shortest route to Big Meadows (two miles). Another trip from here is an all-day loop, made by traveling down Tonahutu Creek to the Visitor Center. Beginners, however, will find the best terrain on the valley floor. Park at the same trailhead, but cross the road and ski past the cabins and into the meadow. Park land lies both to the north and south in this part of the valley.

Onahu Creek Trail
Advanced. Combine this with the Green Mountain Trail route for a half- to all-day loop trip. This is especially difficult between Big Meadows and Onahu Creek. Take a Grand Lake Quadrangle topographic map.

Valley/River Loop Trail
Beginner. This 2 1/2-mile loop is mostly flat with a few short inclines. Park at Harbison Picnic Area one mile north of the Visitor Center. The trail begins west of the picnic tables and can be skied in either direction in a few hours. It follows the Valley Trail through the woods before connecting with the River Trail. The River Trail stays by the Colorado River for a mile before connecting to the Valley Trail. Be sure to look for orange markers at trail junctions.

Colorado River Trail
Beginner to Advanced. Park at Timber Lake trailhead (end of plowed road) and ski off the road to the left. Follow the markers directly north along the river. Ruins of miner cabins are found two miles from the trailhead, and two miles further is the site of Lulu City, a former mining boom town. Beyond here, the trail steepens. The advanced skier, prepared for winter camping, may proceed another four miles upriver to La Poudre Pass, at 10,000 feet. En route, you top out at the Grand Ditch, which leads to other skiing opportunities. These routes involve overnight camps.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions