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Visiting Estes Park in winter brings about its own unique winter wonderland experiences. Estes Park is the quintessential Colorado mountain town thriving with activity. It is considered the home base for the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), which sees over 4 million visitors a year. The park is known for its wildlife, including elk, wolves, bears, scenic drives, various hiking trails, and a plethora of wild camping opportunities.
A winter visit is perfect for experiencing the magic of the Rockies and the quaintness of Estes Park with fewer crowds, more wildlife sightings, unique outdoor activities, and those picturesque views, as long as you don’t mind a few extra layers.
Although the Rockies are a big part of why many people venture to Estes Park, there is still plenty to do in the town to fill a day or two if winter weather forces the park to close. On my last visit to Estes Park, RMNP was closed all but one day during my 6-day stay. I was so bummed, but I still enjoyed my time exploring downtown, sampling wines, and hiking around frozen lakes.
This post shares the best tips for enjoying winter in Estes Park, including everything from how to get there, fun things to do, tips for wildlife viewing, where to rent gear, the best hikes, where to eat, and even who has the best coffee in town!
Getting to Estes Park
Estes Park is about 77 miles or 1.5 hours away from Denver International Airport. The most popular driving route is via I-25 to U.S. 36 E near Boulder.
The most convenient way to get to Estes Park in winter is via an airport shuttle or rental car. Unfortunately, taxis and rideshare services to and from the airport do not operate frequently, if at all.
You can make local taxi service reservations with Estes Park Safe Rides at (970)-682-9985. During winter, the town also offers free shuttle service through Estes Transit (downtown area, Friday-Sunday 12 pm- 6 pm) and Via (door to door, weekdays, 8 am-4:30 pm).
It is fantastic that the town offers free transportation, but I don’t recommend relying on it. You will be limited to restrictive areas and times. There are some pretty scenic drives in Estes Park that are not a part of the public transportation system, and the buses and trolleys may stop running with inclement weather.
If you plan to tour RMNP on your own, renting a car is a must as there are no public transportation options within the park from November to April.
Rental cars are the most convenient option for visiting Estes Park in the winter. Major roads are well maintained, but you should still rent a car with all-wheel drive to avoid getting stuck, as many driveways and parking lots are not maintained during winter.
It is also important you feel comfortable driving in winter conditions (more on winter driving later in the post) as the winter weather is impossible to predict and may require driving during low visibility and on icy roads.
I usually book rental cars through my Capital One Venture X Credit Card portal to get 10x points to redeem later, but aggregator sites like expedia.com are great for comparing costs between companies.
You will have to call the rental car company to ensure you rent an all-wheel drive or upgrade at the counter (dependent on availability). Unfortunately, very few online rental portals provide an AWD filter, and not all SUVs are 4-wheel drive.
The difference between All-Wheel Drive and 4-Wheel Drive: They both give the tires the ability to turn independently of each other and gain traction. AWD is always on, while 4-wheel drive can be turned on or off. 4-wheel drive is typically better for heavy hauling and on trucks, while AWD is great for slick roads in rough weather and is commonly found on new SUVs and cars.
When I booked my car, I went with Dollar rental, who said all their SUVs are All-wheel-drive after I called and asked. When I got to the counter, they said this was not correct and added $50 a day to my rental for an all-wheel-drive car. After a bit of hesitation, the rental car representative said I could give you a discount of $40 a day. I was hesitant because I was unsure what car I would have gotten if I didn’t ask about it being a 4-wheel drive car and wondered if the vehicle would have been AWD anyways, as the representative previously stated. The total cost for the week was around $800, which was way more than I anticipated. My original quote was about $500 for the week for a basic SUV.
Even though it was much more expensive, I am glad I got the all-wheel-drive because there were several times that I got stuck going in and out of parking lots around town. I could reverse and get un-stuck quickly with AWD, but I wouldn’t trust the small SUV, even with AWD, on backroads or in heavy snow.
If you are looking for an off-roading vehicle, Backbone Adventures and Estes Park ATV Rentals advertise 4×4 Jeep rentals for $260-$400 a day. These are geared toward short-term (2-4 day) rentals and have all the bells and whistles for off-roading and back-country driving.
The Estes Park shuttle runs daily all year long. Round Trip transfers are $115, while one way is $65. During winter, shuttle pick-ups are limited to 4 times a day. Make reservations a week in advance to ensure availability.
The shuttle promises to drop you off at the door of your destination, but pick-ups are at one location. So if you use this option, make sure you will be able to easily get to the pickup spot when heading back to the airport.
Estes Park gets a lot of sunshine in winter but still has freezing temperatures and galeforce winds (35-45 mph). Average daily high temperatures are in the 30’s December through February and in the 40’s in March. January is the coldest month, with an average low of 13°F and a high of 31°F.
Estes Park doesn’t get as much snow as other areas in Colorado. Average snowfall is around 33″ a year.
