The Ultimate Winter Adventure Guide to Estes Park
Sitting at the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a legit year-round adventure base camp. But it’s especially sublime in winter.
Colorado locals like to say that the state is “full.” But most of them haven’t been to Estes Park or neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park in winter. Here, removed geographically and psychologically from the state’s booming recreation industry, it’s still possible to lose yourself (in a good way) in the Rocky Mountain wilderness during the days, while relaxing in a bona fide Western mountain town at night.
Cross-Country Ski off the Groomed Trails
Modern nordic skiing has grown specialized thanks to groomed XC centers laying down tracks and skate paths. XC skiing in RMNP, though, is refreshingly old school. Start by renting a waxless, light-touring rig from the Estes Park Mountain Shop for just $20. The fish-scale bases, metal edges, and sturdy but lightweight boots and poles are all you and the family need for an easy-to-navigate outing up Trail Ridge Road as far as you feel like going. “Nothing is groomed up here,” says Mountain Shop manager Zack Zehr. “So the key for families is to find flatter terrain with fewer undulations. Trail Ridge is perfect for that.”
Eat, Drink, SleepAnother big draw to Estes Park in winter? You get all the amenities of a ski resort town, without ski town prices. And there are ample amenities. The lodging runs the gamut from winterized cabins to condos to deluxe hotels, both historic and modern. The dining offerings include Mexican, Asian, Italian, and American cuisines. For nightlife, beyond the Colorado staples of live music and craft beer, you’ll also find local wineries and distilleries. Check out the offerings here.
Take an Avalanche Class
If you’re looking to explore the national park’s backcountry slopes on your own in winter, your safety is your responsibility. Our advice? Sign up for an avalanche training course with the esteemed Colorado Mountain School. Total newbies can start with a free one-hour avalanche awareness clinic that will help them identify and avoid avalanche terrain when they’re out exploring. But if you’re looking for more education, a 27-hour class with CMS’s American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) certified instructors will get you in the classroom and in the field. “It’s a three-day course,” says Eric Whewell, an IFMGA guide and CMS’s risk management director. “We spend 60 percent of the time in the field and finish each class with a ski tour. You leave with real working knowledge.”
Snowshoe to Emerald Lake
Looking for a family-friendly backcountry outing? Head out for an out-and-back snowshoe tour to Emerald Lake. If you start at the Bear Lake trailhead, this 3.6-mile roundtrip route passes Dream and Nymph Lakes too, but from Emerald Lake, soaring Hallet Peak will dominate the views. Bring lunch and follow the snow-packed trail—it may head over the smaller lakes if they’re frozen solid enough. But carry a map and a compass just in case—storms can quickly obscure snowshoe paths in winter. “The Bear Lake corridor is the best for snowshoeing on packed trails,” says the Mountain Shop’s Zehr. “And the rentals only cost $5 a day.”
Backcountry Ski a National Park
There are a lot of reasons to like ski touring in RMNP, from the approach (eschewing I-70 traffic) to the terrain (awesome and varied). A long-abandoned ski area, Hidden Valley, serves as a hub of accessible terrain, while the roads of the park offer the spokes. From there, experienced backcountry skiers can find both low-angle and well-pitched skiable terrain in the trees when avalanche conditions are a concern. In spring, seasoned ski mountaineers can quickly access couloirs and chutes from roadside trailheads. “The park has gotten more popular in winter recently,” says famed alpinist and Estes Park native Tommy Caldwell. “But as soon as you get past the main routes, you don’t see many people. And the Dragontail Couloir is perhaps the easiest-to-access big couloir in the country.” Just keep in mind that easy-to-access isn’t synonymous with easy terrain—Dragontail Couloir is no joke and for experts only.
Chase Down Bigfoot This Spring
Turns out that Colorado in general, and Estes Park in particular, are now a hub for Sasquatch sightings. So naturally, this April, Estes Park is embracing the compulsion with a new annual spring festival, Bigfoot Days. Expect food trucks, concerts, festival vendors, and the chance to kick off spring on the right, er, foot with an entry in the Bigfoot 5K. Just how serious is all this Bigfoot stuff? Ask the world-famous Bigfoot experts who will be on hand for a themed dinner, lecture, and Q&A.