Great Sand Dunes National Park; courtesy of NPS/Patrick Myers

5 National Parks and Monuments To Visit This Winter

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While most travelers think of summer as national park season, several of Colorado’s most popular landscapes are just as good—if not better—during the winter months.

 

They’re not only blissfully uncrowded in winter, but they’re also arguably more beautiful under a fresh blanket of snow. A winter visit to these nationally recognized wonders will mean donning more layers, wearing thicker socks and perhaps packing a pair of microspikes, snowshoes or even cross-country skis. But, as you’ll soon discover, national park season lasts all year and offers fresh potential for adventure in winter.

 

If you’re looking for inspiration for your next winter getaway, consider these five Colorado national parks and monuments.

Rocky Mountain National Park

 

Anyone familiar with the gridlock that often comes with a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer or fall will be pleasantly surprised by the easy access (no timed entry), relatively empty roads and overall dearth of crowds in winter. Nearly all of the park’s hiking trails are still fair game, but will most likely require waterproof boots with either microspikes or snowshoes, as well as ski poles for making your way up and down the steeper sections.

 

A couple of moderate (about two hours roundtrip) winter hikes are Emerald Lake and Bear Lake, both of which are spectacularly beautiful when covered in snow, especially if the surrounding white peaks are magnified by a blue sky. For solo travelers or girls’ trips, a guided snowshoe hike with the newly launched, woman-owned Femme Trek is a great way to learn the lay of the land, while KMAC Guides provide a safe and educational gateway to backcountry skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and ice climbing.

 

Courtesy of Femme Trek

 

It’s important to note that the two main thoroughfares that run through Rocky Mountain National Park—Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road—are closed in the winter, as are the Alpine and Moraine Park visitor centers. Bear Lake Road is open all year, but shuttle services do not operate in winter. In the absence of cars, cross-country and backcountry skiers revel in the miles of peaceful gliding available on Trail Ridge Road and snowshoers looking for flatter terrain will enjoy the serenity of Fall River Road.

 

Hidden Valley, a defunct ski area that no longer has chairlifts, is a favorite sledding spot for anyone willing to hike up the bunny hill. It’s also a backcountry wonderland for skiers and snowboarders earning their turns. In Estes Park, grab lunch or dinner at the historic but recently relocated Dunraven or Bird & Jim, named after famed pioneer traveler Isabella Bird and local “desperado” Rocky Mountain Jim. nps.gov/romo/index.htm

Colorado National Monument

 

Arguably the most unsung national gem of the American West, Colorado National Monument is worth the drive for its striking otherworldly rock formations, but also because it sometimes offers a bit of a respite from winter.

 

Stretching between Grand Junction and Fruita with entrances on both ends, the park sits above the Colorado River’s Grand Valley and is home to more than 60 miles of hiking trails. Most routes meander through towering sandstone monoliths and end with a jaw-dropping view or natural masterpiece of some shape or other. The most aptly named formations and accompanying trails include Coke Ovens, Pipe Organ, Kissing Couple and Devils Kitchen.

 

Colorado National Monument; Courtesy of NPS/Victoria Stauffenberg

 

While it’s not guaranteed that the trails won’t be covered in ice or a couple of inches of snow in winter, snowshoes are not required, but microspikes are not a bad idea as even a thin layer of snow or ice can make for slippery footing. (Daytime temperatures in this part of the state can dip into the 30s in December and January but can easily hit 60, too.)

 

With sweeping panoramas from several viewpoints of the rock formations and canyons below, as well as the Book Cliffs and Grand Mesa in the distance, experiencing the monument on two wheels is a true thrill. Rim Rock Drive, the two-way paved road that winds through Colorado National Monument, is light on vehicular traffic in winter, opening a fantastic opportunity for road cyclists. The road measures 23 miles one way with just over 2,000 feet of climbing, thrilling hairpin turns and a short tunnel where lights are required and cyclists should beware of black ice.

 

Cap your adventure with a slice at Hot Tomato Pizza in Fruita or a beer at Ramblebine in Grand Junction. nps.gov/colm/index.htm

Great Sand Dunes National Park

 

Resembling more of a white Arctic tundra with pristine rounded slopes than a hilly desert, Great Sand Dunes National Park is possibly more of a marvel in winter than any other time of year. Although situated down south, about a 4-hour drive from Boulder, the dunes are cold and snowy in December and January especially. Open year-round (the visitor center is only closed on holidays), the park is known for housing the highest sand dunes in North America. The tallest, Star Dune, measures 750 feet.

 

In contrast, the lower areas of the park feature aspen glades and pine trees. Here, the Mosca Pass Trail and Montville Nature Trail make for great snowshoe options, while accessing the dunes is easiest from Dunes Parking Lot, about a half-mile from the visitor center. From here, snowshoes are likely needed to trek up the dunes and many visitors will bring sleds or even skis and snowboards for a more adventurous downhill journey.

 

Entire herds of elk can be spotted trotting down the snowy dunes. And, in February and March, keep an eye out for the migrating red-headed sandhill cranes. It can get quite windy during these months, so dress warmly. Also be aware that Medano Pass Road is only partially open (best for four-wheel drive vehicles) from December through April. nps.gov/grsa/index.htm

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

 

One of the country’s least-visited national parks, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is alluring in every season. But winter is an especially stunning time to experience it, when its charcoal-colored walls and craggy spires are flecked with white snow and ice.

 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison; courtesy of NPS

 

Sculpted over two million years by the Gunnison River, the canyon is a vertical wonder. Snowshoes or burly microspikes are most certainly necessary for hiking. Oak Flat Loop is an ideal trail for taking in the full panorama and glimpsing the river—likely caked in ice—below. Nordic skiers are in for a treat, as rangers actually groom South Rim Drive, which is closed to vehicular traffic in winter, along with East Portal Road and North Rim Road.

 

About a five-hour drive from Boulder, stop in Paonia for a breakfast burrito before or a pizza after at the family-owned Berg Harvest Farm and Mercantile. nps.gov/blca/index.htm

Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument

 

Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument is Colorado’s newest national monument, having received the prestigious designation in October 2022. No time of year provides a more truthful glimpse of Camp Hale’s essence—and its history—than winter. After all, the area was used for preparing the skiing soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in the winter of 1944 for battle in the European Alps.

 

Camp Hale; courtesy of Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division

 

Camp Hale-Continental Divide covers 53,000 acres of land, including the remains of the camp. Situated in a broad, flat basin about three miles long and one mile wide, the former training grounds are surrounded by majestic high peaks. Although the many buildings and structures that housed the soldiers are now gone, remains of the barracks and foundations remain. Channeling the spirit of the place, cross-country skis are the best means for exploring this area in winter, although snowshoes are an option, too.

 

After parking near the main entrance (off Highway 24, about 17 miles beyond Minturn), there is a self-guided loop with 10 educational stops around Camp Hale. Snowmobiling is also popular, with Nova Guides offering several tours of the area.  fs.usda.gov/visit/camp-hale-continental-divide-national-monument

 

 

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