Colorado, Colorado Hikes, Rocky Mountain National Park, US National Parks

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Wind River/Glacier Basin Loop

Normally I’m excited for snowy mountains and frozen alpine lakes and snowshoeing, but this past winter I had trouble locating my enthusiasm. It might have been because winter took its sweet time arriving in Colorado. The mountains ended 2021 with snowpack that was far below normal, and it didn’t actually snow in Denver until December 10th (which was a record for latest first snowfall ever).

The rest of winter has been much more wintery and, as I sit here at the end of February writing this, there is snow on the ground and we’re coming off of our coldest week of the year. Once it felt like winter in Denver, I found myself more excited about winter in the mountains. And finally, at the end of January, I strapped on my snowshoes for the first time this season.

My friend Savannah had stumbled across a rather unknown trail in Rocky that she wanted to check out. Our hike began at the East Portal Trailhead, which is located about 5 miles (8 km) southwest of Estes Park. (This is not to be confused with East Portal Trailhead near Rollinsville, Colorado.) We pulled into the parking lot and found it plowed but empty. It looked like we’d be all alone for at least part of our day.

The trail was snow-covered from the very first step so we put our snowshoes on right away. The hike begins on either the Wind River or the Glacier Creek Trail, depending which direction you want to hike the loop. We began on the Glacier Creek Trail and went right at the first fork, opting to hike the loop counterclockwise. Hiking in this direction would put most of the elevation gain at the beginning of the hike. So up we went.

Just ahead was a 9200 foot (2805 m) point called Emerald Mountain. An unmaintained trail branches off and climbs very steeply to the summit. It was challenging to follow the path through intermittent snow and bushes, and eventually there was too little snow and too many rocks to use snowshoes, so we took them off and stashed them by a tree. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves above the rocks and sinking into knee-deep snow, wishing we hadn’t left our snowshoes down below.

Up we go; this was the “trail”
Looking back at Glacier Creek Trail from Emerald Mountain Trail
About halfway up Emerald Mountain

But we made it and were rewarded with some of the best views of the day!

Summit views from Emerald Mountain

After enjoying the panoramic sights, we slipped and slid our way back down the snow and rocks, recovered our snowshoes, and found our way back to the main trail. From here, it was a fairly gradual walk through the woods. Although this is a lesser traveled trail, there were visible tracks and red markers on trees indicated the route. Most trails in Colorado are not marked in this way, but having the markers made navigation much simpler.

Looking back at Emerald Mountain
A red tag on the tree (left) marks the trail

Soon, the trail emerged from the trees into Glacier Basin Campground. I’ve stayed here in the summer and it’s my favorite campground in the park. It’s closed in winter, but boy was it beautiful all covered in snow! The fire grates were buried and the picnic tables were practically at ground level; this was the first time all day we’d been able to really tell how much snow was on the ground.

Glacier Basin Campground

The Glacier Creek Trail then continues past the campground for another couple miles. But first, we detoured off the loop onto the 0.6 mile (1 km) Glacier Basin-Sprague Lake Trail to Sprague Lake. This is a beautiful and very accessible lake – there’s a parking lot on the opposite side and the trail around it is wheelchair accessible. Meanwhile, we’d hiked about 2.5 miles (4 km) so far… this is the very long way to reach Sprague Lake. I enjoyed the detour, though, as this view never gets old.

Sprague Lake

It was calm and sunny so we took a break here before retracing our steps back to our loop. The Glacier Creek Trail continues through the forest, eventually intersecting with the Glacier Creek to Storm Pass Trail. Shortly thereafter, we turned onto the Wind River Trail which paralleled the Wind River all the way back to the trailhead. We couldn’t really see the river due to the snow. We also hadn’t seen many people all day, and part of this section of trail was unbroken so we had to set the tracks… which is always hard work.

