The Rocky Mountains span from northwestern Canada, down through New Mexico. This mountain range is a favorite of many and has so much to offer. Depending on where you are exploring this mountain range, it may look completely different in Alberta vs. Colorado. In the U.S. the most popular part of this range is the The Rocky Mountain National Park. This is located in Colorado, about an hour and a half from Denver and is a gorgeous area full of hikes, biking trail, vistas, restaurants, and history.
I highly recommend exploring this national park and this can be done during all four seasons through the year. Warmer months allow you to experience the Colorado sunshine, glassy lakes, changing of leaves, and ease of accessibility. Snow season is phenomenal as well and it brings you frozen lakes to traverse, white mountaintops, and a change of activities such as snowshoeing or skiing. Make sure you do thorough research on how to prepare for the season you choose to enjoy this magical place.
How to prepare
I was able to experience the Rocky Mountain National Park during early March. During this time of year there is still quite a bit of snow, but you will absolutely be able to get out and enjoy this spectacular place.
We decided to rent snowshoes and spikes, since we didn’t own any at that time. You can rent at many places, including REI in Denver, many of the gear shops near Estes, or check if the hotel/airbnb you are staying at carries them. You may not be familiar with this type of gear and it will feel awkward (especially the snowshoes), but they are extremely useful in certain situations and will prevent you for simply stepping down and crashing through many feet of snow.
Layer, layer, layer, and layer some more. I cannot stress the importance of having an efficient and stable layering system. Often times people do not layer enough and simply throw a heavy coat on over a long sleeve shirt which prevents them from finding a comfortable temperature. Often people are too cold on one level and too hot on another, so layer up and don’t be afraid to shed. I suggest a base layer, a light long sleeve shirt (not cotton), and then a wool or fleece jacket, possibly a light down coat over that, and if needed a larger parka. If it is a longer hike then I often say “be bold, start cold”. This is because you will create heat as you move and warm up quickly, it is not fun to have to continuously stop so everyone with your group can shed layers.
Although I suggest beginning cold, it is crucial to be prepared with warmer and drier layers. If you stop for a water break or a snack, throw on a heavier coat. This will allow you to keep your body heat in and to not freeze up during your break. Also have multiple pairs of gloves to switch between. Cold, wet, or even frozen gloves will do no one any good and will only make you colder and miserable.
In the case of an emergency you want to make sure you are prepared with many layers and options to stay warm and safe.
If you are venturing out into the snow during freezing temperatures it is important to bring water, and a good amount of it. There will be little to no running waterways to pull from, and although you have the option to eat snow, it will be colder and unfiltered. The best way to carry water in colder temps is in plastic water bottles rather than bladders, because the bladders will freeze and be useless.
Things to do
Deer Mountain: 6 miles, out and back, moderate
Located at Deer Ridge Junction, this is a great hike to adjust to higher elevation, as the summit is at 10,013. I have no doubt that you will fall in love with this summit hike; it isn’t crazy difficult, it is absolutely gorgeous, and it still gives you a good sweat. This is one of the more popular hikes in the area and it is good to begin the hike early to avoid crowds and obtain parking. We did this hike during March and lost the trail at times due to snow; keep this in mind as you plan your trip. It is doable during snow seasons, but have good directions and be prepared to possibly get a little lost on the trail on the upper half of the mountain. This phenomenal trail will have you breathless, either from the views or the elevation gain… or both.
Bear Lake: .6 mile round trip, loop, easy
This is a quick but rewarding hike that gets extremely high traffic during the peak season. There is a free shuttle service to access the trailhead if there is no parking and a long wait for a spot. During the colder months the lake freezes and you can walk across it safely, and the warmer months bring a beautiful and glass-like reflection. The trail loops around the border of the lake and there is also a fun, small booklet created by the Rocky Mountain Conservancy with interesting educational information.
Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, & Emerald Lake: ~3.5 mile, out and back, easy
This hike also begins at the Bear Lake parking lot, which makes it convenient to view these beautiful lakes together. This trail has three stunning lakes on its path and is an easy way to see a lot in a small amount of time. The first lake you will come across is Nymph Lake and this will be around .5 mile from the trailhead.
The next lake is Dream Lake and this is another magical view about 1.1 mile from the trailhead. This lake can be found by turning right at the fork towards Dream Lake/Emerald Lake and away from Lake Haiyaha. During the springtime this section is full of wildflowers and gorgeous plant life.
Emerald Lake can be found at the end of the trail, 1.8 miles in from the parking lot. This lake sits at 10,110 feet. The peak at the back of the lake is Hallett Peak sitting at 12,324 feet.
This hike encompasses the possibility of wildlife, flowers and snow, while guaranteeing gorgeous lakes and awesome memories being made.
Gem Lake: ~3.2 miles, out and back, moderate
This trail leaves from the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead and takes you along the southeastern section of Lumpy Ridge. At about one mile in you will reach a fork and you should stay to the right, towards Gem Lake. The trail has beautiful views of Longs Peak, Estes Park, and other mountains surrounding the trail. After a series of switchbacks you will reach a rock formation pictured above, it is named Paul Bunyan’s Boot and is a very large and interesting rock. The boot is around ~1.4 miles from the trailhead. The trail will end at Gem Lake.
Gem Lake is different than most of the other lakes you have seen or will experience because it is not created by any incoming or outgoing waterways, but rather exists due to trapped snowmelt/rainwater over time. This is a very peaceful hike and has much less traffic than many of the others. When I explored this area it also had significantly less snow than other parts of the park due to lower elevation.
While traveling between trailheads or taking a break from the physical action, enjoy the scenic roadways that this park has to offer. Two of the popular drives are the Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road. Take your time as your wind through these unbelievable mountains and valleys, and keep your eyes open for wildlife.
The Stanley Hotel:
Take a break from the cold outdoors with a visit to the Stanley Hotel. This hotel has gorgeous views of the park from its steps, and is surrounded by gardens and historical statues. This building has been standing since 1909 and was also the famous hotel in the movie The Shining by Steven King.
Chase the sun:
On every trip I try to see the sunrise at least once, because to me the sunrise is more intimate and rewarding than the sunset. I enjoy the excitement of waking up early, rushing to a high point, and experiencing the peace as the sun kisses the world good morning. To pick a good spot you can wake up and just start driving through the park until you find a high point on the roadways. I stumbled upon this lookout and am not sure where it was or if it even has a name, but no doubt any sunrise you can see here will be worth it.
I hope you fall in love with this park and all it has to offer. Be sure to check the NPS website for road or trail closures and also remember to respect the wilderness, the animals, and the plant life you come across on your journey.