February 14, 2018
Winter hiking in Colorado is an amazing experience, that is when you are fully prepared. Walking through snow covered pine forests, trekking through powder filled meadows, and walking on the ice of high alpine lakes is an exhilarating feeling. Winter offers the outdoor enthusiast new challenges and brings new beauty to the Rocky Mountains. Although some trails in the state are closed during the winter due to closed roads and adverse weather conditions, there are still plenty of amazing hikes to be had! In this guide, I will cover what to consider when picking a winter hike, what gear is necessary and optional, and some different trail options for the beginner winter hiker!
Weather is by far the most important thing when considering a winter hike. Conditions are constantly fluctuating in the mountains between snow, wind, and sun. A sunny bluebird day are the ideal conditions when hiking during the winter. The sun helps keep you warmer, especially at higher elevations and less layers are required which results in carrying less weight in your pack. Sunny days do happen in the middle of winter, but they aren't an everyday occurrence, so planning for colder temperatures is always best. You can always take off layers, but you can't put on layers that you forgot to bring!
Location and weather kind of go hand in hand when picking a good spot to hike. When choosing a location, obviously you want to pick somewhere that has good scenery to enjoy while on the hike, whether thats a waterfall, lake, or jagged peaks. Remember that at higher elevations there will be snow and possibly ice covering the landscape so winter views will differ from summertime views. Anywhere that isn't in the mountains you don't have to worry too much about snow because it often melts a few days after due to higher temperatures. Also, trails that are trafficked more often will have a better snow packed compared to those that are not.
This is also another big thing to consider when choosing a hike. For some of the easier hikes this won't apply, but if you are doing moderate hikes consider how much the trail's elevation rises. There have been times where I go out on a hike, and the beginning of the trail is perfectly fine to follow until you hit a point where you either can't find the trail, or can't continue because of not having proper gear. This can be the ultimate buzzkill when you are trying to make it to an alpine lake and have to turn back .5 miles out. Don't put yourself in this situation... plan ahead! In most cases, more snow falls at higher elevations, so the higher up you hike the better chance you have of running into some deep snow.
For me, looking up recent reviews of the hike I want to go on is key. A good place to check hike reviews is the mobile app All Trails. If you don't have the app yet I highly recommend downloading it here. All Trails also has a navigation feature which you can use without any cell service. Usually, if the hike you are trying to go on has some recent reviews, that is a very good sign. Read the recent reviews and take them into consideration because most people are very honest about the trail conditions. Read all the recent reviews and decide yourself whether or not the hike would be worth it. Trails with recent reviews often times have a better snowpack then hikes with no recent reviews. If you attempt a trail without any recent reviews, there is a chance it will be covered in snow.
Alternative resources like hiking websites or park websites can be utilized to gather information about the trail conditions as well. Not all website have the review feature, but can still offer some valuable information.
It goes without saying, if you are headed outside in the winter, you are going to need to dress warm. Having a base layer, helps keep in body heat and lets sweat evaporate, so that's a good start. Wearing snow pants when hiking during the winter is recommended although not required. Some simply wear a base layer under their pants, it really depends on conditions. If you are hiking in snow, where snow pants. When considering what to wear on a winter hike, think warm but light. You want to stay as warm as possible without wearing too much, which can start to weigh you down. Prepare yourself for any conditions because weather conditions in the mountains, especially at high alpine location can be very versatile.
The following gear recommendations are not required but help tremendously when hiking in the winter. They will save you energy when hiking through snow and improve traction exponentially. Extra traction is required on most hikes as hiking boots won't always do the trick. Check out the recommended gear below:
Micro Spikes are a little contraption that you throw over your hiking boots to increase traction on ice and snow. They are made from rubber material that wraps around your shoe and puts the spikes under your feet. For the most part, when wearing them they aren't even noticeable and really help with traction. For most winter hikes you are definitely going to want these. You'll be able to walk on snow and ice with ease and not have to worry about ever slipping.
