Beyond Skiing: Winter Activities in Colorado’s State & National Parks

Wintertime in Colorado is not only synonymous with downhill skiing. In fact, locals and seasoned travelers understand that the winter solstice renders the ideal conditions for exploring public parks.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
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Trade in your summer hiking boots for snowshoes and traverse peaceful, snow-laden paths to frozen alpine lakes, cross-country ski along pristine canyon trails or snowmobile through a powdery glade.Whether you’re not keen on downhill skiing or are simply looking for a few days to mix in some off-slope fun, Colorado’s state and national parks are a winter wonderland waiting to be explored.

1. Snowshoeing 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 (3.1 miles) is a favorite among locals, boasting 1.8 billion-year-old granite high-rise walls and views of the Continental Divide.

Insider Tip: RMNP offers some of the best ranger-led snowshoe programs in the state. 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 outside of Colorado Springs has you covered with sledding, plenty of snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails and cozy winter cabins. And Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just 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 and be sure to follow the Care for Colorado Leave No Trace principle Keep Wildlife Wild.

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 Medicine Bow-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 outside of the park, freezes into a 25-foot icy monument. Follow this 1-mile, moderately rated, out-and-back trail while taking in views of the San Luis Valley, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and the Sangre de Cristo Range. You’ll eventually enter a cave, walking on a frozen creek until reaching a crystalline-blue frozen waterfall inside.

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 Skiing at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado’s national parks are full of scenic roads perfect for taking a scenic drive, and come winter, some are closed off and primed as pristine cross-country ski trails with striking backgrounds. This is certainly the case for South Rim Drive in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The 7-mile trail swishes Nordic skiers and snow­shoers to staggering views of the park’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.

Learn more about Colorado Nordic Centers.

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 homey 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, guided trips and year-round fishing competitions.

Insider Tip: Eleven Mile State Park is situated between the exciting cities of 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.

Read more about places to ice fish in Colorado.

7. 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.

8. Yurt Camping at Ridgway State Park

Ridgway State Park's three yurts are found on the park's Dakota Terraces, where mountain views are indescribable and the potential for coziness abounds. The round, tent-like structures can be rented for two nights at a time and are warmed by a propane heater/gas log stove. Perfect for those not looking to get too hale and hardy for winter camping, a year-round restroom with flush toilets and sinks is also close by, and bunks, futons, a couch, table and chairs, microwave and refrigerator, electrical outlets and lights make things nice and comfortable. 

Read more about Colorado yurt adventures.

Insider Tip: The park recommends visitors bring their own bedding (i.e., typically a sleeping bag), camping-style cooking supplies and eating utensils. Pets are allowed in one of the yurts for a fee.

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Learn about Colorado State Parks

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Check out adaptive winter sports in Colorado