Since moving near Rocky Mountain National Park we’ve developed a huge love for hiking, and our favorite time of year is winter. Once upon a time I used to find winter hiking very intimidating, it does take more planning, but winter hiking is a true gem. The crowds thin out, the cold crisp air is invigorating, and the views are just incredible, it’s like hiking in a snow globe!
There are lots of amazing trails for all fitness levels throughout Rocky Mountain National Park but today I’m going to share with you my five favorite easy winter trails on the east side of the park. I’m also listing some of our favorite AFFORDABLE winter essentials for hiking.
- Micro-spikes – These are our favorite, so lightweight and easy to put on. They are essential for traction in ice and packed snow!
- Hiking poles – These are our favorite, and come in lots of fun colors, and they work for all seasons.
- Map or GPS – We use and love the Alltrails.com Pro app, but we also keep a map handy if our battery dies.
- Base-layer top and bottoms – To insulate the body and wick away sweat, this is my favorite pair and Brian’s.
- Mid-layer – Such as a fleece top.
- Waterproof Insulated pants and jackets
- Warm socks
- Waterproof gloves
- Insulated waterproof hiking boots
- Hat and neck warmer – or this combo one.
- Sunglasses – Ski googles are a lifesaver on extremely windy days!
- Sunscreen – Winter sun is intense!
- Water in an insulated container – Regular water bottles can freeze during winter hiking.
Winter weather in Rocky Mountain National Park can be quite unpredictable. You may not need all of the items above, but it’s a good idea to have them handy just in case.
- Distance 0.9 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 10 feet
- Directions: Enter Rocky Mountain National Park on highway 36, turn left on Bear Lake Road, go about 6 miles and turn left at the sign for Sprague Lake.
Sprague Lake is the perfect easy winter warm up hike for all ages, there is very little elevation gain so it’s wheelchair and stroller friendly too. Here you’ll see dreamy views of the continental divide, cross bridges, read historical information about the lake, and see children playing on the frozen snow covered lake. You’ll probably see trout in the babbling stream too.
- Distance 0.8 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 45 feet
- Directions: From highway 36 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left on Bear Lake Road, go all the way to the end which is a little over 9 miles.
Parking at Bear Lake is the summer is a nightmare, you may wait a little bit in the winter for parking depending on the time of day, but overall it’s much easier. This popular lake trail always has a crowd but don’t let that keep you away. The views all around the lake are stunning!
Walking around Bear Lake is like a true winter wonderland, you’ll see stunning mountain views, gorgeous snow covered pine trees, icicles, and a snowy view of Hallet Peak. This trail is perfect for all ages.
- Distance 2.2 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 450 feet
- Directions: The trailhead is at Bear Lake. From highway 36 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left on Bear Lake Road, go all the way to the end which is a little over 9 miles.
Starting at Bear Lake, the hike up to Dream Lake is incredibly stunning in every direction. Staying on the trail can be tricky at times, especially after fresh snow because people go off the trail a lot. Pay attention to signs, and it’s a good idea to bring GPS if you’re unfamiliar with this trail. You’ll start gaining some altitude with this trail but it’s an easy trail as long as the weather cooperates. Dream Lake can have very bitter cold winds in the winter so dress very warmly, also be prepared for deep snow in spots.
The close views of Hallet Peak are absolutely incredible and make any extreme weather worth it.
- Distance: 4.6 miles round trip
- Elevation Gain: 640 feet
- Directions: From highway 34 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn right at the Old Fall River Road sign and park in the West Alluvial Fan Trailhead parking lot, and continue hiking west along the road past the winter gate.
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In the summer Old Fall River Road is a one way road that takes you up to the Alpine Visitor Center. In the winter the road closes to all vehicles and it becomes a great hiking trail. The trail starts out flat, walking through groves of sleeping aspen trees and beautiful snowy mountain views in the distance. As you near the waterfall you’ll get the heart pumping with a few switchbacks but it’s nothing that in-shape older people or enthusiastic kids can’t handle. You’ll see a sign for Chasm Falls to the left and follow steps down to the waterfall.
Partially frozen, the waterfall is beautiful! You can hear and see the water dropping 25 feet under a veil of ice into the icy pools below. There is railing everywhere so it’s safe and a beautiful photo taking spot! We usually see only a few other hikers on this trail, which is a nice bonus.
- Distance 4.4 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 630 feet
- Directions: From highway 36 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left on Bear Lake Road. Go about 7 miles to the Bierstadt Lake sign and parking lot on the right.
Bierstadt Lake is a favorite trail of ours any time of year, but the winter season has a completely different feel from the summer. Bierstadt Lake has low crowds in the winter making it a quiet peaceful trail. You’ll begin this trail walking through pine trees, then transition into switchbacks with sweeping views of Long’s Peak and the Continental Divide. The trail is narrow and often ice packed so traction devices are extremely helpful.
