Snowshoe & Ski the Rockies

Jimi Alida cross-country skiing in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Jimi Alida cross-country skiing in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway offers a plethora of opportunities to snowshoe and cross-country ski. Starting off with one of Rocky Mountain National Park’s sweetest spots, Wild Basin, we’ll take you on a tour of this Colorado treasure.

A lack of powder this winter makes skiing our icy resorts as appealing as ice skating down Mount Everest. But plenty of snow blankets the forested mountains along the 55-mile Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway known as Colorado’s Hwy. 72. Leave your season’s pass behind, grab your snowshoes or cross-country skis and check out these four winter wonderlands.

Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park

About 37 miles from Estes Park, you’ll find one of the gems of Rocky Mountain National Park. In the winter, the entrance station is often closed, and so you can access a dozen ski/snowshoe destinations for free. From the Winter Parking Lot, which is just a short distance from the entrance, you can reach no fewer than nine spots via the Finch Lake Trailhead—Copeland Falls (1.3 miles), Calypso Cascade (2.8 miles), Ouzel Falls (3.7 miles), Ouzel Lake (5.9 miles), Thunder Lake (7.7 miles)Finch Lake (4.6 miles), among others. Take the Sandbeach Lake Trailhead to 4.2 miles to Sandbeach Lake. Just be careful to bring plenty of water and warm clothing, as the weather at these high elevations can change rapidly. You’ll find everything from beginner to advanced terrain in Wild Basin, but often you’ll find the beginner/novice terrain on the shorter trails, closer to the Ranger Station.

Getting there: From Lyons, head west and north on Rt. 7 to Allenspark. Turn west on Wild Basin Road to Copeland Lake and the TH.

Ski Road

Though ski jumpers flocked to Allenspark in the 1920s, on busy days you might see a few dozen people skiing or snowshoeing along the two trails at the end of Ski Road. Park along the side of the road at the dead end, and head straight uphill and right for about ten minutes to reach the St. Vrain Mountain Trailhead. Better suited for snowshoes and experienced backcountry travelers, big inclines and drifts mean there is slight avalanche danger. But the four-miles to where the trail meets Rock Creek Road (and the wilderness boundary) is worth it for the view. Do the entire 8-mile loop by taking Rock Creek Road four miles back to your car. Or start out along the ice-covered Rock Creek and enjoy a few miles of beginner ski terrain. Consider an out and back trip versus the full loop if you’re on cross-country skis as the going gets steep; the junction at the wilderness tops out at 10,000+ feet with some steep climbing.

Getting there: From Boulder, take the scenic route north on Interstate 36 through Lyons and then left onto Highway 7, which takes you through the South St. Vrain Canyon. In 19 miles take a left into Allenspark (2nd exit) on Business Highway 7 (Main Street) and then your first right onto Ski Road.

Tips: Bring ski poles and a map; the trail isn’t always well marked. Or just bring Fido to lead the way home, as this is a dog-friendly spot. At the end of your adventure, fill your belly at the Meadow Mountain Café. Rocky, a waitress there for 30+ years, now owns the joint; her slow-cooked heuvos rancheros are best enjoyed by the giant wood-burning stove.

Peaceful Valley/Camp Dick

Find a few more people, but also more trails at Peaceful Valley and Camp Dick, just 8.5 miles from Allenspark. Though closed in the winter, limited parking is available along the north side of the road and about ¼ mile down to a gate that stops at a private residence (don’t block their driveway!).

Rank beginners should try the Middle Saint Vrain Trailhead. It lies at the west end of Camp Dick Campground, and is a moderate, four-wheel-drive road you can take four miles to the Buchanan Pass Trailhead. According to the US Forest Service, this trail runs west along the north side of Middle Saint Vrain Creek and then climbs gradually for five miles until it reaches the Indian Peaks Wilderness boundary, where it intersects the St. Vrain Mountain Trail. You can find out more information on the trail at the Forest Service website. For the best snow, less wind, and intermediate terrain, check out the narrow, winding, forested Buchanan Pass Trail.

Getting there: Take Colorado Highway 72 north from Nederland. Just over six miles from Ward, watch for signs for Peaceful Valley and Camp Dick Campgrounds. Go left (west) on Middle St. Vrain Road (CR 92). Only drive the ¼ mile down to the campground if you have four-wheel drive, as it’s easy to get stuck when the snow is deep.

Tips: Bring your pooch; the trails are dog friendly.

Brainard Lake

Jeremy Matsen snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Jeremy Matsen snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Hate big crowds in your winter wonderland? Don’t go to Brainard Lake. Love snow-capped peaks, deep glacial valleys and unlimited access to 73,391 stunning acres of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area? Then reconsider, as you’ll find everything from relaxing strolls to strenuous climbs on ungroomed, but well tracked terrain.

Looking for a short hike? Go just .9 miles to Mitchell Lake on the Brainard Lake main loop, or go another 1.5 miles to the above treeline Blue Lake. Take the Beaver Creek Trail to reach the 1.7-mile Mt. Audubon trail or to the 5.1-mile Coney Lakes Trail in the Middle St. Vrain drainage. Or, climb 2.1 miles up steep terrain to Lake Isabelle on the Pawnee Pass Trail. There, head a bit further up trail via the Isabelle Glacier Trail or veer northwest toward 12,541-foot Pawnee Pass. One way, you’re looking at 4.6 miles to the pass.

You can also try the vey gentle, round trip 6.4 miles to and from the CMC cabin, via the CMC South Ski Trail. Or, take the next step into intermediate terrain, and do the 8.6-mile round trip to Mitchell Lake. Only advanced snow shoers and skiers should go the additional 1.4 miles beyond Mitchell to Blue Lake, as route-finding skills are necessary, conditions are often wintry, and the 1,240 elevation gain is twice that to reach Blue Lake.

Getting there: Take the Peak to Peak to the turnoff to Brainard Lake, 0.3 miles north of the town of Ward. Drive 2.5 miles to the winter closure.

Tips: Warm cold fingers over the wood-burning stove and drink a cup of hot chocolate (for a suggested $1 donation) at the historic Colorado Mountain Club cabin. Visit for more information.

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