Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park is a winner |

Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park is a winner

The park stays open year-round, and those who go will find its treasures abound in the winter

Trail Ridge Road is pictured near the Grand Lake Entrance in winter.
Maci MacPherson/National Park Service

Rocky Mountain National Park slows down when winter rolls around. Average visitation declines, Trail Ridge Road closes and hiking trails are blanketed in snow. While many outdoor enthusiasts turn their attention to the ski slopes, the park stays open and offers more than you might think.

The 15-30 inches of average snow that falls on the park each month makes it a prime spot for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing. Nordic schussing has a steeper learning curve than snowshoeing, but if you can classic, you can glide through the trees like a drowsy owl. Snowshoeing offers its own magic: it forces a slowing down, which often leads to a heightened awareness of your surroundings. It’s also a major quad-burner if you want it to be. Both sports offer the same third bonus: they allow humans to move through country they otherwise couldn’t during winter. Whichever you choose, you’ll have to bring your own gear into the park. Fortunately, places to buy or rent it abound in Grand County. 

A second-grade class snowshoes in the Kawuneeche Valley.
National Park Service/Courtesy photo

The park does not maintain, groom or mark trails during the winter, and because signs can get buried by snow, it takes better navigational skills to get around safely in winter. If GPS technology, or a good old map and compass aren’t your thing, you can join a ranger-led snowshoeing trip.

Snowmobiling, which is very popular just outside of the park in Grand Lake, is only allowed on a 2-mile route called the North Supply Access Trail, which runs from Grand Lake to snowmobiling trails in Arapaho National Forest.

There is one winter activity that is not available on the west side of the park. Rocky Mountain National Park only allows sledding on Hidden Valley, on the east side about 10 miles from Estes Park. The west side has its own special sauce, though, in the Kawuneeche Valley.

Kyle Patterson, a park public affairs officer, says Kawuneeche provides amazing views of the Never Summer Mountains, blissful quiet, and if you’re lucky, an opportunity to see animal tracks in the snow or even animals moving through the valley. Elk, moose, snowshoe hares and coyotes are the most common animals seen and each one has its own magic. 

The park also has no front-country camping during the winter, but does allow visitors to go deeper into the forest to camp after purchasing a $10 camping permit.

Getting into the park is easier in the winter as well because Rocky’s timed entry permit system stops for the season in early October. The park passes still cost $30 for a vehicle day pass, $35 for a vehicle week pass and $70 for a Rocky annual pass, but in the cold dark months, when the vast majority of travelers are hunkered down at home, you might just get more bang for your buck in the department of wilderness that at least feels more wild.

This story originally published in the Winter 2023 edition of Explore Grand magazine.

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