Ever had the itch to hike in the dead of winter but quickly realized the trails are covered in snow? Want to experience Rocky Mountain National Park without all the crowds? Looking for a new adventure and not afraid of a little cold? Then snowshoeing in the Rocky Mountain National Park is for you!
Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park
With over 4.5 million annual visitors, most coming in the summer and fall, exploring Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter provides freedom from the throngs of tourists, allowing you to see the park in a whole new way.
Snowshoeing is cheap, a great workout and does not require any training. We had no experience snowshoeing before our adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park but had an absolute blast! Once you get used to the clunkiness, you will be floating atop the snow in no time.
Snowshoeing is an easy, cheap and fun way to have a new experience in Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter. While it may feel a little awkward at first, it’s actually quite simple and only a bit more difficult than hiking.
How it works
Snowshoeing entails strapping your feet into two large, platform-like shoes with additional traction provided on the bottom. You can wear your normal snow or hiking boots. The concept is straightforward – dispersing the force of each step over a larger surface area allows you to stay atop the surface of the snow. Your feet will still sink a bit, and the depth largely depends on the type of snow, but you will stay much higher towards the top of the snow than you would with regular boots.
The snowshoes will be strapped to the front of your feet but your ankles and heels remain untethered. Beyond that, you simply walk like you normally would. Of course, the bulky snowshoes take a little bit of getting used to (it is impossible to walk backwards!), but you will get the gist of it in no time.
Difficulty & Pace
It’s also important to remember that you cannot typically snowshoe as fast as you can hike. Snowshoeing is slightly more difficult than hiking. It is definitely slower and elevation gain can be a bit more challenging. Shoot for maybe one mile every 40-50 minutes, instead of every 20-30 minutes.
About Rocky Mountain National Park
Stretching for 3,000 miles from New Mexico to British Columbia, the Rocky Mountains are one of North America’s greatest natural treasures. Under two hours from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park provides unrivaled access to the craggy, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies, as well as extensive lakes, waterfalls, flora and fauna.
With an elevation ranging from 7,500 feet to over 14,000, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the nation’s highest national parks. Long’s Peak, sitting at 14,259 feet, is the tallest mountain in the park and the only fourteener. Despite being just the fourteenth highest peak in Colorado, it’s one of the most difficult mountains to climb. With 5,000 feet of elevation gain and large sections of exposed climbing, 58 people have died trying to complete this twelve hour, fifteen mile hike.
The park, which was part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, is split in half by the Continental Divide. This 30-mile stretch of mountains marks the spot where North America is divided in two. Rain that lands on the west will flow to the Pacific and rain that lands on the east will flow to the Atlantic.
More than anything, Rocky Mountain National Park is an absolutely beautiful paradise of picturesque peaks, pine trees, lakes, rivers and an array of wildlife. There is no better place to try snowshoeing!
Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the Winter
Extremely popular in the summer and fall months, fewer visitors experience the park in all its winter glory. Although you should expect crowds year round, they are lighter in the winter months making it a great time to visit.
That being said, Colorado winter weather causes several roads inside the park to shut down and trails to be closed. From Labor Day through Memorial Day, Trail Ridge Road is shut down at Many Parks Curve due to snow and many hiking trails are closed. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore some of the most beautiful parts of the park. Grab a pair of snowshoes and hit the trails!
Where to stay near Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is located about two hours from Denver and one hour from Boulder. If you are looking to combine a trip to the Rocky Mountains with some skiing in the Vail or Breckenridge area, Denver makes for a great central hub. The closest airport is also located in Denver.
To stay closer to the park, you have two small town options: Estes Park and Lyons.
Estes Park is the closest town to the park and is a cute, if a bit touristy, mountain village with plenty of restaurants, hotels, and shops. We only visited Rocky Mountain National Park for a day, so we did not get to experience all of Estes but can recommend Penelope’s World Famous Burgers. This casual joint serves classic diner food, perfect after a long trek through the snow. The crispy sweet potato fries and buffalo brat topped with cheese and onions are incredible – exactly what you want after a solid snow day!
Renting Snowshoes near Rocky Mountain National Park
Renting snowshoes for a day typically costs under $20. You can also buy a solid, new pair for under $200. If you are renting, make sure the rental company also provides poles. The poles will help provide balance in the sometimes unstable snow.
