Along with Great Smoky Mountain and the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States, with more than four million visitors every year. This means that during the peak season of May to October, a timed entry reservation is required to visit this park. Even with this system in place, there are still lines of vehicles waiting to enter the park every morning, and limited parking spaces within the park. A way to circumvent these issues is to visit the park at the end of October. While visiting the park at this time provides some advantages, it also comes with a significant downside; the likely closure of Trail Ridge Road, which typically closes after the first significant snowfall, which is usually around the middle of October.
The closure of Trail Ridge Road puts a serious damper in any visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. It prevents visitors coming from Denver and Estes Park from traveling through the park to Grand Lake on the western side. It also limits them from exploring the alpine tundra above the treeline, and from visiting Alpine Visitors Center. Additionally, Trail Ridge Road is an attraction in itself. Not only is it the highest paved road in North America, but it is often included on lists of the most scenic drives in America alongside the Overseas Highway in Florida, some sections of Route 66, and the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana.
Even with the closures that come at this time of year, Rocky Mountain National Park is still worth visiting. Not only are there less crowds, but there are still several sites worth seeing, and most importantly, the possibility of snow transforms the park into a winter wonderland seemingly overnight. This is something that I experienced firsthand, since I visited the Rocky Mountain National Park after a night of constant snowfall across most of Colorado.
The approach to the park is remarkably picturesque as the route passes through the Roosevelt National Forest, one and a half million acres of protected woodland that extends towards Wyoming. It’s also possible to drive along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway and enjoy views of the front range of the Rocky Mountains along the way. Either route leads to the two entrances to the park, each with a Visitor’s Center where park rangers can advise on the current condition of roads and trails since both might be icy and partially covered in snow.
From any entrance, it’s an easy drive along Trail Ridge Road, but just part of the way. The road is closed beyond Many Peaks Curve, a hairpin bend that offers views of Moraine Park, Upper Beaver Meadows and many distant mountain peaks. At 9,691 feet, Many Parks Curve is still a couple thousand feet lower than the highest point of Trail Ridge Road, but the views are still gorgeous.
On the way down, it’s easy to make a detour to Bear Lake Road, along this road there are trailheads for several popular winter hikes, making this area the highlight of many visits to Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter. At Moraine Park, there are trails leading to several scenic lakes including Club Lake and Fern Lake. Further along the road are the trails to Bierstadt Lake and Sprague Lake. These hikes all vary in difficulty, but are still relatively easy.
The road ends at Bear Lake, but at this point is the beginning of several hiking trails. It’s a short hike to Nymph Lake, and the same trail continues to Dream Lake, and Lake Haiyaha. There are many attractions beyond this, but conditions are icy and hiking any further requires the right gear and some experience with hiking in the snow. The path around Bear Lake is also scenic, offering views of Longs Peak, Hallett Peak, and several other mountains.
Ultimately, while visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in winter leads to some limitations, it is still possible to have a packed day filled with scenic views, and easy but energetic hikes.