Individuals unaccustomed to cold climates often learn the hard way how to travel Rocky Mountain National Park’s trails in the winter. Wearing boots or athletic shoes, hikers will head up a trail, feeling confident because the snow is packed down. But then the inevitable happens: postholing. One or both legs plunge deep—up to knee height or further—into a softer patch of snow. Additional steps only result in more of the same wet misery.
Snowshoes dramatically improve visitors’ ability to explore Rocky in the winter months. The strap-on devices provide traction on firm, icy terrain, and keep you afloat on softer snow. Several regularly occurring ranger-led programs offered each winter serve as a great introduction to the sport. To participate, you’ll need to pay admission for the park and bring your own pair of snowshoes. Rentals are available at outdoor stores in Rocky’s gateway towns of Grand Lake and Estes Park.
On Rocky’s west side, two snowshoe programs are offered once a week during the winter months—one beginner outing, and one intermediate outing. Each program is two hours and sets off from a trailhead in the Kawuneeche Valley. Expect mostly level terrain for the beginner outing, and a small climb—somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 feet—during the intermediate program.
On the east side, a two-hour snowshoe ecology walk is offered three times a week in the winter. Typically, a trail in the Bear Lake area is explored. While participants get comfortable with their snowshoes, rangers discuss winter goings-on in a subalpine forest—perhaps pointing out delicate animal tracks or ‘snow knees:’ tree trunks that have been bent into a ‘knee’ shape due to prolonged pressure from heavy snow.
Reservations for any snowshoe program must be made up to seven days in advance. A word to the wise: plan on securing your reservation (in person at a visitor center, or over the phone) earlier rather than later. Rangers will take up to 25 participants, and often all of the spots are spoken for several days before the program.
In truth, there’s not a great deal of technique involved with snowshoeing, but venturing out with a group for your first go-around is a good way to establish a baseline level of comfort. You might also feel tentative about navigating Rocky’s trails in the snow, and rightly so. It’s easy to get disoriented on a trail, particularly after a fresh snowfall. By leaving the navigation up to an experienced ranger, you’re free to focus on the beauty of a wintertime Rocky.
To learn more about snowshoe outings happening this winter, check out Rocky’s park newspaper, or call the park’s information line at 970/586-1206. Participants must be eight years old or older, and there is a limit of six people per reservation. In addition to snowshoes, you’ll need proper winter attire, a map, snacks, and water.
Gear up for your visit with maps, itineraries, and more ideas for exploring with Moon Rocky Mountain National Park.