Your ultimate resource to exploring the best of Rocky Mountain National Park in winter.

An Insider’s Complete Guide To Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Rocky Mountain National Park in winter is nothing short of magical.

If you can brave a little cold, winter is the best time to explore the Park without the chaotic summer and fall crowds.

From December to May, the park that locals lovingly call "Rocky" turns into a 415 square mile winter playground full of frozen alpine lakes, pristine snowy forests, and massive jagged peaks.

Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Based on my professional experience guiding in Rocky, I have compiled everything you need to know in order to plan a fun and rewarding trip to RMNP in winter.

If you got value from this article, please support my work by sharing it - or you can buy me a coffee.

I currently do NOT use affiliate links or receive compensation for products I recommend. I do this so my work stays honest and in line with my values. I only recommend gear that I personally use and believe is the best.

How to get to Rocky Mountain National Park

Driving a mountain road in winter.
Photo by Paul Gilmore

Rocky Mountain National Park is located in northeastern Colorado and encompasses 415-square-miles of protected land between the small mountain towns of Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake to the west.

The closest major city that most people fly into to visit the Park is Denver, which is about a 1.5 hour scenic drive from the nearest park entrance.

There are a total of four entrances to the Park: three on the east side near the town of Estes Park, and one on the west side outside of the town of Grand Lake.

The four entrances include: 

  1. Beaver Meadows Entrance (east side)
  2. Fall River Entrance(east side)
  3. Wild Basin Entrance (east side)
  4. Grand Lake Entrance (west side)

Each of these entrances are described in the next section.

Most people visiting Rocky enter the Park from one of the entrances on the east side since these are the closest and easiest to access the Park from Denver.

The fastest way to get from Denver to Estes Park is via I-25 to U.S. 36 E, where you will pass through Boulder and Lyons, Colorado.

The western entrance outside of Grand Lake is about a 2 hour drive from Denver, making it slightly less appealing for most tourists and less crowded than the eastern entrances. 

The Best Entrance Into Rocky Mountain National Park

Entrance sign to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Depending on how much time you have and the top sights you want to see in the park, the entrance that you choose may vary.

Here is a guide to how to choose the right entrance for your specific winter trip itinerary. 

Refer to the map below to see where these entrances are located.

A map of Rocky Mountain National Park entrances.
A map of Rocky Mountain National Park's entrances. All are open in the winter.

1. Beaver Meadows Entrance

This entrance is the closest to Estes Park and therefore the most trafficked. Out of the four entrances to the park, the line of cars at the Beaver Meadows entrance station is most likely to back up with traffic, especially on the weekend. 

This is less of a problem in winter, but definitely more so in the summer.

It is also the entrance that will give you the fastest route to Bear Lake Road, a popular road open in winter that offers many of the best activities and sights in the park. 

I recommend that you enter the Park through the Beaver Meadows Entrance if you are entering the park on a weekday and plan on spending your time exploring the sights and stops along Bear Lake Road, including:

  • Moraine Park
  • Sprague Lake
  • Glacier Gorge
  • Bear Lake
  • Dream, Nymph, and Emerald Lakee

Beaver Meadows is also the entrance you will want to take if you need to pick up a backcountry permit.

This entrance is located west of Estes Park on U.S. 36. Get driving directions here

2. Fall River Entrance

The Fall River entrance is a few miles further away from downtown Estes Park than the Beaver Meadows entrance, but the extra drive is usually worth the smaller crowds.

I recommend that you enter through the Fall River entrance if you are entering the park on a weekend and want to see the north side of the Park, including:

  • Sheep Lakes
  • Horseshoe Park
  • Hidden Valley
  • Alluvial Fan
  • The section of Trail Ridge Road that is open up to Many Parks Curve

Bear Lake Road can also be accessed through this entrance, but you will have a longer (though very scenic) drive to get there. 

This entrance is located northwest of Estes Park on U.S. 34. Get driving directions here.

3. Wild Basin Entrance

The Wild Basin entrance is the most remote of the three eastern entrances, situated about 30 minutes south of Estes Park.

The Wild Basin is isolated from the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park by a massive series of mountains, which means you have to drive all the way out and around the Park if you want to explore it.

