WINTER WONDERLAND | Exploring western isolation at Rocky Mountain National Park
While Trail Ridge Road may close in the winter, the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park stays open to provide an almost entirely private tour of the national park.
The west side of Rocky sees a lot of snow, creating a pristine wilderness and plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing. While the park required reservations during the summer, you can stop by anytime this winter. Park passes are required and cost $25 per vehicle for a day pass.
The East Troublesome and Cameron Peak Fires from 2020 burned roughly 30,000 acres in the 265,769-acre national park. With the western side hard hit by the fire, a number of closures remain in place, so check http://www.nps.gov/romo for the most recent updates. As of October on the west side, Green Mountain Trail and Tonahutu Trail were closed.
The first 12 miles of US Highway 34 through Rocky typically remain open though the winter, weather and fire permitting. The drive is a Narnia-esque landscape of snow covered mountains, fields and sky-scraping evergreens.
Even in the summer, the western side of Rocky is less busy than the eastern entrances. With winter cutting off one side of the park, it’s likely you’ll only see a couple cars at most.
Temperatures can drop far below freezing, so a car tour is a great way to enjoy the landscape. If you stick to driving, make sure you still take a moment to step outside and admire the environment. Even though it is cold, it’s worth bundling up to admire the silence created in the snowy, isolated location.
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean wildlife goes away. Look for moose along the Colorado River, while elk and mule deer are most active at dusk and dawn in the meadow areas. Stellar’s jays, gray jays, Clark’s nutcrackers and magpies are commonly seen in the park, even during the winter.
A few feet of snow don’t have to stop you from hiking, either. Just make sure to bring the right gear. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are great ways to enjoy almost all the western trails at Rocky. A few trails are open on the burn scar, but make sure to stay on the trail and avoid hazards.
Snowshoe rentals are available at On the Trail Rentals and Never Summer Mountain Products in Grand Lake. Never Summer also offers a cross-country ski package.
Make sure to dress in layers, wear boots to strap to your snowshoes and bring a pair of waterproof pants or gaiters to keep dry. While it may be cold, make sure to bring sunglasses and wear sunscreen as well. The snow makes for a mirror that doubles the intensity of the winter sun.
Always keep an eye on the weather as it can change fast and drop lots of snow quickly up in the mountains.
Adams Falls, which shows off a gushing waterfall in the spring and summer, becomes a symphony of running water muffled by the snow and ice above it. The Adams Falls Trail will be open this winter, and if you continue up the trail pas the waterfall you’ll find a wide open plain showing off the view of Mt. Craig.
Any trails alongside the river gives the hiker both the crunching snow beneath their feet and the trill of water in the subdued forest.
Some of the more well-packed trails in Rocky might not require snowshoes, especially if it’s been a few days since the last snowstorm. However, these trails can be slick and if you happen to “posthole” (when your foot sinks into the snow), you should turn back.
For hikers and snowshoers, make sure not to travel on the trail created by cross-country skiers. Doing so creates a hazard for the next skier taking that path.
Even if you only have a couple hours, a wintertime drive through western Rocky makes for a magical experience.
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