The sun balances out the cold temperatures making Estes Park pretty pleasant in winter. However, with that said, below 0 temps are not uncommon, and winter weather is hard to predict. Therefore, it is crucial to be prepared with proper cold-weather clothing, including base layers and windproof/waterproof outer layers (more on what to wear in Ester Park during winter at the end of the post).
Driving in the Snow
I don’t recommend driving in the snow if you can avoid it, but if you are going to Estes Park in winter, you may not have a choice. I recommend checking the weather and avoiding arriving or departing during heavy snowfall. Still, weather can be hard to predict, and if you are planning your trip more than a few weeks in advance, you won’t be able to plan around the weather.
For the most part, the major roads to and through Estes Park are kept plowed, but Rocky Mountain National Park may close due to weather conditions. For the latest road status updates, follow RMNP on Twitter @RockyNPS.
The key to driving safely in the snow is to go REALLY SLOW. Even though I am from Florida, I have had plenty of experience driving in rough winter conditions like a blizzard in Ely, Minnesota, snowstorms in Salt Lake City, and over mountain passes in Colorado. I am always surprised at how many trucks and AWD SUVs I see sliding off the road. AWD automobiles are helpful, but good slow driving is the most important when driving during snowy conditions.
Things to do
Estes Park in winter offers a fantastic array of fun outdoor activities from ATV tours, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and sledding. While most people head to Estes Park to enjoy the outdoors, there is a slew of galleries, boutiques, restaurants, wineries, and breweries great for those who love to admire the beauty of winter from indoors.
Many activities can be enjoyed as a self-guided experience, but plenty of guided tours are available in Estes Park. Estes Park Guided Tours offers a variety of private and group tours, including photography, wildlife spotting, sledding, and snowshoeing.
If you choose the self-guided option, there are multiple gear rental shops to make adventuring outdoors super easy and convenient. I had a great experience renting from Estes Mountain shop. Their gear is decent, prices are reasonable, and they have excellent customer service.
Other outdoor activities include:
- ATV Tours or off roading-There is no snowmobiling in Estes Park as the amount of snow doesn’t allow it. Instead, ATVing is the popular choice.
- Cross Country Skiing or snowshoeing- You can hire a guide, but it is easy to navigate around the Bear Lake, Emerald Lake, and Dream Lake section of RMNP. The employees at Estes Mountain Shop are happy to share the best self-guided routes and provide a map. Conditions are best in January, February, and March.
- Sledding or tubing at Hidden Valley- Another great way to spend a winter day. Hidden Valley is located inside Rocky Mountain National Park, just a short drive from The Ridgeline Hotel Estes Park®
- Wildlife and Photography Tours- Yellow Wood Guiding or Wildside 4×4 Tours offer wildlife and photography-focused tours led by professional photographers who know all the good spots.
- Estes Park Winter Festival – Enjoy their annual winter festival over the Martin Luther King, Jr weekend. It celebrates what makes Estes Park great: great food, music, and art, family-friendly activities, and stunning mountain vistas.
- Winter Camping– Designated sections of Moraine Park Campground are open all winter. No hookups, water, or dump stations in winter at the campgrounds. Self-registration permits for backcountry camping in winter zones are required. There is no charge in the winter for backcountry camping.
- Scenic Drives-
- Trail Ridge Road-The highest continuously paved road in the US
- Peak to Peak Byway- The oldest Scenic Byway in Colorado
- Glen Haven Drive- Along Devil’s Gulch Road (CR 43)
- Epic Climbing Gym has over 4,500 square feet of climbing terrain and has routes ranging from beginner to expert.
- Museums- Red Rose Rock Shop & Dick’s Rock Museum, Mountain Blown Glass Shop & Gallery, MacGregor Ranch Museum, Estes Park Museum
- Food and Drinks
- Coffee Shops- A great place to cozy up for a few hours over specialty crafted brews. My favorites are Coffee on the Rocks, Kind Coffee, and Mile High Coffee House.
- Wine Tasting at Snowy Peaks Winery
- Sweet Heart Winery- 30 mins outside of town in Loveland, CO. Offers food and wine pairings in a rustic barn setting.
Where to stay
While some resorts, campgrounds, and Inns close during winter, there are plenty of lodging options from rustic cabins, luxury vacation rentals, and full-service resorts when visiting Estes Park.
You can still camp in the winter at campgrounds and in the backcountry, but water is not available at the campgrounds.
- Campgrounds in RMNP
- Long Peaks Campground
- Moraine Park Campground– certain sections open year-round
- Timber Creek Campground- certain sections open year-round
- Permits are required for backcountry camping in designated areas only
If you plan to venture into RMNP but don’t want to camp, staying near Beaver Meadows Entrance is a good idea.
- Romantic River Song Inn-A three-star riverside bed and breakfast near hiking trails.
- Alpine Trail Ridge Inn– basic, 2-star motel with renovated rooms
I stayed at the Alpine Trail Ridge Inn during my last visit. It is newly renovated and has free Wi-Fi but it is relatively small for two people; the bathroom was almost too tight for one.