Most people visiting Rocky never explore this part of the Park because it is out of the way from the Park’s famous locations like Bear Lake and Trail Ridge Road.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the time and energy to check out, especially if you want to avoid crowds and find true solitude in nature. 

I recommend you visit the Wild Basin entrance if you want to spend the day exploring by snowshoe and skiing rather than sightseeing by car since road through the Wild Basin is only about 7 miles long.

There is a network of stunning trails from the Wild Basin trailhead. I recommend snowshoeing the Wild Basin Trail, which will take you up to several frozen waterfalls like Ouzel Falls and Upper and Lower Copeland Falls.

The Wild Basin entrance and trailhead is located on Highway 115. The turnoff for this road is just north of Allenspark, Colorado on Highway 7. Get driving directions here.

4. Grand Lake Entrance

The single western entrance, Grand Lake, is the furthest entrance from Denver. 

This entrance will give you access to the snowiest and most remote parts of the Park, making it ideal for adventurers who want to snowshoe and ski this quiet winter wonderland with very few people. 

The first 12 miles of Trail Ridge Road north of Grand Lake are typically open in winter (weather permitting), giving you a chance to explore a variety of trails that lead up into the surrounding mountains. 

Unfortunately, the section of Trail Ridge Road that connects the west side of the Park to the east side is closed in winter (see section on road closures below), which means you do not have easy access to the more famous locations along Bear Lake Road.

I recommend that you enter through the Grand Lake entrance if you have already explored the iconic sights on the east side of the Park and are seeing a quieter experience snowshoeing or skiing in the backcountry. 

This entrance is located on the northern side of Grand Lake on U.S. 34. Get driving directions here.

Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

1. Snowshoeing

Two hikers in the Wild Basin area in winter in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Snowshoeing or winter hiking the Wild Basin Trail (shown) is one of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park.

During the wintertime when the park is covered in snow, one of the best ways to explore the trails is by snowshoe.

Most hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park can be accessed by snowshoe in the winter.

Snowshoeing is a bit more physically challenging that hiking, but the rewards are beyond worth the effort.

First, the views in winter are spectacular.

Most trails will take you through stunning alpine forests and up to frozen glacial lakes with panoramic views of massive snow-covered peaks. 

Snowshoeing is also one of the best ways to find solitude in the park, as you will likely see very few people on the trail with you. 

Finally, snowshoeing requires almost very little technical skill and snowshoe rentals are very cheap, making it one of the best ways for anyone to explore the park in winter.

Check out the resources section below for the best places to rent gear.

If you want to try snowshoeing or learn more about it, see my beginners guide to snowshoeing.

Best Trails to Snowshoe in RMNP
Hiking trail sign in Rocky Mountain National Park

Here are my 6 favorite trails to snowshoe in Rocky which will show you the best of the Park:

  • Dream Lake
  • Chasm Lake
  • The Lock
  • Deer Mountain
  • Chasm Falls
  • Mills Lake through Glacier Gorge
  • Wild Basin Trail
Snowshoe with a Park Ranger

Snowshoe walks with a ranger are a great way to learn about the park from an expert and meet fellow adventurers. 

These walk are run from January through March and require a reservation to participate. You can make your reservation to snowshoe with a ranger here.

2. Cross Country and Backcountry Skiing

Girl cross country skiing in the mountains.
Photo by Phillip Belena

Ditch the crowed resorts and get your heart pumping through some of the most amazing scenery in Colorado. 

There are no chair lifts in the park, so cross country and backcountry skiing are the only ways to explore the Park by ski. 

Since most of the Park is covered in moderate to deep snow (especially the west side of the park) in the winter and spring seasons, there are seemingly endless opportunities to enjoy these sports.

You will need cross country or other specific skis and poles depending on the type of skiing you plan on doing, which you can rent in Estes Park (see below).

I also recommend taking a few lessons or taking along an experienced friend if you have never tried the sport before.