Wind River Trail
Back to the trailhead… and a small pond
Pond and Emerald Mountain (right)

All in all, this was a good first snowshoe of the season. Aside from our short but steep detour up Emerald Mountain, the elevation gain was gradual, the forest was peaceful, and the views were nice. It would also be a good trail to cross country ski. And with so many trail junctions, you have the option to make the hike as long or short as you’d like. For us, it ended up being 7.6 miles (12.2 km). Here is a map of our route.

The most exciting part of the day for me, though, was spotting a mountain lion meandering near the highway as we drove to the trailhead! It was the first mountain lion I’ve ever seen in the wild. Unfortunately, since we were driving I couldn’t capture a photo.

And I guess that’s about it. A lovely snowshoe loop in Rocky and a very unexpected feline sighting.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: East Portal Trailhead is located at the end of Tunnel Road (Highway 66) 5 miles (8 km) southwest of Estes Park (be sure your GPS doesn’t sent you to the other East Portal Trailhead in Colorado)
  • Fees and passes: although you don’t drive through an entrance station to reach this trailhead, park entry fees still apply ($25/car daily, $35/car weekly or America the Beautiful pass). From May-Oct you will also need to purchase a timed entry permit in advance if you plan to arrive at this trailhead between the hours of 9:00am-3:00pm. If you arrive before 9:00am, no permit is needed
  • Hiking: there are numerous options for this trail, including the full loop with add-ons as we did, which was 7.6 miles (12.2 km) with 1600 feet (490 m) of elevation gain
  • Where to stay: there are 5 campgrounds in the park (only 1 is open in winter) and dozens of lodging options in Estes Park, including East Portal at Estes Park Campground which is right at the trailhead. Backpacking (permit required) is also an option; there are three sites on the Wind River half of this loop
  • Other: because this is a lesser-traveled trail navigation may be more challenging, especially in the winter when everything is covered in snow. Be sure to download a trail map in advance so you know which way to go at each junction
  • For additional information on winter hiking safety, visit this post

42 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Wind River/Glacier Basin Loop”

  1. It’s always a wonderful feeling to pull up to the trailhead and find no other cars in the parking lot. The views look beautiful, especially with those blue skies. How neat to see a mountain lion along the drive (instead of on the trail).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It really pays to hike when there’s snow: no crowds in sight! Of course, it’s much more challenging, but sounds like snowshoes really came in handy (I’ve never worn snowshoes, so I can’t imagine just how convenient they would be!). It’s funny to see Sprague Lake all frozen and covered in snow: it’s very different from its crystal blue waters in the summer; I bet you could walk on top of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can walk on the lakes here in the winter! We walked out a little bit to take some photos. Walking on frozen lakes is so much fun.

      For the snowshoes, they are convenient in that they keep you from sinking in too far (usually). But they’re also big so it takes a bit to get used to walking in them. I always end up with sore hips after a long day of snowshoeing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love John Denver but somehow I’d never heard that song before. I just looked it up… thanks for introducing me to a new one of his! I can see why it came to mind.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well if you’re looking to get back into snowshoes, this would be a decent starting point. Aside from the Emerald Mountain climb, it was relatively flat and not too challenging.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an amazing hike, Diana! The photos are breathtakingly beautiful! ❤ Thank you for sharing this adventure.

    Once, many years ago, I took my girl scout troop for a hike in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park in the snow, followed by a swim at the health club. We were out quite late, and I think the parents may have been worried!


    1. Haha yeah, sometimes when I wake up early for a hike and it’s cold and dark, I regret committing myself to it. But it’s usually worth the early wake up call and the cold. Fortunately I now own the correct gear to stay warm in most conditions.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. An awesome winter hike you made ! Thanks for telling your story and the beautiful pictures. It must be great to live in a place where you have all this wild nature relative close to you.


    1. It really is. Especially since Covid, I’ve realized how lucky we are to be able to get out and hike and explore without going too far from home. I feel very thankful.


  5. Beautiful images. For some odd reason I haven’t gone snowshoeing at all this winter and we have no shortage of either snow or winter up here in Alberta. However it’s finally melting so I’m going to put snowshoeing out of my mind until next year.

    Liked by 1 person

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