Last month I took my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and got to go on my first hike in the snow. My sister was interviewing for some jobs in Denver, so I agreed to pop over and meet her for a long weekend. My family is almost all very far away, so someone coming within 800 miles of me pretty much qualifies “super convenient”. Plus, I knew she’d be thrilled to have a partner in crime while checking out a new city. I booked a flight and an Airbnb and we started making plans.
It just so happened that the weekend she was interviewing was also my birthday weekend. I told my sister that whether she liked it or not, I was going to drag her to Rocky Mountain National Park with me on my birthday. Aside from a short jaunt in Durango, CO last spring, I’d never been to the Rockies proper, and no way was I going to miss the opportunity. Luckily, my sister also likes a bit of adventure.
Side note: it just so happened that last year, I also spent my birthday in a national park, namely Zion. I’d be ok if this turned into an accidental traditional. :)
Since it was late November, it was definitely too late in the year for a summit hike. All the mountains would be buried in several feet of snow, not to mention that going up to 13-14k feet with my sea level sister seemed a little ambitious. So, we looked for some alternatives.
One of the most popular hikes in RMNP is the Dream Lake/Emerald Lake trail. It has manageable elevation gain, isn’t too long, and is very scenic. Our Airbnb host suggested we rent snowshoes from a shop in Estes Park, the small town outside of the park, and go check it out. I’d never hiked in the snow before, so this sounded like a really fun and different way to spend the day, so we latched onto the idea.
Our plans were nearly foiled when, on Friday night, a mini snowstorm rolled through, dropping a couple inches all over Denver. Waking up on Saturday morning and seeing snow on the roads was the last thing I wanted. I was driving a rented Toyota Corolla, and neither the highway nor the mountain roads sounded like a place I wanted to be. We sat around for a couple hours while I stewed in impotent frustration at the sudden obstacle in my plans.
Finally, at about 10, my stubbornness took over. I said “screw it” and we got in the car. Once we got out of our unplowed neighborhood, I was relieved to find that the roads were generally fine. Even when we got closer to the park on the higher elevated mountain roads, there were only patches of snow and ice that were plenty navigable as long as you exercised some caution.
Before the park, we made a pit stop at a local outdoors shop for gear. We told them where we were going and said we were looking for snowshoes. They said that because of the popularity of the trail, the snow would be packed down already, which would make snowshoes a bit excessive. Instead, they suggested traction devices and handed us 2 pairs of Kahtoola microspikes. I found this oddly delightful: Kahtoola is actually headquartered in my small town. I run RIGHT by their office often when I’m at crossfit. The rental guys raved about them and I can see why. If you do any winter hiking, I definitely recommend checking these out. They’re easy to strap on, and very lightweight to have in your pack when you don’t need them. After this hike, I’m thinking I’m going to buy a pair.
We finally got to the trailhead around 1pm. This is a lot later than I usually start hiking, but it worked out better for snow concerns and general temperatures. After getting our spikes on and my backpack situated, we were off!
The trailhead, Bear Lake Trailhead, provides access to many different trails, so it was quite crowded when we arrived.
Sure enough, the trail was covered in a healthy pack of snow. The trailhead starts at 9,000-something ft above sea level, and all that elevation makes it considerably colder and snowier. It was a lovely sunny day, but even so, temperatures topped out in the 20s.
I wore my lululemon toasty tech tights with a cool racerback and a rulu 1/2 zip. On top of that, I also added my fluff off jacket, a hat, gloves, and a vinyasa scarf. I decked my sister out in an extra CRB, 1/2 zip, and vinyasa from my suitcase (luckily, we wear the same size), except she got my dog runner pants instead of tights.
On my feet, I wore my Sorel Joan of Arctic boots, which I’ve been really happy with. Not only are they great to wear casually in town, they also worked well for this hike and kept my feet dry and reasonably warm the whole time. On top of my normal low cut socks, I had another secret weapon: cashmere knee-high socks (mine are similar to these). Wool would work too, but I definitely recommend going for knee-high. It made a huge difference! If I were to go back and do it again, I would’ve bought foot warmers, too, for good measure.
Right after you start hiking, you arrive at the first lake, Nymph Lake, only a mere 0.3 miles from the trailhead. There wasn’t much to see at this lake. I’m sure it’s lovely in the summer, but in the winter it was pretty much just a sheet of ice. We were eager to move on and didn’t linger.
