Winter hiking offers peace and quiet on typically crowded trails |

Winter hiking offers peace and quiet on typically crowded trails

I love that the outdoors can offer space for quiet and stillness. Stealing a bit of solitude or time with friends and family outside is one of my favorite ways to reset.

That's why I didn't hike in Rocky Mountain National Park at all this spring or summer.

I opted to explore some lesser-known trails in Colorado to avoid the insane crowds. I hiked part of the Colorado Trail. I drove up to Wyoming to hike in Grand Teton National Park, where even in that popular area, I hiked some trails that weren't as crowded as those in Rocky Mountain National Park.

With the ski slopes finally getting some snow these past few weekends and folks clogging up I-70 to touch the powder, I decided to take a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park this past Sunday with my dad, Robert, and my friend Amanda.

We even did one of the park's most popular hikes, Nymph Lake and Dream Lake. And what a difference a season makes.

There was parking available at Bear Lake, even at 10 a.m., something that simply wouldn't happen in the summer. And the trails weren't clogged with people. Yes, we saw other hikers, but we even achieved a little solitude at times.

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We went Jan. 7 and got by just fine with our hiking boots, but those conditions can vary by the day.

The hike to see Nymph, Dream and Emerald lakes is about 3.6 miles round-trip. The hike starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead.

Nymph Lake, about .5 miles up the trail, is usually dotted with pond lilies in the summer. You can see Hallet Peak and Longs Peak from the north shore.

We hiked around the rim of Nymph Lake. Some folks walked across the middle, trusting the frozen ice to hold them. I prefer to stick to the outside, even if I am certain the ice will hold. This section was exposed, and the icy wind stung my face. I shrunk into my jacket like a turtle and zipped up my collar to my nose.

Once I was back in the trees, the wind subsided.

We continued hiking as the trail steepened on our way to Dream Lake. Every now and then my boot punched through a weak spot in the snow, and I'd be thrown off balance.

Some kind of crampons or microspikes might have been nice. Snowshoes allowed some folks to break trail and play around in the powder, but the trail was, for the most part, packed down, as many popular trails are in the winter in the national park, unless fresh snow is falling.

We saw some folks strapping into their snowboards and slinging snowshoes over their backs. They mostly stayed off the hiking trail.

We ended up taking a couple detours to Dream after following tracks that didn't follow the actual trail. It's easy to be misled by existing tracks in the snow.

Kyle Patterson, Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman, warned me about this in the past as I wrote about winter camping and winter conditions in the park. It's important, especially if you plan to hike in more remote locations, to carry a map and compass and know how to use them. Trails look way different when they're covered in snow.

I want to work on my way finding skills this summer. As it stands, I'm terrible at navigating. Even on high traffic trails, like Dream Lake, it's easy to follow the wrong tracks. We could easily spot other people and set ourselves straight. The extra loops added a bit of flavor to the adventure.

A slew of other hikers passed us as we approached the clearing. They warned us about high winds, low visibility and bitter cold. The high that day was 18 degrees, according to AccuWeather.

We got to the clearing and stood in view of Dream Lake. We saw Hallet Peak and Flattop Mountain reach out of the earth and stand with magnificent, imposing strength on the horizon.

Then a strong, cutting wind blasted us. Darker clouds inched closer. Flecks of snow began to fall. The wind was strong enough to knock us around.

We decided to turn back and leave Emerald for another day. It seemed the weather was poised to get worse, and we like to end on a high note.

If you take on this hike and the weather holds up, I'd recommend hiking all the way up to Emerald Lake. It adds about two miles to the trip from Dream Lake.

My favorite part about winter sports, whether hiking, snowshoeing or skiing is the quiet. We saw several folks on the trail, but for several blissful moments it was quiet. We could hear the wind whistling and rustling the trees in between spurts of strangers' laughter.

I can't imagine experiencing that kind of quiet on that trail in the warmer months.

Path of the Month

» WHAT IS IT? Nymph, Dream and Emerald lakes

» WHERE IS IT? Rocky Mountain National Park

» HOW LONG IS IT? About 3.6 miles round trip

» HOW DO I GET THERE? From Estes Park, take the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station entrance into the park. After passing through the Beaver Meadows fee station, turn left onto Bear Lake Road. Take Bear Lake Road until it dead-ends into the Bear Lake Trailhead area.

» IS THERE A FEE? Yes. For now, it costs $20 per private vehicle, $20 per motorcycle and $10 per person on bike or foot. Those fees remain in place from November through May. Annual Rocky park passes cost $60. Those prices could change in the future.


» HIKING TIP OF THE MONTH: When hiking in snowy conditions, remember that even familiar trails can look completely different. Bring a good map and a compass with you.