Once you reach the top you’ll be greeted by a quiet forest of pine trees surrounding the lake. You can turn around and go back at this point or continue the loop around the lake following the orange tags on the trees to stay on trail. There are clearings along the trees to allow access to the lake. On a clear day you’ll be able to see sweeping views of the mountains behind the lake. I love walking around the lake being surrounded by snowy pine trees. Snow can be quite deep in some areas around the lake, it’s a great spot for snowshoeing too. We see older kids do this trail all the time, it depends on their comfort level.
If you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during the wintertime I hope I’ve convinced you to go on a winter hike. It’s truly a magical time of year. Bring sure to bring an insulated pot of hot cocoa to enjoy after your hike!
— Update: 16-02-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Complete Rocky Mountain National Park Winter Guide from the website bearfoottheory.com for the keyword rocky mountain national park winter hikes.
Winter is one of the best times to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. The crowds of summer and fall have subsided, the parking lots and roads are way less busy, and the trees and mountains are covered in fresh, pillowy snow. Rocky Mountain National Park winter visitors can also enjoy majestic views of the snow-covered Rocky Mountain peaks as they tower over the park’s icy streams while wildlife tracks weave through quiet forests for visitors to admire.
Discover the best things to do for a winter getaway in Rocky National Park including winter activities, where to stay, and more.
Important Reminder: As it goes in all of the destinations we share, please practice good trail etiquette and remember to Leave No Trace. This means packing out all of your garbage (including toilet paper), being respectful to others on busy trails, and following the established rules.
Where is Rocky Mountain National Park?
RMNP is located on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado. The closest major city is Denver, which is 2 hours away by car if the roads aren’t slowed or closed due to winter weather. While the park is busiest in the summer and fall, winter is one of the best times to visit Rocky Mountain National Park thanks to fewer people, plenty of snow, and beautiful winter scenery.
There is no direct public transportation to RMNP in the winter, and the park shuttle also does not operate in the winter, so you will need a car to drive yourself. Denver also has the closest major airport, so we recommend flying here to rent a car.
Estes Park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and it’s filled with everything you’ll need to enjoy your stay: lodging, restaurants, grocery stores, outdoor gear stores, and convenience stores to stock up on anything you may have forgotten.
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A winter trip to Rocky Mountain National Park takes a lot of preparation — but the small crowds and huge, mountainous terrain will make your trip worth it!
Rocky Mountain National Park Winter Lodging & Camping
You can camp right in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter if you’re ready to brave the cold! Timber Creek Campground, Longs Peak Campground, and parts of Moraine Park Campground are generally open year-round, but Timber Creek Campground and Longs Peak Campground have been closed in recent years leaving Morrain Park the only campground in Rocky Mountain National Park currently open. The other campgrounds are slated to (hopefully) open next year.
- Moraine Park Campground near the park’s Beaver Meadows Entrance has stunning views of the park’s mountains.
- Timber Creek Campground (closed at the time of writing in 2021) is the only campground on the west side of the park and sits beside the Colorado River.
- Longs Peak Campground (closed at the time of writing in 2021) is 20 minutes south of Estes Park with a great view of — you guessed it — Longs Peak.
Backcountry sites and mountain huts are also available. Always be sure to check for the most up-to-date reservations, fees, and closures on the park website.
If you’d rather stay indoors overnight, there are plenty of options in Estes Park. For a luxurious stay, check out The Estes Park Resort or The Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. The Ridgeline Hotel has great views and the romantic RiverSong Inn is a perfect couple’s bed & breakfast getaway.
Since Estes Park is right on the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ve got plenty of options for finding an economical or luxurious hotel.
What’s open & closed in winter at Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24/7, every day of the year, but certain areas of the park close down in the winter.
Three of the five visitor centers in the park are open during the winter. Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and Kawuneeche Visitor Center are open daily all year but closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Fall River Visitor Center is open most weekends in the winter. Moraine Park Visitor Center and Alpine Visitor Center are both closed for the entirety of winter.
The popular Bear Lake Road is open year-round, but keep in mind that the free shuttle bus that services the road is closed during the winter. Other roads that remain open during the winter months, weather conditions allowing, include Fern Lake Road, Wild Basin Road, Twin Sisters Trailhead Access Road, and Upper Beaver Meadows Road.
Trail Ridge Road is one of the highest paved roads in the entire U.S., but it’s unfortunately closed during the winter months thanks to the road’s high elevation, high winds, and deep snowfall. It usually closes in mid-October and opens in late May, but most years you can still drive 8 miles from the park’s eastern entrance to Many Parks Curve.
Old Fall River Road is also closed during the winter, as is Endovalley Road at the West Alluvial Fan parking area.
Be sure to check Rocky Mountain National Park’s road closures before and during your visit. Keep in mind that conditions can change quickly in the mountains.
Things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park in the Winter
Rocky Mountain National Park has tons of trails for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. Along with scenic drives and winter wildlife, there’s truly something for everyone!
