9 Wintry Hikes in Estes Park, Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park

I am not a fan of the cold, so it’s surprising how much I enjoy hiking in the snow. From snowshoeing to a mountain lake with my husband to kick off a New Year, to pulling on yaktraxs for extra traction on a hike to a frozen waterfall with our kids, some of the most memorable hikes we’ve done in Rocky Mountain National Park have been in the snow.

I’ve listed nine of our favorite wintry hikes in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park along with links to articles that provide additional information. I also recommend checking out the National Park Service’s website for weather conditions, safety tips, and activities you can enjoy during colder months in the park.

Moraine Park

At 8,080 ft of elevation there is substantially less snow in Moraine Park compared to areas of the park with higher altitude. The first stretch of the hike is in a valley where there is little protection from blasts of freezing wind, but the scenery is worth bundling up and getting out of your cozy cabin for.

Read more: A Winter Walk in Moraine Park That’s Worth Freezing For

Frozen river in Moraine Park
The Big Thompson River frozen in the Moraine Valley

Lily Lake And Lily Ridge

Lily Lake is located 6 miles south of Estes Park on Highway 7, right across the street from Twin Sisters trail head. The elevation is 8,930 ft. The loop trail around the lake is flat with benches available for rest. The Lily Ridge trail takes you up 100 ft in elevation and adds .4 miles to hike. The slight elevation gain is rewarded with wide open views of Twin Sisters, Estes Cone, and Longs Peak

Read more: Walking in a Windy Winter Wonderland

Lily Ridge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Views of Longs Peak from Lily Ridge

Did you know that spring can be the snowiest season in Rocky Mountain National Park?

Read more: Lily Lake Loop on a Snowy Spring Morning

Winter hike around Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Snow covered hike around Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows

The Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows is located across the street from the historic Stanley Hotel. The open space is home to two historic structures. This is a great spot for a quick evening stroll to watch the sunset over downtown Estes Park.

Read more: Top Spot for a Sunset Stroll Overlooking Estes Park, Colorado

Views of downtown Estes Park from Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows
Views of Downtown Estes Park from Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows

Sprague Lake

This half mile loop is one of our favorite toddler-friendly spots. The path around the lake has magnificent views of the Continental Divide.

Read more: Our Magical Snow Vacation in Estes Park, Colorado

sprague lake half frozen
Icy Sprague Lake

Bierstadt Lake

Start out at the Bierstadt Lake trail head in Rocky Mountain National Park and climb uphill 1.3 miles to the frozen lake.  The vast mountain views are gorgeous the whole way.

Read more: Snowshoe in Rocky Mountain National Park

Snowshoe hike up to Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Snowshoe up to Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Alberta Falls

The hike to Alberta Falls begins at the Glacier Gorge trail head which sits at 9,180 ft. in elevation. At this altitude, there can be a lot of snow and ice on the trail. The hike gains 220 ft of elevation and is a little under 1 mile each way.

Read more: Winter Hike to Alberta Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

Alberta Falls in the snow, RMNP. Rocky Mountain National Park
Alberta Falls in the snow

Bear Lake

The seasons in the mountains don’t go along with our calendar. One of the most enjoyable hikes we took last year was around Bear Lake on June 1st. The loop around Bear Lake is a half mile. Bear Lake sits at 9,475 ft of elevation which can take your breathe away if you aren’t acclimated. There are benches placed around the path to enjoy a moment of rest and take in the scenery.

Read more: Bear Lake in the Snow

Bear Lake half frozen. RMNP. Rocky Mountain National Park
Views of Hallett Peak from Bear Lake

Mills Lake

Mills Lake is serene and breathtaking. The hike begins at Bear Lake trail head. Continue on the trail past Alberta Falls.  This hike is 5.6 miles round trip.

Read more: Itinerary for Estes Park and Eldora Winter Adventure Weekend

Winter hike up to Mills Lake in RMNP. Rocky Mountain National Park
Winter hike up to Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Deer Mountain

The hike up Deer Mountain is 6.2 miles round-trip. The trail gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation. Along with having great views and being one of the more moderate summit hikes in the park, Deer Mountain is also one of the best year-round options due to it’s proximity to the park entrance (less icy roads to contend with) and the fact that the snow tends to blow off/melt out earlier here than in some of the other popular trail head areas, such as Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge.

