Rocky Mountain National Park is open 365 days of the year and welcomes visitors with winter beauty. I have visited this national park in all four seasons. The breathtaking views remain all year long, but the activities change throughout the seasons. If you are considering visiting in the winter, here is how I recommend you get the most out of your day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
What To Wear
Rocky Mountain National Park is cold in the winter. You will find temperatures hovering around freezing or below. During the day, the thermometer may rise to near 50 degrees. The best advice I can give you is to check the local forecast a day before you arrive. Bring your mittens, wool socks, winter coat, sweaters, snow boots, and a winter hat. Most importantly, dress in layers. If you are planning to stay in your car for wildlife viewing, you will still need to dress warmly. Winter can be harsh, and if you are not prepared, you could have a very uncomfortable Rocky Mountain National Park visit.
Stop At The Estes Park Visitor Center
The Estes Park Visitor Center is conveniently located near the intersection of Highways 34 and 36, the main corridors into town, at 500 Big Thompson Avenue in Estes Park, Colorado. This facility offers information for travelers coming into the area as well as specific information about the national park. The town of Estes Park is the gateway entrance on the east side of the park, and Grand Lake is where you can enter on the west side of the park. On my visit in the winter, I explored on the east side, where Estes Park is located.
Outdoorsy winter adventurists will more than likely want to stay on the west side in and around Grand Lake. Trail Ridge Road climbs to more than 12,000 feet and connects the two towns. This road is impassable during the winter, as the snow is too deep and the weather can be extreme. If you appreciate wildlife viewing, either entrance will work for you. I personally like the Estes Park side as I enjoy visiting the Bear Lake area in the winter.
Visit The Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Center
Before you head into the national park, stop at the Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Center, too. You’ll pass it as you approach the park’s entrance. The park rangers who work there can answer questions and provide up-to-date road closure and trail information. They also have a wealth of information when it comes to the happenings in and around the national park. This is where you need to ask your general questions about the park, not at the park entrance itself. A short movie that is worth watching, which shares the history of the park and what you can expect to experience during your visit, is screened here, too.
If you think that you will visit another national park in the next year, I would highly recommend purchasing an annual national park pass upon entering the park. My personal experience is that when I have purchased an annual pass, I tend to visit more national parks.
Snowshoeing In And Around Rocky Mountain National Park
Snowshoeing is very popular in the park during the winter season. The road to Bear Lake is plowed all year long, which makes this lake a popular place to break out the snowshoes. There are several outdoor sporting goods stores on Elkhorn Avenue. They offer outdoor winter gear for purchase, plus rental equipment. If you plan to snowshoe around Bear Lake, you will want to stop in Estes Park before heading into the park to pick up your snowshoe equipment, or consider buying and bringing your own.
Bear Lake has a large parking lot and offers a quiet lake setting during the middle of winter. If you happen to arrive at the lake right after a fresh snowfall, this winter wonderland will take your breath away. The trail around the lake is flat, which makes it relatively accessible. Keep in mind that the trail is not shoveled, so you will be walking through the snow. You can choose to head upward on the trail for a harder workout. As always, pay particular attention to any avalanche warnings in the area before you hop on a trail.
Grand Lake offers many areas for snowshoeing in and around the park entrance. Rental equipment is also available in town. If you choose to head into the park, swing into the visitor center on the west side for current weather information. Moose are frequently seen in the area around the park entrance. Plan to invest a minimum of three hours here, which will include your drive time and snowshoeing adventure.
View Wildlife In Moraine Park Basin
Moraine Park Basin is on Bear Lake Road and is a fantastic place for elk viewing. Pack your binoculars and stop here on your way back from snowshoeing at Bear Lake. On one of my winter visits, I found that the birds really enjoyed riding on the elk. It was quite a sight and something that was easy to watch for hours on end. Keep in mind that elk are wild animals, so you should not approach them, and sightings aren’t guaranteed. If you are lucky, you may also see a bear or the occasional moose in this beautiful basin. The backdrop of snow capped mountains will lure you in as you view the wildlife that frequents this area.
Explore The Stanley Hotel
The Stanley Hotel, located at 333 Wonderview Avenue in Estes Park, offers a history lesson and a unique place to stay. The development of this property is a big part of why Estes Park exists today. Two different tours are offered at this historic hotel: a day tour that covers folklore and architecture and an evening tour that highlights paranormal activity within the hotel. I had an opportunity to stay at this hotel and can tell you that I did not personally experience any ghostly encounters! The evening tour that I was on did include one guest who reported a paranormal experience during their last stay at the hotel.
I would encourage anyone to visit this hotel, as the property is truly one of a kind. Winter brings a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and a courtyard scene that you will fall in love with. If you’re not checking in or taking a guided tour, plan an hour for your visit and bring your camera.
Dine At The Big Horn Restaurant
One of the most famous restaurants in Estes Park is the Big Horn. Winter hours vary, so you will want to check the website to be sure they are serving meals when you plan to arrive. This restaurant has been in business since 1972 and offers many of the classics that are perfect for winter weather adventurers. The biscuits and gravy are my favorite breakfast item, while the burgers are a smart choice for other times of the day. If you want a good old-fashioned hot meal, you will find it at the Big Horn Restaurant, located at 401 W Elkhorn Avenue in Estes Park.
Shopping In Estes Park
Elkhorn Avenue is home to some of the finest shopping you will find in Colorado. You can find the t-shirt you must purchase to remember your visit alongside several unique souvenir options. The Christmas Shoppe is open all year round and makes for the perfect stop on a winter day. Before you leave the shopping area, be sure to indulge in some of the best homemade taffy you will ever experience. There are several taffy shops to choose from, and you cannot go wrong with any of them. The amount of time you have to shop will depend on how active the wildlife is while you’re in the park and how far you want to snowshoe around the lake. The sidewalks are handicap accessible and level, which makes the shopping district a fun place for everyone.
Stay At The Wildwood Inn
The Wildwood Inn has become a favorite of mine. You can choose between several units, each of which offers many different amenities. There are several units that offer private hot tubs on the balconies, which overlook the mountains and Estes Park. They also offer several units that are on a single level and include kitchens and fireplaces. The best bonus of staying here is that you are near one of the entrances to the national park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite national park in the United States at any time of the year. When visiting in the winter, you will see things that you will not see during any other season. The charm that a little bit of snowfall can bring to a mountain town is quite fascinating. On my last visit during the winter, more than two feet of snow fell during a 36-hour period. The snowplows kept the roads around town and a short distance into the park open. When you take the time to plan for your visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter, it will be a trip that you talk about for years.
In order to visit the park, you will need to reserve a timed entry permit ahead of time. These permits can be purchased online. For more information about new guidelines at the park, check out our full list of national parks requiring changes for visitors.