Snowshoes have proved to be very helpful time and time again when hiking in snow. Some people think snowshoes are only used for deep powder, but they can also be used in smaller amounts of snow. When the snowpack is questionable and you're not sure about the trail conditions, having snowshoes is a definite advantage. They will save you energy and help you keep a good pace on trails with less of a snowpack. There are all different kind of snowshoes depending on what you are doing with them, but average priced snowshoes will do the trick for beginner and intermediate level hikers.
Having trekking poles simply help keep your body stable in versatile terrain. They are extremely helpful when hiking up hills our mountainsides or climbing over large boulders when in high alpine environments. If you are staying on flat terrain, poles really aren't necessary. Some people that hike flat terrain just like having the extra stability and safety so its really your choice.
Conditions vary everywhere in the mountains so gauging a good location can be tricky. Here are some spots that I found to have good conditions the entire season. These trails will cater to the beginner hiker and be easy to moderate difficulty.
Trail Length: 2 Miles Round Trip
Trail Type: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 410 feet
Dog Friendly: No
Dream Lake is fairly simple high with very little elevation gain during the hike. The trail is either packed snow or ice the entire way up so micro spikes are recommended for extra traction on the trail. There aren't many scenic stops off the trail, but the breaks in the trees over some amazing overlook perspectives. The total hike up to Dream Lake is only about a mile, so not strenuous in any way. A first time hiker could complete this hike with ease. Up at the lake the wind does get very gusty, so make sure you come prepared for that. Also, arriving to the trailhead early is recommended so you can get a parking spot. After 9am on weekends it will be tough finding a spot.
Elevation Gain: 219 feet
Alberta Falls offers serene beauty not only in the summer, but the winter too. The falls are frozen over completely for most of the winter, but water continues to run under the ice which makes for a unique sight. This is the first scenic stop on the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, so don't expect too much on the hike to the falls. In the summer, the falls are 30 feet tall and thunder into the riverbed below. In the winter, the riverbed is frozen giving you access to the falls from the bottom. Walk around and above the falls but be careful because ice surrounds the entire base of the falls.
Trail Length: 3-4 Miles Round Trip
Elevation Gain: 400 - 1500 feet
Dog Friendly: Yes
Mayflower Gulch is an awesome winter that offers something for everyone. The trail offers two different routes one for snowshoeing and one for hiking and cross country skiing. The right route gives access to the snow packed trail best suited for hiker and cross country skiers. The left route is much less trafficked and is a good route for anybody wanting to snowshoe. The hike length varies depending on how far into the valley you go, but for most the hike ends with an old mining town tucked into the basin of some stunning peaks. This is a must do winter hike!
Trail Length: 1.5-3 Miles Round Trip
Elevation Gain: 400-1000 feet
Difficulty: Easy - Moderate
St. Mary's Glacier is a great hike year round. Although it can be very windy on some winter days up at the Glacier, on a clear day this spot offers prime views of the distant mountain ranges. The hike up is a slow gradual elevation gain until you hit the lake. Some stop here, but if you follow the trail along the lake to the right, it continues up the side of the glacier. You can continue up to increase the length and intensity of the hike if you are up for it. St. Mary's Glacier is used year round for hiking and snowboarding and skiing on the glacier itself. In the summer, this is a good spot close to Denver to cliff jump. But be warned, because the water is frigid cold.
Trail Type: Loop
Elevation Gain: 150 feet
Roxborough State Park is another place that is good for any beginner hikers. Due to its high traffic and easy accessibility the trail stays packed throughout the entire duration of the winter. The views at this park are remarkable throughout the entire park, especially so in winter. The contrast of the white snow on the red rocks makes for a very photogenic landscape. There is virtually no elevation gain so this hike is very family friendly. Since the trail is a relatively easy hike, special gear is not required.
By: Mark Munson @markonthemove
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