Read more: A Winter Hike up Deer Mountain

Views from Deer Mountain in RMNP. Rocky Mountain National Park.
Views from Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park

Bear Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

I’m working on a list of our favorite winter hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Looking back through the pictures, I realized that the seasons in the mountains don’t go along with our calendar. One of the most enjoyable hikes we took last year was around Bear Lake on June 1st.

Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado

The loop around Bear Lake is one of our favorite hikes under 2 miles. Our preschoolers can usually walk the half mile on their own.

Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado
This popular spot offers views of Hallett Peak.

We had to hold on to little hands because of the slippery ice and snow on this trip.

Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado

The air temperature was chilly, but not freezing. The girls happily played in the snow. We were able to capture some of the happy moments.

Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado

We found a bench that was clear of snow to rest on and take silly photos.

Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado
Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado

The icy lake was melting in the sunshine. But, there were still sections along the trail where the snow had piled up high enough that it was challenging to see if we were walking on the trail or not. We had to be careful not to step into the freezing lake on accident.

Bear Lake in the Snow. Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado

Bear Lake sits at 9,475 ft of elevation. We took a hike the same weekend in Beaver Meadows where the snow had already melted out. It’s amazing how vastly different the conditions can be at higher altitudes.

The conditions also vary significantly year-to-year. At the end of May in 2018, we took a hike from the Bear Lake trailhead and made it further up the mountain to Dream Lake before we encountered a little patch of snow.

If you love the snow, stay tuned for our upcoming post about our favorite snowy hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A Winter Hike up Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park

The hike up Deer Mountain is 6.2 miles round-trip and gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation.

Deer Mountain is a special place for our family—it’s the first hike in Rocky Mountain National Park that we brought our daughter Cecy along with us on back in May of 2015 when she was just six months old.  It’s since been known in our family as “Cecy’s Mountain,” reinforced by the fact that you can catch great views of it from one of our favorite places for breakfast/hot chocolate, the Trailhead Restaurant.

Deer Mountain trailhead
Deer Mountain trailhead with our daughter Cecy in 2015

Along with having great views and being one of the more moderate summit hikes in the park, Deer Mountain is also one of the best year-round options due to it’s proximity to the park entrance (less icy roads to contend with) and the fact that the snow tends to blow off/melt out earlier here than in some of the other popular trailhead areas, such as Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge. It’s roughly 6.2 miles round-trip and gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation.

On our most recent trip to Estes Park in late December of 2019, both of our girls came down with a bit of a cold, so we were hesitant to spend quite as much time outside in the chilly air as we typically would with them. We instead focused on taking in the scenery, looking for wildlife, and undertaking an adventure in finding the best chili in Estes Park. But it’s just about impossible for me to be in the mountains and not get out for at least one hike, so after a few days, Kelly was gracious enough to let me slip away for a few hours to try to tackle a familiar hike, but with a new twist—Deer Mountain in Winter/Snow conditions.

Deer Mountain trailhead in snow

The park had a small base amount snow on the ground when we had arrived earlier in the week and had just received and extra 4-8 inches of snow two days before my attempt, so I didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes the popularity of Rocky Mountain National Park can be overwhelming, but in this instance, I was thankful that more die-hard hikers had already been out the day prior to help pack down the trail.  I arrived at the trailhead around 9:00am to beautiful sunshine and remarkably calm winds, which made the 14 degree temperature seem tolerable.

It’s been my experience in prior years that for many hikes, traction devices such as yak tracks and a set of trekking poles are more efficient than dealing with snow shoes (unless you are going higher in elevation or deeper in the wooded areas to low-traffic trails), and I was glad to find that the conditions again matched the gear I had brought with me for my hike. I downloaded the GPS map of the area with the AllTrails app as a back-up to make sure I kept on the right path. This came in handy even in the first quarter mile of trail, as the trailhead area had seen a fair amount of aimless footprint tracks from people just pulling off for a quick walk to explore the area, making it a little tricky to discern the main path.

Hiking in the snow in Rocky Mountain National Park

That quickly changed, however, as even though I was the first person at the trailhead that morning, an easy to follow, packed trail emerged for the remainder of my adventure.

Trail up to Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park in the snow.