Best Areas to Cross Country Ski in RMNP

Many of the parks hiking trails can be accessed by ski in the winter. In addition to the snowshoeing trails listed above, the following trails are great for cross country skiing: 

  • Nymph Lake
  • Emerald Lake
  • East Inlet Trail
  • Sprague Lake
  • Trail Ridge Road
Best Area for Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding in RMNP

Most local backcountry skiers will tell you that an area called Hidden Valley is the best place for backcountry skiing in the Park. 

Hidden Valley was once a ski resort inside the Park from 1955 to 1991. When the Park stopped operating the ski area, the lift was removed and the hillside was restored to it natural state. 

Hidden Valley is still the best ski hill, but you will have to put in the hard work to snowshoe or skin your way to the top of the hill with your skis in order to ski down. 

The area around Bear Lake is also popular for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Popular runs include Ptarmigan Glacier  and  Corral Couloir. 

Check out this resource for more backcountry skiing and boarding runs in RMNP.

Important: Skiers, snowshoers, and other backcountry adventurers must be prepared for avalanches, rapid changes in weather, and physical exhaustion. Make sure you:

  • Check the avalanche forecast here.
  • Check trail conditions here.
  • Stop by or call the the park’s office to get the latest, most accurate conditions and safety info
  • Bring the 10 essentials with you
  • Dress properly

3. Sledding and Tubing

Person tubing down a mountain.
Sledding and tubing in Rocky is a blast!

Sliding down a mountain in a sled or tube is truly a blast that you must try at some point while exploring Rocky Mountain National Park in winter.

There is only one place in the park where sledding is allowed: the former ski resort area of Hidden Valley (see above).

The sledding hill in Hidden Valley isn’t too steep and has a very gentle slope at the bottom.

Since there is no lift or tow that will take you up the hill, you will need to walk your sled or tube up and then ride down. 

You must bring your own sled, tube, or saucer, if you want to enjoy this activity. All of these can be rented be rented in nearby Estes Park.

Note: the Park does NOT allow sleds with metal runners

4. Wildlife Viewing

Elk herd in the snow.
Photo by Kym MacKinnon

Rocky Mountain National Park has is of the best places in the United States for viewing wildlife - and for good reason.

The Park is home to more than 60 species of mammals and nearly 300 species of birds, giving visitors amble opportunities to see an an abundance of wildlife.

Some of the best populations of large-mammals also reside in the park, including herds of elk, moose, bighorn sheep, black bears, and more. 

Wildlife viewing is different in the winter than in the summer, as many animals migrate to the meadows and valleys in to escape the bitter cold and harsh weather up in the tundra at higher elevations in the park. 

Some animals, like bears and marmots, hibernate and won’t be seen at all.

Winter Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park

Here are some of the animals to watch out for in the Park:

  • Elk: these beautiful creatures are abundant in the Park and are can often be seen in the meadows and valleys during the winter. There are usually 600 to 800 Elk in the park in the winter. These animals are typically not afraid of cars and people, so you will likely see them in the meadows right off of the road and maybe even roaming the streets around Estes Park!
  • Mule Deer: Deer are also very abundant in the Park and are an animal you are very likely to spot. Perhaps less exciting than some of the other mammals you might see, they are still beautiful to see grazing in meadows with snow-capped peaks in the background.
  • Coyotes: Coyotes are clever and adaptable animals that are the main predator in the park. They gather in packs to hunt small mammals, elk, deer, and other vulnerable animals. 
  • Big Horn Sheep: Bighorn Sheep are the state symbol of Colorado and the largest wild sheep in North America. The impressive animals are rare to see in the winter, but worth keeping your eyes out for. 
  • Moose: despite being the largest members of the deer family, moose are surprisingly hard to find and rare to see. Look for moose in the areas around wetlands (streams, ponds, etc.), especially where willows grow. 
  • Snowshoe Hare: As their name suggests, snowshoe hares have large hind feet that act as snowshoes to help them traverse snow. Look for these creatures in the forests and meadows where they like to  forage for vegetation. 
  • Pikas: pikas are small, rabbit-like mammals that live high up in the mountains, usually above above treeline (~ 11,000 feet). If you likely wont see pikas in the lower elevations during the winter, but you might see them if you venture up into the highest areas of the park. 
  • Squirrels and chipmunks: these are the smallest mammals that you are very likely to see in the Park. There are 10 species of squirrels in the park, including the least chipmunk, golden-mantled ground squirrel, Wyoming ground squirrel, and chickaree.
  • Birds: while most birds that can be seen in the park are migratory, several can be seen year-round. The top birds to look out for in winter include wild turkeys, falcons, hawks, pygmy owls, and woodpeckers.
Best Places to See Wildlife

You don’t have to adventure far or even get out of your car in order to have an amazing wildlife viewing experience in Rocky.

