Trade in your summer hiking boots for snowshoes, cross-country skis or snowmobiles and experience Colorado’s state and national parks in the winter.
1. Gem Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park
You can hardly go wrong when choosing a winter activity within the massive confines of Rocky Mountain National Park, but snowshoeing is popular here for a few reasons: It’s easy for anyone to get the hang of, rentals are a breeze in gateway towns of Estes Park or Grand Lake, and it allows you to tread lightly through Mother Nature without overly demanding athletic distractions. The Gem Lake trail (1.6 miles) is a favorite among locals and boasts 1.8 billion-year-old granite high-rise walls and views of the Continental Divide.
Insider Tip: RMNP offers some the best ranger-led snowshoe programs in the state. Two-hour excursions begin at both the west (Grand Lake) and east (Estes Park) entrances January through March.
2. Family Weekend Getaway at Mueller State Park & Cheyenne Mountain State Park
Can’t pinpoint a winter activity that pleases every outspoken family member? Mueller State Park, 40 minutes outside of Colorado Springs, has you covered with sledding, plenty of snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails and cozy winter cabins with modern amenities for those who prefer to celebrate winter by snuggling up next to a fire with a good book. And Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just 15 minutes south of town, offers an archery range, junior ranger program and geocaching to fill a winter's day.
Insider Tip: The affordable cabins at Mueller are exceptional when it comes to amenities, space, scenery and overall comfort. Give yourself plenty of leeway for reservations (available online or via phone at 800-678-2267).
3. Moose Mayhem at State Forest State Park
The winter landscape grants some of the best opportunities to watch mammals in their natural habitat. State Forest State Park, just east of Walden, is home to more than 600 moose that roam the park’s enormous 71,000 acres. But first things first: Stop by the Moose Visitor Center to get the inside scoop on where to watch these magnificent creatures.
Insider Tip: Snowmobiling through the park is a favorite for adrenaline junkies and free spirits. You’ll gain more ground (70 miles of trail in addition to access to Routt National Forest) and take advantage of picturesque terrain that’s buttressed by the Medicine Bow and Never Summer mountain ranges.
4. A Frozen Fortress Outside Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
When many people think of Great Sand Dunes they think of a desert-like landscape. After all, the park boasts a whopping 30 square miles of sand dunes reaching heights up to 750 feet. The vastness feels even more visceral in winter with cooler temps, fewer visitors and the treasurable quietness that a fresh blanket of snow affords.
But a real treat is when the famous Zapata Falls, just 11 miles outside of the park, freezes into a 25-foot icy monument worthy of the White Witch’s castle in Narnia.
Insider Tip: Bring shoes that are suitable for hiking on ice. Nearby outdoor retailers sell affordable crampons that slip right over your hiking or snow boots for optimal stability.
5. Cross-Country Ski at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Another bonus to winter in Colorado’s national parks is that cars are prohibited from mucking up trails primed for cross-country pioneers. This is certainly the case for one of the state’s most popular trails, South Rim Drive (7 miles), which swishes Nordic skiers and snowshoers to staggering views of Gunnison’s snow-dusted “black” rock walls. Rent skis in Gunnison or Montrose and park at the South Rim Visitor Center.
Insider Tip: A few times a year the ranger program offers guided full-moon trips. If you think the canyon looks impressive during the day, just imagine those sheer rock faces under a moonlight beam. If the date’s not right, check out the ranger program’s stargazing and snowshoe tours.
6. Ice Fishing at Eleven Mile State Park
Coloradans don’t give up their favorite pursuits in the winter — they just have to switch them up a bit! How often do you get to spend quality time with your closest friends in a homely hut swapping stories and sippin’ beer? Amid all those good times, don’t forget about reeling in fleshy kokanee, trout and pike. Out-of-towners or newbies can visit 11 Mile Marina for equipment rentals or guided trips.
Insider Tip: Eleven Mile State Park is roughly one hour away from two of Colorado’s most popular destinations: Breckenridge and Colorado Springs. Make a weekend of your ice-fishing excursion and poke around these hot spots or meander your way into Park County’s lesser-known, but equally enjoyable, towns like Lake George or Alma to experience mountain-town hospitality at its finest.
7. Spruce Tree House Tour at Mesa Verde National Park
Your mental postcard image of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings probably doesn’t include snow, which is why visiting here during winter is unique and memorable. Ranger-guided tours to Spruce Tree House are offered three times a day throughout the season in addition to other do-it-yourself tours. Depending on the weather, you may want to grab a loaner pair of snowshoes from the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum or the visitor center. *Note: Spruce Tree House is currently closed for an indefinite period due to rock-fall concerns, but visitors can still view the dwelling from an overlook. Visit the National Park Service website for more information and updates >>
Insider Tip: Although Spruce Tree is the only dwelling open during winter, it’s undoubtedly the best to visit during any season. The overhang above the dwelling has kept it well preserved and it features 130 rooms and eight underground kivas.
8. A Different Take on Winter at Sylvan Lake State Park
Sylvan Lake State Park is arguably one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets for winter. Although Sylvan is located in the Vail Valley, a world-famous locale for skiers and snowboarders, it chooses to take a different spin on winter sans chairlifts and superpipes. Instead, visitors hit a jackpot of snow conditions, isolation and pure wilderness that yields an array of activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing (rentals available at the visitor center), snowmobiling, ice fishing, sledding, wildlife watching and winter camping.
Insider Tip: Sylvan also grants access to White River National Forest’s vast landscape and trail system accessible via snowshoes, cross-country skies or snowmobiles.