We’re huge fans of offseason travel and Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect example of an ideal offseason destination. One of the main reasons to go somewhere outside of its peak season obviously is to avoid the crowds. At RMNP, visitation peaks in July with nearly 1 million visitors, while monthly visitation fluctuates between 100,000 and 150,000 from December – April. That is a massive delta between peak and trough and the difference is tangible. Driving through the park or or looking for parking at the most popular trailheads is much less of a headache when you’re not competing with thousands of fellow tourists who have all read the same travel guides.
While it’s understandable why RMNP would be so popular in the summer months, it’s not as if the park is a barren wasteland in the winter. Despite being at an elevation of 7,500 feet, Estes Park is really not that cold in the winter. January is the coldest month on average with an average high of 39°F and in March the average high is 46°F. You’re certainly not going to pack your bathing suit for a trip to RMNP in February, but that’s warmer than cities like Boston or Chicago and significantly more beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful…
While it involves more gear, preparation and expertise, winter hiking can be just as enjoyable as summer hiking. We might even argue that it’s more enjoyable and the views in the park from some of the most popular hiking trails are spectacular when covered in snow. You can rent snowshoes, microspikes, or cross country skis in Estes Park and as long as you make sure the trail conditions aren’t too hazardous, you’ll be in for a treat. Two of the best winter day hikes in the park are Deer Mountain and Dream Lake. Both of these are extremely popular year-round hikes because of their relative ease and rewarding views, but in the winter they take on a whole new identity. Not to mention there are far fewer hikers bumping shoulders trying to snap the perfect panorama from the shore of Dream Lake.
Estes Park, the de facto gateway to the park, is also far less busy but every bit as charming in the winter. Cabins will be much less expensive and there won’t be wait times at any of the restaurants in town. Chances are you’ll see an elk or two (or fifty) walking in or around town.
While winter is an amazing time to visit RMNP, there are some disadvantages. For one, the always-popular Trail Ridge Road, as well as several other smaller roads are closed for the season. If you’re staying in Estes Park, this means you’ll be confined to the eastern side of the park. Make sure you check the road status on the National Park website before your visit so you’re not surprised by any road closures. It’s also less likely that you’ll see Bighorn Sheep grazing in the valleys, but like we mentioned, elk are still plentiful.
If you love visiting the National Parks but can’t stand the crowds, a winter escape to RMNP is the perfect option.