Here are the best places to see animals while driving through the Park

Important: The Park requires you to stay at least 75 feet away from wildlife, especially from a mother and her young. Keep a further distance from larger animals and predators like moose and bears. Also, NEVER feed wildlife. Not only is it illegal, but it also seriously harms animals and makes them more aggressive.

5. Landscape Photography

Girl taking photo of mountains in winter.
Photo by Alessio Soggetti

All seasons in Rocky Mountain National Park offer prime landscape photography opportunities, but winter is especially amazing to capture with your camera.

Pristine, freshly dusted snow undisturbed by footprints blankets most of the Park - an ideal setting for capturing the areas most iconic wildlife, lakes, and mountains. 

The magical winter landscape is further enhanced by the winter light, which is typically devoid of wildfire smoke. 

The sun spends more time throughout a winter day low on the horizon, making the light softer and warmer.

A challenging yet worthwhile experience is to wake up early and photograph the Park at sunrise. 

Morning winter sunrises in the mountains are usually brutally cold, but I promise they are as photographically rewarding as they are memorable. 

Best Places to Photograph RMNP in Winter

Here are some of my favorite places to photograph at sunrise. 

Most of these locations will require you to hike or snowshoe to them, so give yourself extra time so that you can arrive before sunrise (if that’s your plan).

  1. Dream Lake: One of (if not the most) famous lake in the Park, Dream Lake is aptly named as a natural wonder that could only have been conceived of in a dream. Photographers will especially love capturing the dazzling, abstract patterns of ice on the frozen surface of the lake, so be sure to bring a wide angle lens and learn how to focus stack. The hike or snowshoe journey up to Dream Lake starts at the Bear Lake trailhead and is 2 miles up with about 420 feet of elevation gain. 
  2. Sprague Lake: the most easily accessed location on this list, Sprague Lake is a favorite among photographers for its stunning beauty. Shoot this lake from the east side, as you will be able to frame the lake with views of snow-capped Hallett Peak, Otis Peak, and Flattop Mountain. This location is only about 0.1 miles from the Sprague Lake parking lot off of Bear Lake Road.
  3. Twin Sisters Peak: View from the top of the Twin Sisters Peak will give you one of the best views of Longs Peak, a 14,259 foot tall peak that is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park (and one of the tallest in the country). If you make it to the top of the Twin Sisters, you will be able to photograph Long’s Peak’s iconic eastern face, a sheer vertical granite wall know as the Diamond. To get to this location, start at the Twin Sisters Trailhead which is located off Highway 7 near Lily Lake. The hike to the top is about 7.5 miles with 2,500 feet of elevation gain.
  4. The Mummy Range via Trail Ridge Road: Since Trail Ridge Road is closed starting at Many Park’s curve this time of year, you will need to park near Many Park’s curve and snowshoe up Trail Ridge Road in order to get the best view of the Mummy Range. This mountain range is in the northwest part of the Park and includes the stunning Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita and Yipsilon Mountain. The closer you get to or past Rainbow Curve Overlook (which is about 4 miles down the road past Many Parks Curve), the better the views of this range will be.

6. Tours

Taking a tour with a professional guide is the best way to learn new skills and stay safe while adventuring.

For many people, the best way to see a national park is on a tour.

There are many different companies that offer winter tours in Rocky Mountain National Park, and each offer different types of tours depending on your interests and desired activity level.

Many tour companies start their tours from Estes Park, but there are plenty of tour companies based out of Denver which will take you up to Rocky for the day (or two).

Here is a guide to the types of tours you can take in RMNP to help you choose the right one.

