Here’s a secret about Colorado that many people don’t realize: Yes, it has some of the world’s best skiing. But even when the ground is covered in snow, the weather here is surprisingly mild. You can experience all four seasons in a single afternoon. And the skies are almost always blue.
That’s why Coloradans don’t just limit their outdoor activities to spring and summer. They get out all year long. Hiking is a year-round activity.
Not all trails are ideal for winter conditions, though. The higher-altitude trails may close down due to avalanche danger and some get muddy, as the snow falls and then melts. Other trails get covered by snow, so it’s easy to get lost if you’re on snowshoes and not careful.
Because of this, we always recommend stopping by a ranger station before heading out on any winter hike. The Rangers know what trails are best for that particular day and time. It’s also smart to let them know you’re out there, in case something happens.
Don’t let that deter you from going on a lovely winter hike, though. Snowy hikes tend to be much less crowded than in the summer and the views are just as spectacular, in a different way.
The best winter hikes are easy to get to and protected from the wind, which can make the chilly air miserable. The best hikes are also not too long (three hours max). And above all, they are all amazingly beautiful.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our favorite national parks (Colorado has four) because it’s easy to get to, accessible to tourists of all levels and ages and close to the charming town of Estes Park. There are too many excellent, year-round trails in the park to list, but one of the standards for beginners is Lily Lake.
Lily Lake is no hidden gem, but in potentially risky conditions when you’re looking for an easy hike, you don’t necessarily want to veer too far off course. Lily Lake is short and flat. It’s less than a mile round trip. You’ll get in and out before you need hand warmers.
The trail itself tends to be visible in winter; no snowshoes needed. Underneath, it’s gravel. It’s even handicap-accessible. This means it’s also ideal for families and people of all ages.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre is famously one of the most incredible music venues in the world, attracting world-class performers to its boulder-flanked stage. But it’s also a scenic place to get a good workout. Especially in the winter, when concerts are not as common. The dramatic red stones remain, however, and the steep and lengthy staircase is more entertaining than the Stairmaster at the gym. Explore this interesting area on foot, including various trails that wind you through the rocks and above, through valleys and a meadow.
Again, this trail is so well known that it’s almost cliche, at least for the locals. But visitors love it because it’s easy to find in the Rocky Mountain National Park and it’s a mix-and-match destination, with various trails that you can pick between.
Looking for something easy? Pick a trail that’s less than an hour long. Or plan an all-day hike deep into the mountains to Glacier Gorge. Naturally, longer hikes are more difficult. Plan accordingly.
If you’re driving up Interstate 70 to a ski town and get stuck in a mountain-style traffic jam (a zillion cars headed to the ski resorts), chances are the worst of the traffic is somewhere around Idaho Springs. Instead of fighting the traffic, skip it and veer into Idaho Springs, where you will find the Saint Mary's Glacier hiking spot in the Arapahoe National Forest.
The trail itself is easy if you are prepared and have sturdy shoes, preferably with spikes, and it tends to be pretty popular. One of the most outstanding features of this trail is the number of people who hike with their snowboarding gear and then board down the front side of the mountain.
Head to Evergreen for the Three Sisters Park and Alderfer area, which has a ton of different trails to pick and choose between. Get a map at the trailhead and create a plan, based on how long you want to hike and how difficult you want to make it. It’s absolutely possible to enjoy a sweet, simple, short hike here that is great for families.
This hike along Castle Trail is flat, easy and long enough to be entertaining (but not too long, just over two hours). But what makes it really stand out is the castle ruins and a lookout tower along the way. This makes it ideal for families. The hike doesn't have too much elevation gain, which is nice for people visiting from sea level who want to get into the mountains but still want to, you know, breathe air.
This hike will take about an hour and a half and provide views of Red Rocks and Denver. It's not far from Denver, so it's easy to access.
Alberta Falls is another popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, and this one ends with a waterfall. If you’ve never seen a frozen waterfall, add this to your bucket list, because it’s beyond surreal. This hike is popular, especially in the summer, and it’s short. Get to it from Bear Lake. The hike is just about a mile and a half to the waterfall and back.
Boulder is especially charming in the winter. The Pearl Street Mall is twinkling with holiday lights and you’ll see a giant glowing star on the side of the mountain. See the city from above when you hike Mount Sanitas, right on the west edge of the city. This trail has several different options you can choose between, but the most popular one is the Mount Sanitas Loop, which has some pretty steep inclines but a view that’s worth the work.
The loop is just over three miles long and includes log and rock steps that provide quite the workout. It’s not easy, especially in inclement weather or with snow and ice on the ground. If you have the strength and your lungs can handle the altitude, there’s no better view in Boulder that’s so close to town.
Gem Lake is a slightly more challenging hike in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s not far, only a mile and a half each way (so about three miles total), but where this trail gets you is on the incline. It packs a whopping 1,000-foot elevation gain in a short distance. Add to that the already high elevation of Gem Lake (around 8,800 feet above sea level), plus switchbacks along the way and you’re sure to break out in a sweat. (Make sure you dress in layers in case you need to cool off.)
As you might expect with such height, the views here are spectacular. Keep your eyes peeled for the Continental Divide.
The Devil’s Backbone can be easy if you just explore the beginning of the trail. But it can also be as challenging as you want it to be. This time, not due to elevation gain but due to length.
The Devil’s Backbone (an unusual rock formation that juts out of the earth like, well, like a spine coming from the underworld) has 12-plus miles of trails that connect various open spaces. Add more miles, if you can handle the challenge.
As a bonus, this is super easy to get to. It’s right on the west edge of Loveland and impossible to miss. It’s on your way up the canyon to Rocky Mountain National Park, making it a convenient pitstop along the way. If you’re feeling tough, you can actually hike all the way to Horsetooth Park in Fort Collins.
Here’s a real challenge in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Chasm Lake is tucked away in the mountains, and it’ll take you 8.5 miles roundtrip to see it, along challenging and steep trails. It’s no surprise that this trail is near Longs Peak, one of the toughest fourteeners (mountains higher than 14,000 feet in elevation) on the Front Range of Colorado.
Here’s an unusual hike to attempt to conquer, if you’re tough enough. Hike it, walk it or try to run it.
The 3.7-mile Manitou Incline is about as tough as it gets, topping more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain in a single mile. At some points, you’ll find nearly 70 percent grade. Ultimately, you’ll end up at just under 9,000 feet above sea level.
This is for the hardcore only.
This trail actually used to be the railway for a cog train. Today, Olympians, people in the military and extreme athletes use the crazy pathway to challenge themselves and train on. This part of Colorado is home to both an Olympic training center and military base.
Beyond bragging rights, at the end of this trail, you’ll find rewarding views of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.
Deer Mountain is tough, packed with switchbacks and a challenging elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet. It’s also pretty long, at six miles round trip. Deer Mountain brings you to the peak of just over 10,000 feet above sea level, which can be a challenge in and of itself.
The higher up you go, the more snow you can expect to find. Be careful not to get lost if snow covers the trail. In the winter, you might not be able to make it all the way without snowshoes.