This post was written by Eric after a quick solo adventure on New Year’s Eve 2020.
Sometimes when I hike, it’s easy to get so focused on the planned destination that I just put my head down and grind through the miles on the approach, paying little attention to the beauty along the way. So on New Year’s Eve a few months back, I set out on a hike with the specific intention not to reach any particular landmark on the Long’s Peak trail. I knew that I didn’t have the experience or gear to attempt a winter summit of the trail’s namesake on my own, nor did I intend to try to cross the steep ridge over to Chasm Lake without much knowledge of the conditions. I just wanted to get some miles in on a snowy trail through the woods, and pop above the tree line for as long as the typically blustery winter conditions would allow.
Below are some pictures from an absolute treat of a hike—the weather was perfect. Though the temperature was in the single digits at the trailhead, there was almost *no* wind, which again, can be quite rare on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months. The trail was generally well-packed, so snowshoes were not required (yak tracks were helpful). It was also wonderful to be nearly alone on one of the busiest 14er trails in all of Colorado; a stark contrast from the parade of headlamps that ascend through the early morning darkness during peak “summit season.” With no objective to achieve, I was able to just soak in the incredible surroundings and be more present for the entire adventure.
I hope to build on this memorable experience and take a “destinationless” approach to hiking more often throughout the year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.