Nature Tours and Ecotours

Nature tours and ecotours are different from other types of tours in that your guide will typically be a specially trained naturalist and the interpretation will be more focused on the natural history of the Park (geology, ecology, botany, wildlife biology, etc).

Nature tours also emphasize wildlife sightings, and your naturalist guide should have expert knowledge of where to find wildlife based on their ecology and behavior. 

These tours are more educational in nature and often involve less activity. 

Nature tours are done primarily from a vehicle and are sometimes called sightseeing “safaris.”

For this reason, they are best for people interested in learning about nature without having to do much hiking or snowshoeing.

Active Adventure Tours

These types of tours involve at least one full day of an active guided adventure such as guided snowshoeing, hiking, skiing, and more. 

Virtually any winter activity or sport you can think of, there will likely be a company offering a guided tour of it.

These tours emphasize physical activity outdoors, and typically involve very little time inside or in a vehicle.

Unlike nature tours, active tours are usually less focused on interpretation of the Park.

Guides are usually highly trained experts at the sport or activity they are taking you on, so you can be sure you are getting expert advice and safety instruction while adventuring outdoors. 

These tours are best for physically fit people who want to spend most of their time int he Park being active in outdoors. 

Photography Tours 

One of the best ways to improve your photography skills is on a photography tour.

These tours are usually offered by professional photographers or outdoor adventure guides who are highly skilled in the art of landscape photography.

Photo tours are highly educational. On a good photo tour, your guide will give you lessons and tips on how to use your camera.

Unlike other tours, photography tours are designed around helping you get the best photos. 

For this reason they often begin very early in the morning before sunrise or last late into the day for sunset shoots. 

Your guide will take you to the best photo locations given the time of day and sometimes even help you with post-processing your photos after the trip.

Bus or Van Sightseeing Tours

Tours of the Park on busses and vans are typically full or half-day sightseeing tours that involve little physical activity.

Most of your time will be spent looking at the scenery out of a vehicle window and getting out of the vehicle for short stops at viewpoints and other points of interest. 

Guides usually have diverse backgrounds and a broad range of knowledge. They are rarely experts in the Parks natural history, but they have lots to offer in terms of stories and knowledge of the region. 

These tours are best if you are looking for a more affordable option to tour the Park.

7. Winter Camping

Tent in the snow in the mountains.
Photo by Eddie Lawhead

For the bravest of adventurers with the skills (and courage) to sleep in the freezing cold, winter camping in Rocky can be incredibly rewarding. 

The following is a guide to what you need to know about frontcountry and backcountry camping.

Frontcountry Camping

There are 5 frontcountry campgrounds in Rocky, but as of winter 2021, the only campground open in the winter is the Moraine Park Campground

Located in a a glaciated meadow near the Beaver Meadows Entrance on Highway 36, this campground features beautiful views of Long’s Peak, Moraine Park, and the surrounding mountains.

Only part of this campground is open in winter (Loop B), and it is only available on a first come/first serve basis.

Always call the Park and check the campground's website before you plan on camping in order to get the latest conditions, rules, and any closures. 

For a full list of the the Park’s campgrounds and information regarding their open seasons and reservations, visit the Park’s official campground website here.

Backcountry Camping

For the more adventurous, wilderness winter camping is another option in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Unlike frontcountry campground options, backcountry campsites are abundant on both the east and the west side of the Park. 

Here are the most important things you need to know about backcountry camping in Rocky: 

  • Backcountry camping requires a permit.
  • Camping is allowed in designated sites and wilderness winter zones only. View the complete list of winter sites here.
  • From October 1 through April 30, reservations are made by phone at 970-586-1242; TTY 970-586-1319 or in person at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center Wilderness Office (on the east side of the park) or the or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center (on the west side of the park). 
  • The Park’s wilderness rules apply to all seasons, but special rules go into effect in winter. 

