While planning a winter vacation through Colorado, it was important for me—a Californian perpetually plagued by sunlight and warm temperatures—to visit a winter wonderland. Since I lacks the skill and the budget to enjoy Colorado’s many ski-towns, I avoided Aspen in favor of the snowy isolation and stunning vistas of Rocky Mountain National Park.
I booked my lodging in Estes Park, a small resort town just outside the park entrance. Needless to say, winter in the Rockies isn’t an ideal time for outdoor camping. My trip was unfortunately a short one, so I had only one full day to enjoy the park.
The drive to Estes Park was as beautiful as it was treacherous. Be prepared for the driving challenges posed by inclement weather. Keep a car manual, a set of tire chains and an ice scraper to help you navigate the icy spots on the road. I was lucky that I didn’t have to use any of them, but some of the mountainous curves certainly had me biting my nails!
My day in the park began with a stop at the Ranger station near the park entrance. Here’s where you’ll want to pick up a map and ask the rangers a few questions. They’re nothing but helpful in outlining the best hikes and viewpoints to suit your needs and, more importantly, your schedule. You can also fill up your water bottles at the water fountain here or buy some snacks for your hike, though I’d recommend stopping by the Safeway in town for more variety. Either away, come prepared for your hike with plenty of snacks and water.
Much of the park is inaccessible throughout wintertime. Vast swaths of the road are closed to vehicles, which initially disappointed me. In retrospect, I’m almost glad my options were limited, or else I would have been rushed trying to see all there is to see in the massive park!
Following the ranger’s recommendation, I hiked to Bierstadt Lake, a frozen lake accessible by several trails. I recommend beginning from the Bierstadt Lake Trailhead. The hike is mostly uphill, but offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains the whole way up before leveling off into lush, snowy forests at the top. All of it leads up to the thick ice covering Bierstadt Lake. It’s normally safe to stand on, but use common sense and don’t venture too far into the center. You may even see a few deer on your way up, as I did. Animals living in national park boundaries are famously friendly, so the half-dozen deer remained unafraid as I snapped photos of them eating less than ten feet away. This is why you bring a camera on vacation!
It’s important to come prepared with plenty of winter clothing, but don’t be surprised when you shed layers in the course of your hike. Standing still, you need plenty of protection but a brisk uphill pace may keep you warm enough on its own. Overdress for the hike, just in case, but keep your hands free to hold onto your outer layers if the heat becomes too much to handle. On sunny days, you’ll want a pair of sunglasses to protect from the reflective snow, and perhaps some sunscreen for your face. Some hikers brought or rented snowshoes for their hike, but a pair of hiking boots will almost always suffice if you’re sticking to the trails.
I capped my only full day in the park off with a visit to Many Peaks Curve, a viewpoint beside the road closure on Trail Ridge Road. If you don’t have the time to do a hike or see the park properly, this is where you’ll want to stop. The views of the surrounding mountains is positively stunning. Rarely have I ever been so glad I don’t know how to ski.
Photos by Jeffrey Rindskopf.