Length: Up to 7.2 miles roundtrip and 1,100 vertical feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Why we love it: Wild Basin’s outlying location is easy to access from Denver, making it an ideal half-day winter destination
Pre-hike buzz: Stop by Lyon’s St. Vrain Market Bakery for freshly baked scones, muffins, cinnamon rolls, and gluten-free goodies
When to go: December through early April
Restrooms: Vault toilets at park entrance
Distance from Denver: About 70 miles from Denver
Dogs: Not allowed

Because the Wild Basin Area is cut off from the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park by a wall of imposing mountains, you can visit it without going through the hubbub in Estes Park to get there. Wild Basin also sits lower than the well-known hikes off Bear Lake Road, a difference that often translates into warmer temperatures and weaker winds, and makes this isolated valley a great winter destination.

From the parking area, walk around the winter gate and along the dirt road for nearly a mile to the summer Wild Basin trailhead, where the road narrows to a path near the rustic 1932 ranger station. After starting up the trail, you quickly arrive at Copeland Falls, whose pockets of ice are visible from two well-signed vantage points along a short spur trail.

Copeland Falls, one of three water features along the main trail through Wild Basin. Photo by Terri Cook

After rejoining the main trail, follow it a little over a mile to a junction near the Pine Ridge campground. Turn left here, following the signs for another 0.4 miles to Calypso Cascades, whose steep, rocky channel and sparkling ice formations are easily viewed from a sturdy wooden bridge.

If the weather looks good and you have enough time, continue to follow the trail, which climbs steadily for another 0.9 miles to Ouzel Falls, this excursion’s most dramatic natural feature. As you continue uphill, look for icefalls on the steep mountain slopes above you and the many aspen, pine, and spruce trees thriving in this sub-alpine forest. Along the way, you’ll see the edge of an old burn scar, where the views up toward the park’s high peaks and down toward the foothills open up dramatically. After some glimpses of Mt. Meeker’s lofty summit, you’ll see a sign directing you to Ouzel Falls and a bridge. Instead of crossing the bridge, turn left here along the riverbank and follow the path to the base of Ouzel’s dramatic pillar of ice. When the temperatures are warm enough, it’s possible to catch glimpses of flowing water flickering beneath its icy coating.

Before You Go: Be sure sure to check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and weather forecast before going and bring a wind layer, sunglasses, and plenty of warm clothing, food, and water. Depending upon the conditions, this trail is also often accessible with Yaktrax.

Getting there: From Denver, take U.S. 36 west through Boulder to Lyons and then turn left onto Highway 7. Follow this road southwest for 20 miles to the Wild Basin Area, which is accessed via a left turn just past Allenspark. After passing through the national park entrance, follow the dirt road for about a mile to the winter gate/parking area. When the entrance station is open, you must pay the daily entrance fee ($25) or display a valid annual pass ($70), which can be purchased at the entrance or online.

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.