Planning a Visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

One of the world’s longest mountain ranges, the Rocky Mountains stretch from Alaska to the southern border of the US. Rocky Mountain National Park, located in Colorado, preserves part of the mountains’ ecosystem, and is a popular destination for adventurers. Everyday recreational activities that people enjoy in the park include hiking, camping, and viewing wildlife. In the winter, other recreation activities include cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing.

The Rocky Mountains’ elevations range from 7,800 feet to over 14,000 feet above sea level, which considerably influences winter conditions. For example, at locations above 8,000 feet, winter can begin in late September or early October and go through late May or early June. Therefore, those visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter should expect some challenges and plan for them.

For instance, it is essential to prepare for driving in the park during winter. The park roads tend to become icy and packed with snow, so the recommendation is to slow down and keep a safe distance from other vehicles. Before leaving home, visitors can check if any of the roads are closed due to adverse conditions. Also, during the winter season, the Colorado Vehicle Traction law may become active for the safety of motorists. The law requires that all vehicles have a minimum of 3/16″ tread and be mud and snow, mountain and snow, or all-weather tires.

During winter, most park trails are also icy or snow-covered. Rocky Mountain National Park recommends bringing traction devices and hiking poles, as well as snowshoes, depending on the destination and whether recent snowfall has occurred. Although some lakes may appear frozen, ice may not be firm enough to walk on. There could be open water along edges, inlets, and outlets. When walking on park trails, one should also plan for windy weather with drifting or blowing snow.

Moreover, avalanches are expected in the park during the winter. For this reason, it is essential to visit the avalanche awareness web page at the National Park Service website and check the snow conditions and forecasts in the mountains before leaving the house. Some tips for avalanche safety include avoiding snowshoeing or skiing on unforested slopes, gullies, and under snow cornices where there is risk of an avalanche. Attending an avalanche training session before the trip to understand and identify the changing weather that can influence avalanche conditions and wearing an electronic transceiver when crossing avalanche terrain are also recommended.

Last, planning for recreational activities is fundamental for enjoying a winter visit to the park. Visitors can explore most park trails with snowshoes and a few other pieces of gear, such as waterproof boots, hiking poles, and waterproof pants or gaiters. From January to March, the park offers free ranger-led snowshoe hikes on both its west and east sides. Cross-country skiing is also popular in the Rocky Mountains, and one only needs skis and poles with large baskets to explore deeper snows and the terrain on the west side of the park. However, when it comes to sledding, the activity is only allowed at Hidden Valley, which is on the east side of the park, seven miles from the Beaver Meadows Entrance and the Fall River Entrance.

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