20 Things to Do in Winter in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains
posted by: Amber Johnson
This onetime ski resort inside Rocky Mountain National Park remains open as a sledding paradise. Kids (and adults!) love sliding down the old bunny hill on a sled or snow tube (rentals available in Estes Park). A warming hut revives frozen toes on weekends.
The quiet season is a wonderful time to spot elk, which come down from the high country and congregate in park meadows and the town of Estes Park. Head over to the west side’s Kawuneeche Valley to look for giant moose picking their way through the snow, and scan the cliffs on Fall River Road for bighorn sheep.
Step into a pair of backcountry Nordic skis and break your own trails in the park—the west side has deeper snow and flat, ski-friendly valleys, while the east side offers more challenging trails to alpine lakes. Outside the park, skinny skiers head to Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Eldora Mountain Resort’s Nordic Center, and Devils Thumb Ranch.
Want to explore the park’s trails in winter? All you need are a pair of snowshoes. Tromp through quiet forests and visit frozen waterfalls throughout the park. Popular winter destinations include Cub Lake, Mills Lake, and the Bear Lake Loop. (Always check avalanche conditions before heading into steep terrain.)
Park rangers lead free snowshoe trips on both sides of the park, plus animal programs and full moon walks. Check the park newspaper or inquire at any visitor center for a current schedule.
Rocky’s steep slopes and frozen waterfalls make it a top destination for ice climbers. Clinging to a sheet of ice with crampons and ice picks certainly delivers a unique thrill, but beginners should seek out professional guides to get started. Farther afield, check out Ouray’s annual Ice Festival.
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy runs on-demand bus tours through the snowy park landscape. Drink in views of snow-covered peaks (and maybe some hot chocolate) and look for wildlife from the comfort of a heated bus or van.
Careening down a snowy slope is fun for the whole family. You’ll find excellent tubing hills at the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch, Grand Lake Nordic Center, Fraser Tubing Hill, Winter Park Resort, and Winter Park Town Hill.
Colorado is world-famous for its top-notch slopes. The state’s 25 winter resorts offer everything from laid-back local skiing (Arapahoe Basin, Eldora) to luxe amenities and fancy nightlife (Aspen, Beaver Creek). It’s impossible to pick one “best” resort, but it’s not unusual for people to move their whole lives to be close to these favorites: Vail
Love biking? There’s no need to wait for spring to melt the trails—you can hop on a ski bike and get out there all winter long. Ski bikes are like bikes with skis instead of wheels, and several resorts offer lessons and guided tours. Try it out at Winter Park Resort and Vail Resort.
The lakes just west of Rocky Mountain National Park are a great place to land the big one from under the ice. Lake Granby, Grand Lake, and Shadow Mountain Reservoir (in Grand Lake) and Wolford Mountain Reservoir (in Kremmling) are top spots for ice fishing; Grand Lake also hosts several ice fishing contests each winter.
What do horses have to do with skiing? A lot, if you’re talking skijoring, a sport where a horse and rider pull a skier through an obstacle course. Leadville hosts its unique skijoring festival the first full weekend in March each year; riders, skiers, and spectators welcome.
The Rockies transform into a magical wonderland in December. Get in the holiday spirit by attending Estes Park’s Catch the Glow Holiday Parade, or enjoy the dazzling display at Zoo Lights (Denver Zoo) or Blossoms of Light (Denver Botanic Gardens).
Deck the halls starting with your very own wild Christmas tree. There’s nothing quite like tromping through the snowy forest to find that one perfect evergreen. Get a $10 permit from the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests before you strike out.
Colorado abounds with cold-season celebrations. Favorites include Grand Lake’s Winter Carnival (sledding, snow sculptures, a parade), Vail’s Snow Daze (free live concerts), Breckenridge’s Ullr Fest (Viking-themed games), Estes Park’s Winter Festival (ice skating and beer tasting), Steamboat Springs’ Winter Carnival (fireworks and rodeo), and, perhaps most uniquely, Nederland’s Frozen Dead Guy Days.
If you love camping but shiver at the thought of a tent in the snow, look to one of the state’s popular backcountry cabins and yurts. These comfortable shelters provide a base for skiing and snowshoeing by day, relaxing by the fire by night. The 10th Mountain Division huts are fantastic and well-known; you can also find less-busy options through Never Summer Nordic Yurts and the San Juan Hut system.
Grand County, just west of the park, is a snowmobiling paradise. More than 1,000 miles of trail wind through forests and meadows near Grand Lake, Granby, and Winter Park. Two favorite spots are Rabbit Ears Pass and Gore Pass, near Kremmling. You’ll find rentals and outfitting shops in Granby, Grand Lake, and Winter Park.
Looking for a unique date? Surprise your sweetie with a mountainside meal. The Moonlight Dinner Series at Arapahoe Basin Resort spotlights cuisines from alpine locations worldwide. And at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse near Ski Cooper, you’ll first ski, hike, or ride a mile through the trees before sitting down to an upscale dinner in a cozy yurt.
Warm up with a dip in a naturally soothing hot spring. Strawberry Park, just outside Steamboat Springs, lets you soak under the stars in a series of natural pools; another nearby option is Hot Sulphur Springs. For an even more adventurous trip, head to backcountry Radium Hot Springs or Conundrum Hot Springs (advanced skiers only).
Watch ice artists at work at several winter events focused on the craft. Attend the International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge, or head over to Cripple Creek’s Ice Festival.