Snowshoeing the Rockies
Colorado had record snowfalls late into spring of 2019. I am talking big-time powder. It was a skier and snowboarders dream come true. In fact one mountaineer told me that he had been leading groups up into Rocky Mountain National Park since 1972 and it was the most snow he had ever since into May.
That was all well and good but I was headed to Colorado to climatize for an international hiking trip and my goal was to get to the highest elevation possible to acclimatize.
My problem was I am not currently a skier or snowboarder. What was I to do?
The answer was pretty simple actually. Snowshoe it baby. I had never gone snowshoe hiking before in my life and I really had no idea how amazing of an experience it really is.
If you have snowshoe hiked, then you are nodding your head with me (or at me that it took me 36 years of hiking to figure this out).
If you haven’t done it yet, then let this be my strong encouragement to visit some massive snow this coming year and get out on the hiking trails and snowshoe the hell out of them. The above picture is one version of what you will be sticking on your hiking boots and it almost feels as though you are just gliding or flying across the snowfall!
The first day I went snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park (by the way this above picture was just four days prior to Memorial Day) was up to Fern Lake at a shade over 10,000 feet in elevation. The area had gotten hammered with snowfall all week and as I shifted up above 9,000 feet there was so much snow on the ground that the horse tie stations were almost unable to be seen.
It created a winter wonderland experience and I was able to easily move up to Fern Lake as I traversed up and over mounds of four to eight feet of snow depending on the spot. I was able to hike at a 25-30 minute per mile pace even with all of this snow. That’s the amazing part of hitting the trail with snowshoes!
As I mentioned my goal was to get up high in elevation and climatize for an upcoming trip that would have me at over 16,000 feet in the Andes Mountains in Peru.
While getting over 10,000 feet several days in a row was good I wanted to reach 12,000 feet in elevation in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains if possible!
It required me hiring a mountain guide (big SO to my guide Mike Caldwell who is an Estes Park legend, and his son Tommy who you might recognize from this rock climbing documentary.) Mike C is Tommy’s Dad who appears early in the trailer and has been leading mountain summits, rock climbing trips, and fly fishing excursions in the region since the 70’s.
We got outfitted at the Mountain Store and had snowshoe nets with real deal trekking poles with several inch round trips to help us avoid immediately sinking into the snow. The goal was to get up to the summit of Flattop Mountain.
As you can see from the picture above the trail had a lot of snow on it :)!
This was the experience of a lifetime and an absolute surprise to me in just how much I enjoyed it. We paved the trail up to Flattop on fresh snow and according to Mike he was estimating that no one had been to the summit yet that year. Certainly not in the month of May and we would almost certainly be the only folks trying to get up there that day.
I wasn’t sure if that kind of chatter excited or frightened me to be perfectly honest! The trail up to Flattop Mountain began at the Bear Lake Trailhead where we wouldn’t have been able to leave the parking lot without having snowshoes on. We estimated there was eight to ten feet of snow at the trailhead. I could only imagine how much would be on the trail.
The first hour of the hike went from headlamp hiking to sunrise views and we were in heaven. We then turned the corner to begin the real elevation of the hike and we scaled over 2,000 feet up the side of a ski slope.
It was probably the most exhausting, and exhilarating, hiking experience of my life.
The snowshoeing was incredible but as we neared the top of Flattop Mountain we begin to encounter 50MPH winds and Mike C was nervous that we might encounter “white out” conditions if we approached the summit. We were obviously the only people looking at summiting the mountain that day (in fact we didn’t see anyone else on the trail until we were about one mile from the parking lot heading home.)
Though we were only a few hundred yards away from the summit Mike C could tell that the weather was begin to quickly shift and it was different at the top than how it was for us just a quarter mile or so away.
We made the joint, and smart, decision to turn around at that point and head back down the mountain. We had still reached 12,000 feet in elevation and would live to tell about it.
Mike C scoping out our tracks on the way down. Our one foot indentations in the snow just an hour before were practically covered from swirling winds and snowfall. This was the only time I was even able to take my phone out of my pocket in fear of losing it due to numb fingers and several feet of snow.
In conclusion I have the following to share about hitting the hiking trails in the winter with snowshoeing as the recommended route:
1. You will never forget it. It can be a life altering adventure.
2. The winter solitude brings an amazing, and different experience, than summer hiking.
3. Be smart and go with an expert or guide if you need to. I was more than apt to snowshoe up to Fern Lake but I would have been toast without Mike C going up to Flattop Mountain.
4. Winter in the rockies is harsher and more unforgiving than you could ever imagine.
5. It’s also more epic than you would ever realize until you are gliding across and over mounds and piles of snow.
Have you ever done snowshoe winter hiking or cross country skiing in areas like Rocky Mountain National Park? What’s been your experience?
Share it in the comments below!
Because Adventure Travel Feeds the Soul,
Mike R and the Hashtag 59 Team