A silence so profound that it’s deafening: if you’ve ever explored the Rockies on a winter day, you’ll know the feeling. Whether you’re wearing skis, snowshoes or just plain old snow boots, there’s something particularly inspiring about fresh snowfall, transforming forest trails and jagged peaks into a picturesque tableau. Throw in a setting as majestic as Estes Park, and you have an experience you won’t soon forget.

Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.

The best part about visiting Estes in winter? Unlike Colorado’s crowded ski resorts, you’ll have Rocky Mountain National Park’s wilderness practically to yourself – during the winter, visitation drops by nearly 90% when compared with the bumper-to-bumper traffic in summer. And from your basecamp in town, you’ll be able to get all the gear you need for a backcountry adventure, before retiring in luxury at the end of the day with a crackling fire and a mug of hot chocolate or glass of wine.

A group of people go snowshoeing on a trail in snow-covered Estes Park in Colorado
Snowshoeing is the best way to get around in Estes Park in the winter © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

Adventure beckons in Estes Park

One of the easiest ways to get out into the snowy landscape is to strap on a pair of snowshoes. Snowshoes can get you across most trails in the national park, and the learning curve is practically nil – if you can walk, you can snowshoe. Equipment is minimal as well: in addition to the snowshoes, you’ll only need waterproof boots, snow pants or gaiters, and poles.

With some 350 miles of trails outside of Estes Park, choosing where to go may seem overwhelming, so keep it simple and head to Bear Lake, where the trail network can be as short or long as you like, and the front-row views of the Continental Divide are breathtaking.

Alternatively, look out for tours: national park rangers often lead snowshoe walks on winter weekends, and Yellow Wood Guiding leads private snowshoe safaris for small groups. Yup, wildlife is plenty active in winter – you’ll spot elk, deer, wild turkey, and maybe even coyotes and big horn sheep.

Features - 20180928_Colorado_Estes-Park_Hero-Shots2016-Snowshoe_003-53cb93ffa05d
Snowshoeing in the Rocky Mountains © Allen Kennedy Photography / Image courtesy of Visit Estes Park

Another popular winter activity is cross-country skiing. Its distinctive “kick-glide” motion is harder to master, but once you’ve got it down, you can move faster than on snowshoes. And as anyone who’s tried it knows, it’s quite a workout! Generally, there are fewer trails on the east side of the park that are navigable on cross-country skis, but there are some primo options, including the Bierstadt Lake Trail and the Sprague Lake–Glacier Basin Campground Loop.

Families with young kids will definitely want to head to the YMCA of the Rockies to try out sledding: zip down the bunny slope at Hidden Valley, a former ski resort located within the park. Despite the wilderness setting, it’s still family friendly: you can drive there in your car, and at the base of the run is a bathroom and warming hut. Rent sleds or tubes in town.

Over my head: Going to the backcountry for a first skiing experience

Backcountry skiers and snowboarders, meanwhile, also flock to this area to hike up to the pristine powder and solitude, but it’s not for the inexperienced – avalanches are an ever-present danger in Colorado, and you shouldn’t take the risk if you don’t have proper training and equipment.

A pair of people climb up a large icy structure in Estes Park, Colorado.
Climbing the park's dozens of dramatic ice curtains gets the blood pumping © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

And if adventure is your calling, there is even more fun to be had. Learn how to use ice axes and crampons when you sign up for an ice climbing class or a guided trip through the Colorado Mountain School. Climbing the park’s dozens of dramatic ice curtains and pillars will be sure to keep your blood pumping even on the coldest of days.

Whatever way you choose to explore Rocky Mountain’s incredible winter landscape, be sure to check out the current trail and road conditions on the park’s website before you head out.

Estes Park gear rental

There are a few shops in Estes Park where you can get gear, but our pick for a one-stop rental agency is the Estes Park Mountain Shop. They carry all the equipment you could need, plus clothing -  a bonus if you or your loved ones don’t have a suitable coat, snow pants, boots or goggles. Make sure you check up on conditions before you rent gear. Dpending on the last snowfall and where you’re headed, you may only need a setup as simple as boots and microspikes.

Features - Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, CO
Stanley Hotel in Estes Park during the winter © Miws16 / Getty

Where to cozy up in Estes Park

Once you’ve had your fun and are ready to thaw out by the fire and refuel, it’s time to return to basecamp in Estes Park. The following are a few of our favorite places to eat, drink and sleep.

Stanley Hotel: The iconic white walls of this sprawling complex are set amid the magnificent granite-domed backdrop of the Rockies. It may be haunted, and it’s definitely where Stephen King imagined The Shining, but don’t let that scare you away. In addition to the historic rooms first opened in 1909, there are also apartment-style residences and boutique options at the Lodge.

Rock Inn Mt Tavern: A 1937 landmark that serves porterhouse steaks, bison meatballs, local beers and sustainable wines, followed by a side of live bluegrass on stage. Two woodburning stoves keep Jack Frost at bay.

Seasoned Bistro: Opened in 2017, this newcomer is tops for fine dining in Estes Park. Chef Rob Corey focuses on an eclectic, seasonally driven menu that borrows from culinary influences from across the Americas – from Patagonia to the Caribbean to local pan-fried striped bass. It has a great wine list, too.

Smokin’ Dave’s: Just want to kick back and dig into some buffalo ribs and chile verde over a draft beer? Look no further. Smokin’ Daves is a northern Colorado institution for a reason.

One of many cabins at the YMCA of The Rockies near Estes Park. In the background you can see the iconic Rocky Mountains.
YMCA of the Rockies isn't your ordinary Y © Andy Cross / Denver Post via Getty Images

YMCA of the Rockies: If you’re on a family getaway, it’s hard to beat the 860 acres of backcountry terrain at the Y. Rent a cabin with a fireplace and kitchen, then sign up for as many activities as you can handle. Take advantage of the great outdoors with guided snowshoeing, or stay warm indoors with the climbing wall, archery range, roller rink, swimming pool, and arts and crafts. It’s 4.5 miles southwest of Estes Park.

Claire’s on the Park: With an emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients, Claire’s is a good bet to fuel up both at breakfast and dinner. In addition to all the usual suspects, look out for wild-game meatloaf and grilled Colorado lamb chops.

Romantic River Song Inn: For a more intimate choice, consider a night at this 10-room B&B. The secluded location along the Big Thompson River belongs to a 26-acre estate that dates back to the 1920s. Expect rustic luxury and wildlife-watching opportunities right from the front door. It’s 2.5 miles west of town, near the national park entrance.

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This article was originally published in September 2019 and updated in November 2020. 

Lonely Planet produced this article for Visit Estes Park. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

This article was first published September 2019 and updated November 2020

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