There are many places in the Denver and Boulder Area that rent snowshoes. We rented from Christy Sports in Denver for $16 per pair including poles for a full day. Here are a few options depending on where you are coming from:
- Denver and Boulder: Christy Sports ($16 per pair, including poles)
- Denver and Boulder: REI ($18 per pair)
- Estes: Estes Park Mountain Shop ($6 per pair, including poles)
- Boulder: Crystal Ski Shop ($14 per pair, including poles)
Where to Snowshoe in Rocky Mountain National Park
There are a number of great trails for snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. When we showed up in early March, we weren’t quite sure where to go. We ended up snowshoeing up the Trail Ridge Road, starting at Many Parks Curve. The road is closed during the winter due to snow, so you can snowshoe right on the road. It was a great place for our first snowshoeing experience!
Below we will provide all the details you need for the hike we did, as well as a few others that were recommended to us.
Trail Ridge Road at Many Parks Curve
Total time | 2 – 5 hours (depending how far you go)
Distance | Out-and-back, varies (we did 6 miles roundtrip)
Epic-ness rating | 7
Difficulty | moderate – difficult
Trail Ridge Road is the highest paved road in any US national park and provides epic views of Rocky Mountain National Park. The road is typically closed to vehicle traffic from October through May due to heavy snow, making it an ideal trail to try snowshoeing.
To get to Trail Ridge Road, follow Highway 34 into the park from the Beaver Meadows Entrance. Once you are on Trail Ridge Road, just keep going until you reach a barrier in the road. Park the car in the small lot, strap on your snowshoes and get going!
The “trail” is a snow-covered road, so it is fairly wide and you will have no trouble following it. The road winds up through the mountains and doesn’t have any specific end-point or destination. Just keep going until you are ready to turn around (remember to save some energy for the trip back to the car!).
We stopped where the road crosses Hidden Valley Creek and the trees open up to a stunning view of the Rockies. This is also a popular spot for skiers and snowboarders, who hike off trail up the mountain before zipping back down to the parking lot at Hidden Valley. If you are feeling adventurous, you can climb a bit up the mountain near Hidden Valley, but beware that it gets steep quickly and the snow can be very deep, so use your best judgement! Otherwise, spending a few minutes watching the skiers and snowboarders is also quite entertaining.
The final round trip distance from Many Parks Curve to Hidden Valley Creek and back ended up being just under 6 miles.
Emerald Lake Loop
Total time | 2 – 3 hours
Distance | about 3.5 miles
Epic-ness rating | N/A (we haven’t done this trail yet)
Difficulty | moderate
Emerald Lake is a gem in the middle of the Rockies. This trail will bring you to four picturesque lakes: Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and finally, Emerald Lake.
The trail starts at Bear Lake, perhaps the most popular trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. To get to Bear Lake trailhead, enter the park at Beaver Meadows and turn left after about a quarter mile onto Bear Lake Road. From there just follow Bear Lake road until you hit the trail head.
Be aware! Even in the winter, Bear Lake parking lot will be very busy. However, most people are coming for just a quick photo op, so if you are patient, a parking spot will eventually show up.
This is a very popular trail and is well-marked so you won’t have any trouble finding your way. After Bear Lake, you will reach Nymph Lake (0.5 mile) followed by Dream Lake (1.1 miles). After 1.8 miles, you will reach the beautiful Emerald Lake. The trail is an out-and-back so once you are done exploring Emerald Lake, just head back the way you came. As an added bonus, you will be able to walk out on the frozen lakes!
Sprague Lake Loop
Total time | 1 – 2 hours
Distance | about 0.9 miles
Epic-ness rating | N/A (we haven’t done this trail yet)
Difficulty | easy
This flat trail is a great option for those seeking an easier and quicker snowshoeing option. At just 0.9 mile, it is the perfect way to try snowshoeing for the first time.
The Sprague Lake trailhead is also on Bear Lake Road, about two miles before Bear Lake. After turning onto the road, the trail head will be on your left in about 6.5 miles
This loop trail goes around the banks of Sprague Lake. The trail is well marked and you won’t have any trouble navigating.
When we talked to the Ranger about best places in Rocky Mountain National Park, he also mentioned that we could park at Sprague Lake (especially because the Bear Lake Lot is usually full) and snowshoe two additional miles to reach Bear Lake.
Snowshoeing is an easy, cheap and fun way to get outdoors in the winter months. There is no better place to go snowshoeing than Rocky Mountain National Park. We had never snowshoed before trying it at Rocky Mountain and cannot wait until we have another chance to hit the snow!
Other hikes nearby
Planning a trip to Denver? You may also be interested in these incredible hikes near Breckenridge and Vail:
- Quandary Peak Hike: an “easy” 14er, great for first-timers!
- Gore Lake Trail Hike: a challenging 13 mile hike to a beautiful alpine lake
For all things Colorado: Colorado Travel Guide
Have you ever been shoeshoeing? Where is your favorite place to visit in the winter? We’d love to hear about your experience!