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Rediscovering Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Updated on February 24, 2017

Estes Park in Winter

For all of you summer time visitors who enjoy driving over Trail Ridge Road and catching the spectacular views while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, why not re-discover the park’s majesty during winter? While driving through the park may be a bit more challenging and certain portions of Trail Ridge Road are closed for the season, a unique sense of wonder still exists – wintery magic that all visitors, young and old, will enjoy.

I recently experienced this magic as I took a late February winter's drive through the park. All I can is this . . . snowfall renews the park . . . everywhere you look, a wintery white blanket crowns the faces of these spectacular mountains, softening their rugged peaks. As the sun rises, beams of golden light spill over crystalline snowfields, revealing a sense of mountain majesty that can only be experienced in this winter wonderland. An experience that I assure visitors will enjoy just as much or more in the winter months as in summer.

The winter season provides a welcome opportunity to bundle up, get outside, and discover a new park experience. And what is so different about Rocky Mountain National Park (RMP) in winter? I asked myself that same question. What I discovered was so many wonderful, beautiful things. With less tourist traffic, the 415 square mile park is more alive and wild. You can truly enjoy and appreciate Trail Ridge Road, which crests over 12,000 feet and includes many overlooks to experience subalpine and alpine environments. What an excellent time to view wildlife too . . . look for moose along the Colorado River on the park’s west side, elk and mule deer in the meadow areas (especially at dawn and at dusk), and big horn sheep along the Highway 34 / Fall Fiver Road corridor. Coyotes may be seen any time throughout the park, along with such year round birds as black-billed magpies, Stellar’s Jays, and Clark’s Nutcrackers. Be sure to bring your field guides, binoculars, and cameras!

Exploring a favorite national park in a new way . . .

So Much to See . . . So Much to Do

Besides wildlife viewing, RMP offers a variety of other winter activities including snowshoeing, hiking, cross country skiing, sledding, and back country skiing and riding. Below is a small taste of all that RMP has to offer in the winter season.

  • Snowshoeing is certainly one way to experience the park’s beautiful back country. No training is necessary – if you can hike, you can snowshoe. Most park trails can be explored by snowshoe. Snowshoes and waterproof boots are necessary when engaging in this activity. Poles to help maintain balance and waterproof pants or gaiters to help keep you warm and dry are optional, but highly recommended.
  • Traditional Hiking – Believe it or not, it’s still possible to hike the park in winter. Lower elevation trails on the east side are often free of deep snow. While skis or snowshoes are not required on these trails, packed snow and ice are still present and can be slippery. Stabilizer devices and poles are highly recommended to prevent falls and make your hike safe and enjoyable.
  • Cross Country Skiing – another great way to experience RMP. While you may strap on your skis throughout the park, cross country skiing is easier on the west side. Skis and poles with large baskets are required. Again, water proof pants and/or gaiters are highly recommended.
  • Sledding – Bring the whole family out to enjoy a fun, wintery play day at RMP! The one and only place sledding is allowed in the park is Hidden Valley. No tows are provided up this fairly gentle hill, so you will definitely get a work out as you walk your sled, saucer, or tube up the slope. Enjoy the breather on the fun ride down! Keep in mind, with limited park staff in winter, park rangers and volunteers are not always on duty, so stay alert to skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers passing through. A cozy warming room is available when an attendant is present.
  • Back Country Skiing / Riding – An activity not for the faint of heart or will, but rather for the experienced and well prepared. RMP’s steep terrain provides many opportunities for back country skiers and boarders. Remember, skiing and snowboarding are not allowed in the Hidden Valley sledding area. You may pass through, but slow down and yield to sledders. Some words of wisdom too . . . simply be prepared for variable snow conditions in the back country. Most of the trails are in avalanche terrain. At a minimum, carry an avalanche beacon, rope, and shovel, and know how to use them. Be self-reliant and remember, safety is your responsibility.

Whether you are driving through the park, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing or boarding, always remember to play safe. Note that many roads in the park are closed including Fall River Road and much of Trail Ridge Road. Be prepared for winter driving conditions, mainly ice and snow-packed roads. If hiking, winter trails are not maintained or marked. Do not follow other’s tracks – this can be misleading. Be sure to take a map and compass, and know how to use both. While lower elevation trails on the east side may remain hikeable with the right gear, most require snowshoes or skis.

With the beauty and sereneness of snowfall on these dramatic mountain tops comes avalanches. Before entering the back country, know how to recognize dangerous snow conditions and ALWAYS check the avalanche forecast at: http://avalanche.state.co.us.

Follow these safety tips and simply use common sense, and your winter trip to Rocky Mountain National Park will be a fun, memorable one, just as mine was. And don’t forget to check in at one of the three visitor centers. On the east side near Estes Park, Beaver Meadows and Fall River Visitor Centers provide park information and a book store. At Beaver Meadows, visitors and can step in for a warm up and watch two free park movies. Fall River Visitor Center offers life-sized wildlife displays and the new Arts Alive Activity Center and Centennial Art Exhibit in celebration of the National Parks Service Centennial (see National Park Service Celebrates 100 Years). Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the west side near Grand Lake provides park information, maps, two free park movies, exhibits, and a bookstore.

Rediscovering the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park starts with a single snowflake . . . . let the journey begin. To learn more, go to www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings: Safety Tips

Whatever activity you plan to participate in while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in winter, following a few common sense safety tips will make your experience more enjoyable and memorable.

  • Play & Stay Safe

Always be prepared for snow, freezing temperatures, shorter winter days, cold winds, and dramatically changing weather.

Dress appropriately for the conditions – layer up with insulated, water proof clothing; wear sunglasses and use sunscreen – yes, even in winter.

  • Know Where You Are

Navigating the winter trails can be challenging. Park trails are not marked for winter use, and when hiking, don’t depend on the tracks of others – this can be dangerously deceiving. Instead, always keep with you trail and topographic maps and a compass, and know how to use all three.

Stay away from dangerous slopes and snowfields. When in doubt, turn around.

Scenic view stop from atop Trail Ridge Road

National Park Service Celebrates 100 Years

Winter 2016 has been a special season, not only for Rocky Mountain National Park, but for all national parks. This year marks the National Parks Service Centennial. For 100 years, the National Parks Service mission has been to preserve places that are unique and significant – places that compose the beautiful landscape of our culture and natural heritage.

On August 25, 2016, the National Parks Services (NPS) turned 100 and kicked off a second century of stewardship of America’s national parks, along with engaging communities through recreation, conservation, and historic restoration programs. In celebration of the NPS Centennial, visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park can enjoy the stunning park movie, “Spirit of the Mountains,” and the inspirational film, “Wilderness, Wildlife, Wonder,” shown by request in the Beaver Meadows and Kawuneeche Visitor Centers through the winter.

Now is the time to find your park and rediscover all the national parks and programs in your own backyard. Stay tuned to this blog page for upcoming stories on all Colorado’s national parks and centennial celebration. For even more details, check out www.nps.gov/subjects/centennial/index.htm.

RMP's Majestic Views

Below are photos of some of the majestic views I experienced while recently visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Hope you enjoy viewing them as much as I enjoyed seeing such beauty live, up close, in person.

Photos Taken By Christy Daring

Freelance Writer

Rocky Mountain National Park In Winter

Views from Atop Trail Ridge Road

Ah . . . Nothing quite like this . . .

© 2016 Christina Darling

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