Winter Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

Winter Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

#52hikechallenge2018 Week 8

Since I was facilitating a workshop at a conference in Denver, I made plans to go a little early and hike in the snow covered Rocky Mountains.  My daughter, Morgan, was home on spring break and therefore joined me for the pre-conference fun near Estes Park.

We flew into Denver and drove 1.5 hours northwest to the YMCA of the Rockies, where I had rented a cabin.  Holy cow!  This YMCA was not like any that I’ve visited in the past.  This full conference center offers rooms in the lodge or cabins, indoor fitness and swimming activities, crafts, outdoor gear rental, a dining hall and so much more.  I wish that I had known more of the amenities, as I would have left a day earlier to have more time outdoors.  Our cabin was absolutely perfect: 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and a great room that included a full kitchen and fireplace.  It reminded me of many of the cabins that we’ve rented in National Parks, only it was warmer and much larger.

Arapahoe Cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies

Not only is the Y facility nice and the staff great, the location is only a 10 minute drive from downtown Estes Park and 7 minutes away from the  Beaver Meadows Entrance Station of the Rocky Mountain National Park.  At the recreation hall, we rented hiking poles, snow shoes and a day pack for Morgan.  Our bill was $30 for all of the items!  I don’t know the last time that I rented gear for such a reasonable price!


On Day 1, we entered Rocky Mountain Park after a brief map pickup stop at the Beaver Meadow’s Visitor’s Center.  We turned left inside the park and drove as far south as possible, parking at the Bear Lake Trailhead.  After bundling up in layers and strapping our snowshoes onto our packs, we headed west to Emerald Lake, crossing Nymph Lake and Dream Lake along the way.  There were no markings on the trail, therefore we relied on the footprints of others.  The hike from the trailhead to Nymph Lake was well packed, with only a couple of inches of fluffy snow on top.  We wore our hiking boots and used our poles to keep from slipping.  After a half mile trek, we came to what I thought was a big clearing in the mountains.  The clearing was actually a frozen and snow covered Nymph Lake.   Once across the lake, the trail became much thicker with snow, so we put on our snowshoes and hiked on.


The weather was sunny and cold with strong gusts of wind.  We worked up a sweat as we trudged along, but our faces were cold from the chilly air.  The landscape was incredibly beautiful.  We were told by a park ranger at the Visitor’s Center that there was 44 inches of snow on the ground.  I kept saying, “wow” as we walked toward our destination.

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At the 1.2 mile mark, we came to Dream Lake, the name being very apropos.  The view of a sparkling frozen lake framed by tall pines and magnificent mountains was spectacular.  The ice had frozen in waves, snow crystals and boulders trapped within.

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We continued on .6 miles, and were rewarded with another gorgeous view.  Emerald Lake sits at about 10,100 feet above sea level.  The mountains jut around the lake, creating a secluded and magical feeling.

Emerald Lake
Magical Emerald Lake
Dancer posing in winter gear on the frozen Emerald Lake surrounded by snow covered mountains
Pure joy at 10,100 feet!

PDF map: Bear Lake Trailhead to Emerald Lake and back

On Day 2, we had very limited time to spend in the park.  We arose early and drove northwest on Rt 36 and Rt 34, stopping only when Trail Ridge Road was closed for the winter.  Rocky Mountain Park has the highest elevation of paved roads of all national parks.  Our stopping point on the road was around 9,800 feet, and our little rental car rocked from the extreme gusts of wind.

As we drove, we saw a heard of elk grazing in a little valley.  They were massive and much larger than the ones that we’ve seen while on foot in wild.

Big elk standing in a snow free clearing
Elk grazing along Route 36.

We continued south toward where we hiked the day before, stopping at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, the last parking area before Bear Lake.  We hiked the Alberta Falls Trail, in search of frozen water.


The hike to the waterfalls was .8 miles, but we accidentally passed by it.  The sun was shining in our eyes as we hiked, and the rays were reflected off of the snow.  We passed the .8 mark and climbed through deep snow to try to find the frozen falls.  We retraced our steps and then continued onto the trail, hiking another .4 mile.  We turned around due to time and also out of confusion for not finding Alberta.  Once back to the .8 mile mark, we realized that our little foray off of the trail was actually a climb on top of the snow covered, frozen falls!  We found the Alberta Falls sign, but had missed it earlier due to blinding sun.

The frozen falls covered in over 44 inches of snow.

Our view was quite different from images that we researched prior to the hike.


A quick retreat back to the trailhead and a traffic-free drive got us back to our cabin by 10 am and on the road to Denver by 11:30.  One and half days in Rocky Mountain National Park was not nearly enough time for exploring.  The Continental Divide loop, a hike through the park, has been added to my bucket list of multi-day treks for the future.

PDF map: Glacier Gorge to Alberta Falls and back.


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