Things to Do

3 Wintertime Blunders in Rocky Mountain National Park

My husband and I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park for a weekend of winter fun. I checked the weather on the internet, reserved some rental snowshoes, and packed water, food, and extra layers in my backpack. I thought I was well prepared. However, the trip was an education.

Lesson #1: Estes Park weather is not Rocky Mountain National Park weather

Since the weather forecast predicted cold weather and high winds for Estes Park on Saturday, we planned to do most of our exploring on Sunday, our second day, when Estes Park weather was supposed to improve and settle down. For this reason, we didn’t even pick up our snowshoes until 11:00 am. We would do a short hike and stay in the trees to cut the wind. I was a little discouraged as we drove around the town. The wind was quite high and there was no snow to be seen. Would we even be able to put the snowshoes on?

I shouldn’t have worried. As we entered Rocky Mountain National Park and gained elevation, we found the snow. Fifty-seven inches lay on the trails. The sun was out and the wind was calm. We decided to make the short hike to Alberta Falls from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. We had done this hike several times during the summer. It was less than a mile and we speculated that the falls might be frozen, making a spectacular view.

Wind-sculpted snow along a trail on the Glacier Gorge Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
Wind-sculpted snow along a trail on the Glacier Gorge TrailGloria Wadzinski

Lesson #2: The winter trails aren’t always the same as the summer trails

We were in good spirits as we started the trail. It was fairly busy for a winter day and the snowshoe tracks made it easy to follow the trail. The walking was easy since the snow base evened out the trail. The wind was mild on our hike but we could see from the sculpted snow that the wind had come before us.

We had gone at least a mile when we both realized that things didn’t look familiar. Could we have passed the falls? No. The falls would have been obvious. Could it have been buried in snow? No. We never went past the sharp curve after the falls as we had done in summer. We must have taken a wrong turn. And where had all the people gone? We seemed to be the only ones left on the trail.

We decided to continue since we could still see tracks of other snowshoers. We went at least another mile and then came to an overlook (pictured below). How fabulous this wrong turn turned out to be. We dusted off a rock and sat down to have lunch with a view.

The overlook at the top of the Glacier Gorge trail at Rocky Mountain National Park.
The overlook at the top of the Glacier Gorge trail at Rocky Mountain National Park. Gloria Wadzinski

A few feet away was a trail marker that said, “2.2 miles to trailhead.” At this point we could have turned around and followed our tracks back, but the trail sign gave us the confidence to go on.

Later we found out that this winter trail followed a different route than the summer trail. The winter trail does not go past Alberta Falls. Looking at the map, we estimated that we were now on the North Longs Peak Trail. The trail sign would turn out to be wrong as well because it referenced the summer trail.

Lesson #3: If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go anywhere that makes it hard to turn around and retrace your steps

With renewed energy, we trekked on. The landscape opened up and we could see beautiful vistas. I happily took picture after picture of the views. (see photo at top of article) Then once again we felt we had gone beyond the estimated distance. Ahead was a sharp drop into a river bed. We could see that others had slid down the embankment and walked over the river. We had to make a decision. Should we continue on or turn around a retrace our steps?

If we turned around, it would be about four miles, but we would be guaranteed no more than that. (So much for a short hike.) We looked at the skies and decided to take a chance. Stupid as it may have been, we got on our seats and slid down to the riverbed. There was no turning back now.

Frozen runoff along the sides of the Boulder Brook in Rocky Mountain National Park
Frozen runoff along the sides of the Boulder Brook. Gloria Wadzinski

After many disappointing twists and turns, we were pretty discouraged. Then we saw a bridge. This meant an actual trail! We climbed up to the bridge, were celebrating our “found” status, and were about to cross when another couple came through and told us we were going in the opposite direction of the parking lot. Huh! One last bit of luck.

We did make it back to the trailhead. We were good and tired but in all it was a beautiful day and an adventure to talk about. Next time we’ll know better. Now I just wished I’d gotten a room with a hot tub.