Explore Rocky Mountain National Park on Snowshoes

Photo: Adobestock/Lukas Gojda

Photo: Adobestock/Lukas Gojda

With Fewer People, More Winter Beauty Awaits

By Steve Graham

Have you ever abandoned a summer hike in Rocky Mountain National Park because of traffic, crowds and packed parking lots? Make up for it this winter by hiking the park on snowshoes. Be sure to show up prepared because of the partial federal government shutdown. Restrooms, visitors’ centers and other amenities were not available as of Jan. 2.

But with proper planning and equipment, you can snowshoe on virtually any trail in the park. It’s also possible to escape the crowds, even on popular holiday weekends.

Darren Christiansen works at Kirk’s Mountain Adventures in Estes Park, which rents gear and runs guided snowshoe tours in the park. He said the most important part of gearing up is finding the right shoe — for your weight, not for your foot size.

Most snowshoes are adjustable to a range of shoe sizes, but they come in a variety of lengths depending on your weight and the load you are carrying.

“The bigger you are in terms of height and weight, the more surface area you will need to keep you from post-holing,” Christiansen said. “How much you weigh matters for keeping you above the crust. … Don’t assume you will stay above the snow no matter what. Getting out of that (snow) can be hard work.”

The foot position within a snowshoe is also important, and not always obvious.

“You want the crampon part to be right on the ball of your foot,” Christiansen said. “If it’s not, it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re not going to get the best traction out of the snowshoe.”

Flat-terrain snowshoes with simple, adjustable bindings and less intense traction systems are recommended for beginners, as are adjustable poles.

Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Joe Ross

Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo: Joe Ross

“You’re going to want a pole that you can make longer if you’re going through deep stuff,” Christiansen said.

As with most winter activities in Colorado, layers are key.

“It can be really cold, but you get warm really fast when you start snowshoeing,” Christiansen said.

He recommends a couple of removable thermal layers under a waterproof shell, plus snow pants and gaiters, unless they are built into the snowshoe. Waterproof hiking boots are sufficient for most outings. Snow boots aren’t necessary. 

The Bear Lake Trailhead and other trailheads along Bear Lake Road are the most popular winter spots in the park, but Christiansen recommends getting farther off the beaten path — and higher.

“There are lots of trails as long as you’re up above 9,000 feet,” he said.

Several trails of varying length and difficulty are accessible from the Long’s Peak and Wild Basin trailheads. Both are off Highway 7, so you can reach them without going through the main entrance, which can get crowded on weekends, even in winter.

As for Rachel Balduzzi of the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, her favorite snowshoe hike is the four-mile out-and-back jaunt from the Wild Basin lot to Hidden Falls. 

“In the winter, this slab turns into an ice climber’s paradise with a beautiful cascade of ice tumbling near 50 feet,” she wrote in a blog for the Estes Park Visitor Center.

The conservancy runs regular family hikes on this trail, including education about the ecology of the area.

Keep in mind that the Wild Basin trailhead is more primitive and does not have potable water.

A deep snowpack is fairly reliable from now through the end of March, Christiansen said, but the national parks website offers regularly updated weather, road and trail condition reports.

Snowshoe rookies can go out with a guide from Christiansen’s shop (which also doubles as a fly-fishing shop) for 3- to 8-hour trips through the park, including snacks, lunch (on longer trips), hot chocolate or coffee and rental gear. 

“If you’ve never been to Rocky Mountain National Park or never been snowshoeing, it’s nice to have someone who knows where to go,” Christiansen said. “That’s generally the people who go with us. We show them a good time.”

Local businesses offer a variety of other guided snowshoe outings, including upscale multi-day trips with lodging at the famed Stanley Hotel.