Length: 8 miles round-trip (or 4 miles one-way with a car shuttle)
Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: Bear Lake (40.31197, -105.64566)
Why we love it: Predictable snow and good coverage—plus shelter from Rocky’s notorious wind—make this a reliable winter outing with big-mountain scenery. Plus, you’ll ditch the crowds when you split north around Bear Lake.
Pre-hike fuel: Stop at Kind Coffee for a house latte (we like the Emerald Lake—white chocolate and pistachio) and handheld breakfast: The menu is filled with hot sandos, burritos, brioche toasts, toasted bagels, and oatmeal bowls. Right off the main drag in Estes Park along East Elkhorn Avenue, Kind Coffee has a nice parking lot to help you make a quick trip.
Post-hike buzz: In the same lot, access Ed’s Cantina & Grill, where a post-trek house marg is in order.
Restrooms: There’s a bank of outhouses at the Bear Lake trailhead.
Dogs: Not allowed

A snowshoer treks into the mist in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

The combination of easy access, relatively gentle terrain, and an optional car shuttle make this an excellent half-day winter outing. For easiest logistics, it’s best to begin this route at Bear Lake, located at the end of the Bear Lake Road on the eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. (The lack of steep terrain reduces the risk of avalanches in this area, but it’s always important to check conditions and take appropriate precautions.) Don’t be deterred by the throngs of winter hikers; you’ll leave them quickly.

From the trailhead at 9,460 feet, head east on the Bear Lake Trail. After circling around the frozen lake’s eastern edge, veer away from the ice and head northeast. At the junction about 0.25 mile from the lake, turn right (northeast) to follow the Flat Top Mountain Trail up to the ridge where you can wave goodbye to the crowds.

Continue trekking northeast through the conifer forest, which provides excellent protection from the wind. At the next junction, instead of taking the right-hand fork to Bierstadt Lake, split hiker’s left (northeast). After a short distance, you’ll reach another fork, where you should also veer left to carefully descend the slope into the Mill Creek drainage, where deer often hang, even in winter.

From the valley floor, the route continues northeast toward the creek. At the next junction, take the right fork, which closely follows the south side of, and eventually crosses, Mill Creek. After the crossing, the route joins the Hollowell Park Trail. Turn right here, following this trail along the north side of the creek. At the next (and last) junction, turn right to stay on the Hollowell Park Trail, which deposits you at Hollowell Park, roughly 1,000 feet lower than the starting point. A large meadow between dense pines and spruces, Hollowell Park attracts A-list wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for mule and white-tail deer, elk, and even moose loitering along the fringes. (Always keep your distance from wildlife, of course.)

At the Hollowell Park trailhead, you can either jump in a parked shuttle car or turn around and enjoy retracing your steps back to Bear Lake. (Beware, the return trip is more of a climb.)

Getting there: From Denver, follow I-25 North to Exit 243. Turn left here and follow CO 66 west for 16 miles to the town of Lyons. Just past 4th Street, veer right onto U.S. 36 and follow it for 20 miles to Estes Park. Turn left onto East Elkhorn Avenue/U.S. 36 West, then left again after 0.4 mile onto Moraine Avenue/U.S. 36 West and follow this to the national park entrance. After paying the fee, continue west on U.S. 36 to the junction with the Bear Lake Road. Turn left here and follow this to the turnoff to Hollowell Park. If you plan to do a car shuttle, turn right and park the first car in the small lot about a quarter mile up this road. Return with the second car to the Bear Lake Road and follow it south to its end at a large parking lot.

Before you go: Always check winter conditions, including the local avalanche report and weather. It’s OK (and fun!) to hike in snow, but wind can make your outing miserable. Gusts up to 20 mph are perfectly manageable with the right gear.

Winter Packing List
  • Snowshoes
  • Trekking poles
  • Waterproof boots
  • Waterproof shell
  • Insulating midlayer, like a puffy jacket or fleece
  • Sunglasses or other eye protection
  • Gloves
  • In your backpack: water, food, sunblock, and extra layers. For more intrepid treks, consider packing the Ten Essentials and/or avalanche equipment.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.