Special rules for winter camping in Rocky Mountain National Park:

  1. Do not camp under or near dead trees.
  2. If the designated site that you are permitted to camp in is covered in more than 4 inches of snow, do not camp in the site. Instead, camp 200 feet away from the designated site (70 adult steps away).
  3. Designated campsites are limited to parties of 12 people.
  4. Fires are NOT allow. Only stoves are permitted.
  5. You campsite must be established:

a. at least 1 mile from the trailhead and within the winter wilderness zone you are permitted to camp. 

b. 200 feet away from any water source.

c. on rock or snow. Avoid camping on plants or in meadows.

d. far enough from other campers and trails so that nobody can see you.

The Park’s complete Wilderness Camping Guide where you can find all of the rules, regulations, and procedures for backcountry camping is here.

Special rules for winter camping in the park are listed here

What is Open and Closed in Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Photo by Andrew Gloor

Weather permitting, Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

However, certain roads, buildings, and services close and cease operating during the winter.

Visitor Centers That Are Open and Closed in Winter

Of the 5 visitors centers in the Park, three are open in the winter. These include:

  • Beaver Meadows Visitor Center: A small visitors center located on the east side of the park near the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station. 
  • Kawuneeche Visitor Center: Located on the west side of the Park near the town of Grand Lake, Colorado.
  • Fall River Visitor Center: Located just before you enter the park via the Fall River Entrance Station. Features a Rocky Mountain Conservancy Nature Store, small exhibit, an extensive gift shop, and a restaurant. 

Each of these locations are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Closures and special rules due to COVID-19 are constantly changing, so check closures before you arrive (see resources below).

The following visitor centers and information stations are closed for the winter:

  • Alpine Visitor Center - the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park System at 11,796’. This visitor center is located at the highest part of Trail Ridge Road (the road mostly closed for the season).
  • Moraine Park Discovery Center:  this site features interactive natural history exhibits on the Parks wildlife, geology, and more.
  • Sheep Lakes Information Station: the best place to spot and learn about bighorn sheep.
Roads That Are Open and Closed in Winter
Photo by Roman Gon

The main roads closed in winter are:

  • Trail Ridge Road (Highway 34) between Many Parks Curve and the east side and Colorado River trailhead.
  • Old Fall River Road
  • Endovalley Road at the West Alluvial Fan parking area

The main road closure in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter is Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is a section of U.S. Highway 34 that stretches east-west across the park from the town of Estes Park, Colorado (on the east side) to the town of Grand Lake, Colorado (on the west side). 

The highest continuously paved road in the United States, this iconic and highly popular winding stretch of highway takes you across the Continental Divide and up to the highest point in the Park - but only when it is open during the very short summer season. 

Depending on snowpack (snowdrifts can reach 20 to 30+ feet!), this road closes between Many Parks Curve on the east side and Colorado River Trailhead on the west side from fall to around late spring/early summer, usually around Memorial Day. 

December 1 to March 31, 2022 Trail Ridge Road changed by the Park to winter trail status, which means that no bikes or pets are allowed.

You are, however, allowed to snowshoe and ski on Trail Ridge Road when it is converted to trail status. 

Roads can close without notice due to rapidly changing weather, so check the Park’s road statuses early and often. 

Also, always be prepared for winter driving conditions. There is always the potential to encounter snow and ice on the road and freezing temperatures.

Pro tip: Call the Trail Ridge Road Status Line at 970 586-1222 to get the road’s most up-to-date status.

The other main winter road closure is Old Fall River Road.

This is a winding and narrow dirt road that begins near Alluvial Fan and ends near the Alpine Visitor Center where it joins Trail Ridge Road.

Roads open in winter (weather permitting) include:

  • Bear Lake Road
  • Fern Lake Road
  • Twin Sisters Trailhead Access Road
  • Upper Beaver Meadows Road
  • Wild Basin Road

Bear Lake Road is the most popular road open in winter and the road that I highly recommend you spend your time enjoying while in the park.

You can access this road by entering the Park through the Beaver Meadows entrance and then turning left off of Highway 36 onto Bear Lake Road.

This road, as the name suggests, takes you to the popular Bear Lake parking lot and trailhead, which will give you snowshoeing access to Bear Lake, Dream Lake, Emerald Lake, and Nymph Lake.

You will also find along this road the parking lots and trailheads for Glacier Gorge and Sprague Lake - areas full of trails and amazing photography opportunities (see above).

