The town of Estes Park is one of the most popular destinations for folks seeking the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. While the summer months are very busy in and around town due to its close proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park, the winter months are much quieter and when this destination truly shines.
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to over 265,000 acres of backcountry terrain, including my favorite backcountry ski area along Colorado's Front Range, Hidden Valley. This former ski area was closed in 1991 but it has since become a very popular area for backcountry skiing and splitboarding enthusiasts.
Let's get started with a quick overview of Estes Park, snow & weather, and backcountry safety before jumping into my experience backcountry skiing and splitboarding in Rocky Mountain National Park.
ESTES PARK OVERVIEW
Estes Park is located 70 miles northwest of Denver at an elevation of 7,522 feet. Known as the "Base Camp" to Rocky Mountain National Park, this quaint town was first established in 1859 and is now home to just over 6,000 residents.
The town is located on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. This provides it with endless views of the vast mountain landscape and herds of elk that seemingly outnumber the local residents.
GETTING TO ESTES PARK
Getting to Estes Park couldn't be easier. If you're arriving from out of state or driving up from the Denver-Metro area, hop onto Highway 36 for the scenic drive through Boulder and Lyons. You'll then wind up through the eastern foothills until arriving in Estes Park approximately 90 minutes later.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK SNOW & WEATHER
Every type of weather can be expected when exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. There will be plenty of sunshine and milder days from late November through early May but when it comes to snow and searching for fresh powder, strong "upslope storms" are what you are looking for.
An "upslope storm" is the regional name used for a storm that creates winds from the east and northeast. These winds occur when we observe a storm (low-pressure system) spinning over the southeastern portion of Colorado. The winds "upslope" from the surface and continue well into upper portions of the atmosphere. This creates exceptional lift, which cools the air and eventually condenses the moisture into snow over the eastern mountains of Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park.
BACKCOUNTRY & AVALANCHE SAFETY
Before getting into the details of venturing into the backcountry, it's imperative that you review the necessary steps to ensure your safety.
Get educated, get organized with the proper avalanche safety gear, and remember to always check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) for their latest update. I can't stress this enough to ensure the safety of you and your partners in the backcountry.
Avalanche Report: CAIC Front Range
BACKCOUNTRY SKIING ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Now that you're ready to head into the backcountry, let's explore two areas that I love in Rocky Mountain National Park; Hidden Valley and the Banana Bowl on Flattop Mountain.
EXPLORING HIDDEN VALLEY
The parking lot for Hidden Valley is located approximately 15 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and the east entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
As of January 2019, a 1-Day Pass to enter the park is $25 per vehicle, followed by $35 for a 7-Day Pass and $70 for the Annual Pass. The Annual Pass is a great deal if you live in Colorado and/or if plan to visit multiple days and weeks throughout the year.
Once you arrive at the Hidden Valley parking lot, gear up and walk over to the edge of the snow play area. From here, head about 100 yards west of the warming hut to begin climbing across the creek and follow it uphill into the trees. After you cross over the creek a couple of times, stay to the right. After about a mile of climbing and 1,100 feet of elevation gain, you'll arrive at Trail Ridge Road, which is closed during the winter and into the early spring months.
From here, you have two options. The first option is to ski down the run you just skinned up. The second option is to continue climbing via any of the runs in the upper bowl. The photo below is directly above Trail Ridge Road on the "Upper Main Slope" route.
Once you reach the summit of the ridge or any good stopping point, transition your gear and enjoy the turns you just earned!
Skiing directly down the main slope in the upper bowl is the perfect way to get started. This slope stays below 25-30 degrees and it gets you right back to Trail Ridge Road.
Another option is to enter the trees. This area stays relatively open but the surrounding trees also provide good protection during windier days. As you'll see below, I've often found great powder runs, especially during strong "upslope storms".
Once you've completed a few laps and your legs are cooked, ski down the run that you first skinned up. There are multiple creek crossings and more skiers heading up so take your time skiing and riding back down to the Hidden Valley parking lot.
EXPLORING FLATTOP MOUNTAIN & BANANA BOWL
The parking lot for access to Flattop Mountain and the Banana Bowl is located at the Bear Lake Trailhead, which is approximately 25 minutes from the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.
Once you arrive at the Bear Lake Trailhead, gear up and walk over to the edge of the parking lot.
From here, you'll continue along the Bear Lake Trail before eventually meeting up with the Flattop Mountain Trail. Take the Flattop Trail left and continue climbing through the trees and until you reach the Fern Lake Trail junction. Stay to the right and continue on the Fern Lake Trail. You'll continue along this trail until you reach the clearing at the base of Flattop's East Face and the Banana Bowl.
It's very straightforward once you start skinning up the bowl and towards the summit of Flattop Mountain. You can continue onto the summit or stop wherever you feel comfortable to once again earn your turns.
The views from and around Flattop Mountain are also nothing short of spectacular. The photo below is taken from the northern side of the mountain, looking west towards Ptarmigan Pass and the Dragon's Tail Couloir.
After you've had another great day exploring the terrain around Flattop Mountain and the Banana Bowl, ski back out the way you came via Fern Lake, Flattop West, and Bear Lake Trail.
ESTES PARK RESTAURANTS
There's no better way to restore your depleted calories than a great selection of restaurants in town. Order a wood-fired pizza at Antonio's Real New York Pizza & Deli, enjoy an adult beverage at The Barrel, or sit down for fast-casual Mexican at Peppers Mexican Grill.
We've only scratched the surface on the possible ways and places to explore in the Estes Park backcountry during the winter months. Besides backcountry skiing and splitboarding, Rocky Mountain National Park is open to snowshoeing, climbing, fishing and everything in-between. But if skiing powder-filled trees lines over lift lines are what you're after, it's best to start planning and experience the beauty of the Estes Park backcountry for yourself.
Click over to VisitEstesPark.com for all other activity, event, and lodging information.
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