Winter is a great time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Estes Park in Colorado. Biju Sukumaran - bijusukumaran.com
The trails in and around Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado are great any time of the year, but they are particularly spectacular when coated in sparkling white powder. Winter is a bit quieter than the busy summer season and frozen lakes and snow-frosted pine trees await beneath towering, icy mountain summits. There’s an adventure here for everyone, and this list of nine hikes starts with easier jaunts and ends with more difficult treks. No matter what kind of hiker or snowshoer you are, you’ll find an outdoor experience with stunning scenery in Estes Park this winter. Snowshoes or microspikes? Check the forecast and conditions, unless there's been measurable snowfall you'll be fine with microspikes, but don't plan on hiking on dirt! Don't have your own? Our outdoor outfitters rent both!
1. Sprague Lake
Trailhead: Sprague Lake. Located about 5.5 miles up Bear Lake Road Distance: Less than 1 mile Difficulty: Easy
A popular destination for trout fishing in the summertime, the Sprague Lake Trail offers more of a pleasant stroll than a hike. But just because it's easier, doesn't mean it doesn't have views to offer. Striking views across the lake are of some of Rocky Mountain National Park's most dramatic peaks - Half Mountain, Notchtop, Thatchtop, Hallett, Taylor and Otis all take on a new beauty veiled in the white of winter snow, making you feel like you just walked through the wardrobe to Narnia.
2. The Pool
Trailhead: Cub Lake Traihead Distance: 5.4 miles round trip Difficulty: Easy
The Pool refers to the confluence of the famous Big Thompson River and Fern Creek and is typically a peaceful, gurgling pond in the wintertime. To reach The Pool in the winter, you'll have to start from the Cub Lake Trailhead, and walk along the road for about a mile before you reach the Fern Lake Trailhead. Road walking might not sound ideal, but this stretch of road is wooded and will likely be snow-covered, so it will just feel like a wider hiking path! From the Fern Lake Trailhead, follow the relatively flat Fern Lake trail through forests of willows, cottonwoods, lodgepole, and ponderosa pine. The route periodically opens to lovely views of Big Thompson Valley. Before reaching The Pool, another highlight along the gentle climb (the elevation gain is less than 300 feet), is the narrow passage through Arch Rocks. This enormous pair of boulders was apparently a single rock that split in half after falling from the cliffs above. If you're up for a little more elevation, make it a loop and take the trail to Cub Lake back to the trailhead.
3. Calypso Cascades
Trailhead: Wild Basin Winter Trailhead. Distance: 5 miles round trip (from Wild Basin Winter trailhead which adds about 1.5 miles round trip) Difficulty: Easy
Located in the stunning but less-frequented southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, this hike delivers not just gorgeous views at the end, but glimpses of various waterfalls throughout the journey. Follow the Wild Basin Trail to reach Copeland Falls, which rages in the spring but is nothing but a quiet trickle amid the rocks and ice in the winter. It’s less than a quarter mile from the trailhead and can be reached from marked spurs off of the main trail.
The calm sound of rushing water (or the silence of it stopping in frozen pools) graces the next part of the route along St. Vrain Creek before the trail splits and you head left on Finch Lake Trail across a log bridge. From here, follow Cony Creek for about a half-mile before reaching the majestic sight of Calypso Cascades. Turn back the way you came or hike one mile further (and steeper) to Ouzel Falls.
4. Chasm Falls
Trailhead: Endovalley Picnic Area. From the Fall River entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, drive about 4 miles to picnic area parking lot located just before Old Fall River Road. Distance: 2.8 miles round trip Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Chasm Falls is reached by hiking up the gentle incline of Old Fall River Road, the first road built in Rocky Mountain National Park back in 1920! Old Fall River Road is closed to vehicle traffic in the winter, making it a great place for a hike if you're looking for a gradual slope with breathtaking views and a cool destination. The Falls can be viewed from a path located about 1.4 miles up the road. The cascade stretches down a narrow granite chasm and looks especially magical when frozen into a stream of ice.