If you want something walkable to restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques, stay downtown near Elkhorn Ave.
Here are a few options:
- Maxwell Inn– 13 min walk to downtown
- Lofts of Estes– Individually owned condos
- Silver Moon Inn-Locally owned, and family operated in downtown Estes Park
- Highly rated options a short driving distance from town
- Della Terra Mountain Chateau– Luxury boutique Inn
- The Stanley– Historic property offering long term stays and a boutique hotel
- Estes Park Resort– Upscale lakefront property with spacious suites and mountain village cabins
- Historic Crags Lodge– Rustic lodge surrounded by forest on the north side of Prospect Mountain
- StoneBrook Resort– Intimate mountain property along Fall River with kitchenettes, grills, and fireplaces
- Taharaa Mountain Lodge- Upscale hotel with complimentary breakfast and mountain views
- Della Terra- Luxury boutique inn at the Falls River entrance to RMNP
Where to eat
There is plenty of variety in Estes Park with a hearty dose of elevated Colorado-American fare. I tried different cuisines each day, including Italian, Thai, and Mexican, but I will be coming back to Bird and Jim, my favorite meal of the trip. The atmosphere, service, and artful craft menu of local healthy plates are everything I look for when dining out. I can’t say enough good things about Bird and Jim, but I would also go back to all the restaurants I tried during my trip.
Some restaurants are not open year-round or have limited hours during winter (as I found out the hard way). Call first to make sure they are open.
Some more favorites are below:
- Mama Rose’s
- Antonio’s Real New York Pizza
- Cafe De Pho Thai
- Thai Basil
- La Cocina De Mama
- Ed’s Cantina & Grill
- Rock Cut Brewing Co.
- Rock Inn Mountain Tavern
- Bird & Jim
What to Pack
When visiting Estes Park in winter, it is essential to be prepared for frequently changing weather. Layers are your friend, especially if you plan to be active outdoors in cold weather.
I always pack three layers, gloves, neck gator, headwear, and warm waterproof boots when planning to be outdoors in freezing temps.
NEVER use cotton fabrics as base layers in the winter, especially if you are doing any physical activity that might make you sweat. The cotton will absorb the sweat and hold the cold moisture close to your body, making you colder. Wool and polyester blends are the best fabrics for your base layers. They “wick” away moisture instead of absorbing it. That goes for socks and underwear too.
I love Kari Traa brand for matching tops and bottoms. Their long-sleeve wool blend tops and bottoms come in fun prints and are not scratchy. Smart Wool brand is excellent for socks and solid base layer sets. Merino wool is best for fabric against skin. Other kinds of wool can feel scratchy.
I usually use fleece-lined leggings, a fleece pullover, or a zip-up down jacket as my mid-layers. Depending on the activity level, I might skip to my top layer if three layers make me too hot. I will use three layers when temps are in the teens, and there is no sun. Usually, if temperatures are in the 20s-30s, two layers with gloves, a hat, and a scarf are all I need.
These Baleaf tights with pockets are my favorite fleece tights. They come in many colors (white is completely see-through) and have held up well through multiple hikes and washes. Patagonia’s nano puff jackets are a fantastic mid-weight top option.
Waterproof Top Layer (or at least water-resistant):
Ski jackets and lightweight puffers are some of the best options for cold-weather activities. Puffers are great for layering because they are warm and lightweight, but they aren’t waterproof. You should always carry a waterproof shell if it rains or snows to keep yourself comfortable. If you want an all-in-one jacket, this is an excellent waterproof down parka.
Look for Gore-tex material when shopping for a waterproof jacket. Gore-tex is 100% waterproof in the heaviest of rain. Nothing is worse than feeling wet and cold in freezing temperatures.
It is essential to keep your hands and feet dry and warm in cold weather. The best cold-weather boot has a removable liner that can be taken out and dried. Unfortunately, it is a style that is hard to find. I have rented them before when snowshoeing and dogsledding in negative temps but have not found a pair to purchase. Estes Park stays warm enough even in winter for an insulated and waterproof boot to work fine, but your toes may still get damp after a long day of hiking in the snow.
Gloves: Look for waterproof gloves or mitts and come with an external zip pocket big enough for hand warmers. Hot Hands are the best way to keep your hands (and feet) warmer for longer.
Hot hands (can also be used in boots) are the best accessories when traveling somewhere cold. One pack lasts 12 hours.
Head and Neck: I always look for fleece-lined beanies to help block the wind and these fleece neck gators are the best at keeping you extra cozy in cold weather. Smart Wool also makes neck gators in merino wool that are thin and easy to travel with.
Estes Park is a charming mountain town and worth visiting no matter the season. But visiting in the winter will allow you to beat the crowds and get a unique winter wonderland experience you won’t soon forget!
Thank for reading!
Let me know if you plan a trip to Estes Park and what other information I can add to this post.