Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Winter camping at Rocky Mountain National Park

March 4, 2011, 10:52 am

The park ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park tapped on his computer, entering the information for our backcountry camping permit. Then he stopped and looked up.

"Looks like you fellas will be the only ones in the park tonight," he said.

This wasn't Pony Pasture Park or even Central Park he was talking about. This was 265,000-acre Rocky Mountain National Park, a place big enough to hold more than three Shenandoah National Parks. And this guy was telling us it would be all ours after sundown.

My friend and camping partner, Samuel Bachar, and I exchanged a glance of pure anticipation. This was going to be awesome.

That was six hours ago at the park entrance. The sun was out, the temperature mild. Now we're huddled in our sleeping bags listening to the wind whip through this glacier-carved gorge, wondering what we got ourselves into.

The hike here was difficult — pulling a sled and carrying a backpack full of gear — but short, just 3 miles on snowshoes. And the reward was more than worth it: snow-capped peaks standing more than 12,000 feet above frozen Mills Lake.

The ranger said the snow base in this area was around 65 inches. That seemed about right as we carved a campsite into the snow among half-buried pines. It took almost two hours to tamp down a site for the tent, then dig out a place for cooking and eating.

Very little about winter camping in conditions like these resembles the kind of camping most people — myself included — have ever done. That's true in many ways, but none more so than the one we're faced with now: It's 6:30 p.m. Dinner is over. The sun is down, and for every second that's true, the temperature seems to drop another degree. We're wearing every stitch of clothing we brought, and still it's too cold to leave any appendage outside the sleeping bag.