5. Gem Lake
Trailhead: Lumpy Ridge. The parking lot is located on Devils Gulch Rd, about 3 miles north of downtown Estes Park. Distance: 3.4 miles round trip Difficulty: Moderate
The Gem Lake area features some of the most striking granite rock formations in the region. The trail’s long-wrought beauty has earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. After the gradual ascent up Lumpy Ridge through aspens and ponderosa, pass enormous boulders that resemble silent giants, especially when dusted with snow. One of these, located 1.5 miles up the trail, is the unmistakable Paul Bunyan’s Boot.
The final climb to the lake is quite steep up a series of high rock steps. When you get to the top, you’ll be right on the shores of the frozen lake—surrounded by impressive granite cliffs. All told, you climb about 1,000 vertical feet on the way up.
6. Upper Beaver Meadows
Trailhead: Upper Beaver Creek Meadows. Located about 2 miles from the Beaver Meadows park entrance, just beyond Moraine Park. Distance: 5 miles Difficulty: Moderate
This loop hike can be done in either direction, but tackling it clockwise gives you better views of Longs Peak and the Continental Divide. Although the trail winds through clusters of pine trees and over a couple of streams and brooks, the majority of the route takes you up through sprawling meadows, where herds of elk and deer can be spotted hunkered down in the snow. The trail climbs steadily with a total elevation gain of around 1,000 feet. At the halfway point, the triangular Deer Mountain looms over the upper meadows.
7. Deer Mountain
Trailhead: Deer Ridge Junction. Accessed through the Beaver Meadows Entrance, about 3 miles into the park. Distance: 6.2 miles round trip Difficulty: Moderate
One of Rocky Mountain National Park’s most popular trails in summer and fall, Deer Mountain is delightfully crowd-free in the winter. Although the trail climbs about 1,200 vertical feet in just over three miles, the pitch remains steady and manageable most of the way. From start to finish, the most breathtaking aspect of this trail is the views. As you ascend, enjoy panoramas of Little Horseshoe Park and the Mummy Range.
It’s not unusual to see elk meandering through the snowy meadows near the top. The final five minutes of the hike is the steepest section, but well worth it for the bird’s-eye view of Estes Park in the distance and the 360-degree panorama of the Rocky Mountains’ best. Most peaks in the park would require technical climbing to summit in the winter, or at least a heavy-duty set of crampons to go with some mountaineering experience and nerves of steel. Deer Mountain peaks out just above 10,000 feet, and without any exposure or ultra-steep sections on the trail makes for a great winter summit that can often be accomplished with just microspikes or snowshoes.
8. Odessa Lake
Trailhead: Located in Bear Lake parking lot, accessed via Bear Lake Road from the Beaver Meadows entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park (park entrance fee required). The trail begins on the Bear Lake Loop and continues on the Fern-Odessa Lake Trail. Distance: 7.8 miles round trip Difficulty: Difficult
This steady, strenuous climb takes you up more than 1,200 vertical feet through aspen groves, pine forests, and colorful rock before dropping into Odessa Gorge for spectacular views of Longs Peak. You’ll pass by the lovely Lake Helene and as the landscape opens up you’ll see the frozen spectacle of Grace Falls across the gorge. Snowshoes are highly recommended, and be aware of avalanche danger on trail sections that pass under steep slopes.
9. Chasm Lake
Trailhead: Longs Peak Distance: 8.2 miles round trip Difficulty: Difficult
Starting from the trailhead to the only 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park, this route won’t get you to the summit, but it is a shorter way to soak up the thrills and scenery of Longs Peak in winter. That’s not to say there’s no risk. Snowshoes or microspikes are required - certain conditions may even call for crampons (and experience using them), and avalanche dangers may be present. Because you climb nearly 2,800 vertical feet in just over four miles, the route is also plenty challenging.
Following the Longs Peak Trail up rock steps and switchbacks that can be icy and slippery in the winter, you’ll head up through various pine groves to an elevation of about 11,000 feet with fantastic views of Twin Sisters peaks along the way. Stay on Longs Peak Trail for about three miles as you pass junctions for Eugenia Mine and Jims Grove trails until you get above the treeline and reach the Chasm Lake Trail. The trail continuing to the summit of Longs Peak makes a hard right here, while your track to Chasm is a slight left. You'll traverse a steep snowfield (avalanche prone terrain). If conditions are good, and you feel secure continue toward Chasm Lake and neck-craning views of the Diamond, the towering east face of Longs Peak, Colorado's northernmost 14er.
Written by RootsRated Media for Visit Estes Park.