Not long after Nymph Lake, we noticed some footprints leading just a short ways away from the trail toward what appeared to be an overlook. The footprints led up on a small rock formation that I’ll admit was a liiiiiittle sketchy in the snow. The spikes really helped here since I wasn’t as worried about slipping.
Once we worked our way up to the top–WOW. This was arguably the best view of the entire day. A little Google research tells me you’re looking at Long’s Peak, the tallest peak in RMNP. You can also see Nymph Lake in the clearing below (first picture). The snow made everything so much more beautiful and majestic.
After the overlook, the trail continued to work its way back into Tyndall Gorge. As we hiked further in, we were treated to views of the mountains in the background as we headed toward them. The wind around the mountains created a wispy cloud of snow around the mountain peaks, creating a beautiful, ethereal glow.
At Dream Lake, we started to experience the punishing winter winds we were promised. In the treeless spaces around the lake, strong gusts of wind kicked up snow right into our faces. I wrapped my scarf around my face like a mask and scurried past the windy spots as quickly as I could manage. The lakes themselves honestly weren’t that scenic this time of year. It was mostly everything else that I was interested in–the mountains and the snow-covered forest.
As we progressed toward Emerald Lake, the crowds thinned even more since the last leg of the hike is the most challenging. Since the trail wasn’t as well-traversed, it became more difficult to tell where to go in some places. In some places, the wind would blow snow right on top of any footprints left, obscuring the path. The heavy, less densely packed snow plus the steeper terrain meant the last part of the hike was by far the most challenging. Apparently in the summer there are pretty creeks and even a little waterfall, but of course that wasn’t part of the scenery this time.
If you did miss the trail, because you got distracted or because you just couldn’t see it, you might find yourself thigh-dip in powder like my sister. (As you can see, this did not dampen her spirits.) This picture also helps drive home just how much snow there was, especially further back in the trail. I’m told that this trail can still be covered in snow even in May!
At last, we arrived at our ultimate destination: Emerald Lake. It’s nestled below the peaks at just over 10,000′ elevation and framed by Hallett Mountain to the left and Flattop Mountain to the right. It gets its name because in the summer, it has a distinct deep green color from the algae that lives in the lake. Of course, this time of year, it’s very much frozen and there’s no trace of color.
Right after we reached the lake, insane hurricane-force winds blew straight at me, blowing sharp, cold snow into my face. As much as I would’ve liked to stay for a few minutes, it was honestly pretty unbearable. I’m pretty sure that wind chill was solidly into the negatives.
I’m a bit bummed that my Emerald Lake photos didn’t turn out as well as I would’ve liked, but when you’re being assaulted with 60 mph winds, fussing with camera settings isn’t really a priority. Well, guess I’ll just have to go back and try again. ;)
The worst thing about the wind was that it completely obliterated any body heat I had managed to hold onto. On the hike back, I wasn’t comfortable anymore like I was for the first part of the hike. By the time we got to the car, we didn’t go anywhere for probably 20 minutes while I was waiting to thaw out. I was shivering badly as my body worked to get my core temperature back up. While what I was wearing was fine for the first part, I was a little colder than I would’ve liked for the trek back. (My sister fared better, with the key points being that her pants were double-layered and her coat was longer.)
It was definitely sad to see the peaks fading off into the distance in the afternoon light, but I was egged on by the promise of a warm car. As the afternoon was fading, the temperatures were probably dipping into the teens.
Even though the hike was only about 3.5 miles, it still took us about 2.5 hours since the snow slowed us down a bit. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to be outside much longer without a long break inside in the warmth, so it was about the right distance anyway.
I had never experienced a hike anything like this–definitely my idea of a winter wonderland. Hiking in the winter was definitely a step outside my comfort zone, but one I’m extremely glad I took.
We had just a little bit of daylight left, so we took a scenic drive to the other side of the park. This sounded like a nicer idea anyway, since I was pretty much over being outside in the cold. We landed ourselves at Many Parks Curve, an overlook where we were treated to some sweeping views of the mountains just as the sun was starting to set. As we drove back down to the entrance, the sunset intensified. Sunset pictures never turn out anywhere near their true glory unless you’re pretty good at photography, but I couldn’t help but want to capture the moment anyway.
Lucky for me (and for her), my sister accepted a job in Denver, so this definitely won’t be my last time in the Rockies. Ideally, I’m hoping I can visit again in the summer to see the park all melted and green.