One of the memories that always sticks in my mind about Deer Mountain is the long stretch of flat ground, and even a small descent, in the final mile of the hike before the summit push. The snow was quite a bit deeper in this area, and if I accidentally wandered off the trail just a bit, it was easy to post-hole into the soft powder that was just off the main path. Here I spotted tracks from several animals that had also been out playing in the snow.

The final stretch to the summit was substantially steeper, and the trekking poles became a bit more of a necessity for balance in the snow, but it felt quite safe and made for a fun push to the top. 

Hike to summit in Rocky Mountain National Park in snow.

The summit views were beautiful as always. I try to bring an apple or some sort of snack to eat at the destination of any hike, so I slow down for a minute and just soak it all in rather than simply turning around to complete the return journey. Even though the temperature was well below freezing, the hike up the mountain left me quite warm…but that heat quickly dissipated as I had my snack and wandered around to take some pictures from the top.

Views from summit of Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter.

So without too much time wasted, I bundled back up and started down the trail again. Though I had been alone for the entire hike up and perhaps the first mile and half on the way back down, I did encounter several pairs of hikers on my return journey.  Most asked about the trail conditions and were as delighted as I was to learn that the path was well-packed and easy to track all the way to the summit.

Winter views from Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I got back to my car at around 11:30 am, satisfied with having completed my first “winter summit” and ready to pick up some chili on the way home. We recommend Deer Mountain as an early summer hike, or really an “anytime” hike in the peak season, but now can feel confident suggesting to friends who want to take on a “safer” winter challenge as well.   

Getting Chili in Estes Park – Where You Can Find the Best Chili in Town

On our most recent trip to Estes Park, the low temperatures meant more time by the fireplace and enough spare time to venture out on a unique quest. We were on a mission to find the best chili in town. Eating chili for lunch every day of vacation isn’t something I would normally do (nor do I recommend it, honestly). But, our passion for chili goes way back.

Winter in Rocky Mountain National park

Lord of the beans

My husband and his friends used to compete at the Midwest Regional Chili Championship in Lenexa, Kansas. On their best year (back in 2011) they earned a fourth place ribbon for home style chili out of 198 teams. The unfortunate outcome of cooking for a competition is that we find it challenging to cook chili unless it’s made in mass production, so typically we cook it only once or twice per year.

Chili cookoff, chili competition

estes park winter festival

Perhaps we will one day compete again. The city of Estes Park hosts an annual Winter Festival which will take place January 18-19, 2020 from 12 pm to 4 pm at the Estes Park Events Complex. The festival includes a chili cook off, free beer samples from local breweries, and live music. Individuals and organizations can register to compete. The competition is sponsored by Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI).

trailhead restaurant

Unfortunately, we can’t make the Winter Festival this year, so testing chili at local restaurants was the next best thing. The first restaurant we tried was Trailhead Restaurant which is near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. The main reason we chose this spot is because our girls love their hot chocolate. The chili was pretty good, but for us, the best things about this restaurant continue to be the views, playground, hot chocolate, and cinnamon rolls.

The wapiti pub

wapiti pub estes park colorado

This was our first time going to Wapiti Pub. We are glad that our chili quest brought us here. This pub serves the ‘Colorado 100’ which means they have a huge selection of Colorado beers. They also had the Kansas City Chiefs football game on, which was a huge bonus to us. (Although I’m sure if the Broncos were on, they might have to switch the channel). According to their menu, the Wapiti Red Chili includes a mix of elk, bison, and beef. It also has beans and roasted corn. The chili is great and the overall experience was fun. We are adding this spot to our list of favorite restaurants.

Smokin’ dave’s bbq

My husband went on a winter hike up Deer Mountain. On his way home he grabbed to-go lunch from Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ where they offer two types of chili on their menu. Smokin’ Dave’s Red Chili has beef and several types of beans and spices. They add stout beer which I could definitely taste. They also serve Pork Green Chili. I enjoyed tasting both, but if I had to order one bowl, I’d go with the green chili which had great flavor.

waterfront grille

waterfront grille estes park colorado

Waterfront Grille has competed in and won awards at the Estes Park Chili Cook-off, so we were expecting great chili when we ordered. I’m happy to report the Award-Winning Bison Chili lived up to it’s reputation. It was hearty, with just the right amount of spice.