If you want to explore the park’s snowier trails, snowshoeing is the way to go. All you’ll need is a pair of snowshoes and an optional pair of trekking poles, and you’re set to tromp through fluffy snow and admire the park’s quiet forests and frozen lakes.
Check out snowshoeing to Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, or Lake Haiyaha for shorter trips, or snowshoe all the way to Chasm Lake for a longer day in the high alpine.
Never been snowshoeing? We’ve put together a snowshoe guide with everything you need to know. You can also check in with the park staff about a ranger-led, two-hour snowshoe program — it’s usually held on weekends in the winter.
Cross Country Skiing
Forge your own trail on a pair of backcountry Nordic skis to enjoy the deep snow on flatter sections of the park.
One of the best places to ski in the park is right on Trail Ridge Road — simply drive until the road is closed, strap on your skis, and enjoy the subalpine forest and huge views of Hidden Valley and Horseshoe Park.
Another popular cross country skiing destination within the park is Sprague Lake, a 3.3-mile beginner loop that begins from the Glacier Basin Campground, which is off Bear Lake Road just south of the park’s east entrance.
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Winter Wildlife Watching
Wildlife watching is one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter thanks to fewer crowds and the quiet of winter. Much of the wildlife moves to lower elevations in the winter, which makes them much more accessible.
Winter wildlife you may see include elk, bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, and plenty of winter bird residents. While the park’s black bears are probably hibernating this time of year, you might just hear the loud crash of dueling bighorn sheep that headbutt each other in November and December. Just be sure to give wildlife plenty of space, bring your binoculars, and know how to prevent dangerous encounters!
Rocky Mountain National Park Winter Hikes
Some of the best Colorado winter hikes are in Rocky Mountain National Park, but you may want to pack your snowshoes and trekking poles if you don’t want to posthole. Check out the 3 hikes below to enjoy the best Rocky Mountain National Park winter hikes!
The hike to Emerald Lake is one of the most popular hikes in the park, and it’s a great one to take in the winter. Start at the Bear Lake Trailhead off Bear Lake Road to begin this 3-mile round trip hike that has 605 feet of elevation gain. Along the way, there will be a fork in the trail to either take a left onward to Emerald Lake or a right to go to Bear Lake.
You’ll pass by Nymph Lake and Dream Lake along the way, which often freeze over in the winter — just be cautious if you decide to walk out on the frozen lake! Once you make it to Emerald Lake, you’ll have a great view of Hallett, Notchtop, and Flattop Mountains.
Hiking to the beautiful Loch Vale is one of the best Colorado winter hikes and extra special in the winter, especially since you can connect the trail to many other lakes like Mills Lake, Glass Lake, and Lake Haiyaha. Start at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead off Bear Lake Road, one of the most popular trailheads in the park. (This is also the starting trailhead for an ambitious snowshoe hike to Sky Pond.)
Hiking to Loch Vale is a 5.4-mile out-and-back trail with 1,056 feet of elevation gain, so we highly recommend packing trekking poles and microspikes or snowshoes to navigate the snowy terrain if it hasn’t been packed down by past hikers.
As you start your hike in an aspen grove, you’ll take a left at Bear Lake Junction, past Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, and Lake Haiyaha, and eventually climb up to the final, beautiful view of The Loch. The snow tends to get deeper at the end of the hike, so be sure to pack accordingly!
Lily Ridge Trail
This 1.2-mile roundtrip hike around Lily Lake is a favorite for families and visitors that don’t want to commit to a long hike in the snow and are looking for relatively flat terrain. Featuring a great view of the east face of Longs Peak named “The Diamond”, this trail completely circles Lily Lake and is a 15-minute drive south of Estes Park on Highway 7.
It’s much less busy in the winter, and parking is a cinch.
What to pack for a winter Rocky Mountain National Park Trip
Winters in Rocky Mountain National Park can get intense with winter storms, low temperatures, and intense sun exposure, so proper winter layering is a must here since the weather can quickly lead to dangerous conditions.
Here are our car and hiking essentials for visiting RMNP in winter:
- Snow Tires and Chains: these aren’t just suggested — they might be legally required depending on road conditions.
- Snow Shovel
- Ice Scraper
- Four-Wheel Drive: while it’s not entirely necessary, four-wheel drive can be super helpful in keeping traction while winter driving
- Mylar Emergency Blanket
- Garmin InReach: a personal location beacon is something we recommend carrying on all outdoor adventures, but this is especially important for winter activities where prolonged exposure to the elements can be especially dangerous
- Microspikes: these make a huge difference in keeping you upright and confident while you’re navigating tricky, snowy terrain
- Sunscreen and Sunglasses: Sunlight reflects off the snow so it’s smart to protect your eyes and skin when hiking in the winter.
In addition to these essentials, you can read our in-depth guide on what to wear when winter hiking here.
Have you ever been to Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter? Where is your favorite place to go cold weather camping and hiking? Tell us in the comments below!