The Outdoors,  Travel Guides

Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Rocky Mountain in Winter

These days, national parks are empty. Okay, that’s a lie, but they are much less crowded than in the summer months. Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in winter makes you feel like you’re vacationing in a snow globe. Breathtaking views of snowy mountain peaks and pines provide a magical backdrop to the mountain town of Estes Park, CO. In addition, you can enjoy peace and quiet while you browse in town, hang in your cozy cabin, hike the snow-packed trails, or take a scenic drive. While this is all sounding quite romantic, I actually took a girl’s trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in winter. It was the perfect cozy and gossipy getaway. So, whether you’re a couple, a group of friends, or a family, your winter weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park awaits! 

Access:

Adding to the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park in winter is the lack of crowds. For example, you can get in and out of the park seamlessly without extreme wait times or difficulty parking. There is no timed entry system in the winter so you can go into the park whenever you please.

There are several options for how to pay. You can purchase tickets ahead of time online at Recreation.gov, or you can purchase tickets at the entrance stations. There are options for a 1-day vehicle pass ($30), a 7-day vehicle pass ($35), or a season pass ($70). Lastly, you can purchase an annual  America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. This pass gains you access to all National Parks for 1 year for just $80. In this case, I purchased the 7-day vehicle pass when we went. This way, we didn’t have to rely on just 1 day to explore the park.

What to do:

  • Hiking & Snowshoeing:
    • There are still many winter-accessible trails for the average hiker this time of year. For example, my friends were visiting from the midwest and did just fine completing Deer Mountain Trail in January with no poles and no spikes. The following day, we took the scenic drive along Bear Lake Road up to the easy-going Bear Lake Nature Trail where we were able to walk on the frozen lake and see the views from a new perspective. I also recommend the Emerald Lake Trail which my sister and I hiked in April with plenty of snow. In hindsight, these hikes probably would have been safer using equipment like snowshoes or spikes. Luckily, you can rent this gear at places like Estes Park Mountain Shop or the YMCA of the Rockies Nordic Center. You can also take guided snowshoe walks via the YMCA of the Rockies or park rangers at RMNP.
  • Scenic Drives:
    • Enjoying the beauty of the park from the comfort of your warm car can be just as spectacular as hitting the trails. While many of the roads in the park are maintained year-round, unpredictable and extreme weather conditions can change road accessibility. Be sure to check conditions ahead of time. My favorite drive in RMNP is the aforementioned Bear Lake Road. This takes you up to Bear Lake where you can find many trailheads, spend time hiking around the lake, or walk across it. Check out more winter scenic drives here
  • Ice Skating:
    • YMCA of the Rockies has an outdoor rink on Dorsey Lake. Skate rentals are available onsite at either Snowmountain Ranch or Estes Park Center. 
  • Exploring Estes Park:
    • While you’re probably coming to Rocky Mountain National Park in winter for some outdoor adventure, don’t skip out on the shopping and dining in Estes Park. The main drag in Estes has hundreds of neighboring shops and galleries lining the blocks which make for the perfect winter browsing as you pop in and out of each shop. You’ll find outdoor gear, souvenirs, and other locally made goods like sweets and art. For dining and drinking, I recommend Bird and Jim and Claire’s Restaurant and Bar. For more suggestions see A Visitor’s Guide to Downtown Estes Park.   

Where to stay:

  • The obvious place to stay is in Estes Park where you can find any number of beautiful Airbnbs, hotels, lodges, and cabins. I prefer Estes Park as a location because of its proximity to the park and other attractions like shopping and dining. The historic Stanley Hotel was the set of the movie The Shining and is an attraction in and of itself. There are rumors that it is haunted, but if nothing else it is quite beautiful and large. You’ll have to pay a pretty penny to stay here.  
  • If you’re coming from Denver, you can stay 30 minutes away in Lyons along your route on US-36. There are unique Airbnbs, hotels, cabins, and lodges. If you’re coming from the North, you can stay along your route on US-34 in Drake. Drake is just 20 minutes from Estes Park and offers Airbnbs, a bed and breakfast, and cabins. There’s an opportunity to save some money by staying in these smaller mountain towns a bit further away. 
  • Finally, you can stay in any number of larger cities like Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland, or even Boulder. All of these cities are about an hour’s drive from the park and have similar offerings to Estes Park in their cute downtown areas with dining, drinks, and shopping.

I hope that this convinces you to give Rocky Mountain National Park in winter a whirl. With endless winter activities, adorable mountain stays, cheaper prices, and smaller crowds it is truly the perfect time to visit. All you have to do is dress warmly. Now, just go with it and happy vacationing!

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