Other closures include:

A free shuttle bus that transports visitors along Bear Lake Road in the summer is closed in the winter.

Where to Stay

Whether you have only one day or several days to spend in the Park, you will have many options for places to stay.

Depending on how much time you have to explore the park, here are the best towns you will want to spend the night in.

Denver, CO

The park is about a 1.5 to 2 hour drive from Denver, which is a great place to stay if you only have one day to visit the park and want to stay in a big city.

I recommend that you leave Denver early in order to avoid rush hour traffic on your way out of the city and through Boulder.

Boulder, CO

Boulder is only about an hour from the east side of the park and is an incredibly fun (and beautiful) place to stay. 

There is an abundance of fantastic restaurants, shopping, and hiking in Boulder, which gives you the best of city life without being too far from the park. 

Estes Park, CO

Staying in Estes is only a few minutes away from the Beaver Meadows and Fall River entrances will give you direct access to the east side of the park.

This is the best place to stay if you are planning on exploring the park for at least a day and want to get to the park as early as possible. 

This is a quaint mountain town that has a walkable downtown area with plenty of shops and restaurants. 

Estes Park is quite touristy, but it is much quieter in the winter than in the summer.

Grand Lake, CO

As previously mentioned, Grand Lake is the only gateway to the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park.

If you want to spend your time in the park snowshoeing or backcountry skiing with fewer crows, better powder, and more solitude, this town is the town you will want to stay in. 

Grand Lake is a small, cute mountain town right on the edge of Grand Lake - the largest natural lake in Colorado - where you find lodging and restaurants to make your stay enjoyable in the park.

There is also lots to do outside of the park if you stay in Grand Lake in winter, including snowmobiling and ice fishing.

Weather and Average Winter Temperatures

The weather in Rocky Mountain National Park can be extreme and unpredictable, especially up at higher elevations like the Bear Lake area.

The weather and climate vary from the higher to the lower elevations, and from the east side to the west side of the Park.

Snow depth and wind speeds are typically lower at lower elevations on the east side of the park (such as near Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Hidden Valley) than at higher elevations. 

At higher elevations, weather conditions are usually much more severe and temperatures are colder. 

Snow in the high country of the east side of the park is much deeper and brutally high winds are common. Blizzards seemingly come out of nowhere and can put you in serious danger.

The average temperatures and measured snowfall in the winter months on the east side of the park is shown below:

Weather statistics for Estes Park, Colorado. Source: NPS

The west side of the park is generally less windy but experiences more snow than the east side.

Here are the average temperatures and measured snowfall on the west side of the park during the winter months:

Weather statistics for Grand Lake, Colorado. Source: NPS

Note: the temperature drops by about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet up you go up in elevation. Keep this in mind since most elevations in the park are much higher than Estes Park, which has an elevation of 7,522 feet.

It is also important to note that snowshoeing or skiing above treeline leaves you more exposed to extreme weather conditions, and can also put you at greater risk of getting caught in an avalanche. 

If you plan on adventuring in the backcountry,  it is critical that you keep up to date on the weather and avalanche forecasts and plan accordingly.

Make sure you have the right gear and clothing to stay safe in the backcountry if severe weather moves in.

Resources

Visitor Centers and Information Stations: complete information about locations, hours/days of operation, seasonal closures and more can be found here

Road Closures:  Current conditions on roads and updates on closures can be found here

Weather information: Detailed up-to-date weather information can be found here. Check the Estes Park forecast here. Check the Grand Lake forecast here. The Park also provides more general weather and climate information here.

Avalanche Forecast: Always check the latest avalanche forecast here before heading out.

Trail Conditions: Check the conditions of the trail you plan on using here.

Where to buy and rent gear: If you need clothing and technical equipment, there are seemingly endless options in Denver and Boulder, the nearest two major cities. Boulder is closer to RMNP, and the best outdoor gear store that I know of there is Neptune Mountaineering. If you need to rent or buy snowshoes, skis, sleds, and other equipment, I recommend you do so in Estes Park at the Estes Park Mountain Shop if you are visiting the east side of the park, or Grand Lake at Never Summer Mountain Products if you are on the west side of the park.