Full-Moon Snowshoeing: Colorado’s Backcountry at Its Best
I love snowshoeing. I love the sound of nothing but aluminum crampons crunching over a packed trail, and, even better, the thumping of 25-inch tails on fresh powder. I love the solitude; the cold, high-mountain winter air and the reward of blazing new trail that I know others will follow.
It wasn’t until I started snowshoeing that I felt I had really experienced a Colorado winter. And it wasn’t until I ventured out at night that I found the best kind of snowshoeing. Full-moon snowshoeing brings together all the elements of a backcountry day trip and multiplies them exponentially.
Staggeringly steep mountains seem even larger when they’re backlit by the glow of a heavy moon. Small creeks, just barely running past white-capped boulders, gurgle louder. Wide-open, snow-covered meadows reflect enough light to make it seem bright as daytime. And, there aren’t a few people — there’s no one.
Just as nighttime snowshoeing enhances the beauty of the backcountry, it also enhances the dangers. Temperatures drop swiftly and steeply. Water will freeze faster, cloud cover can make the trail hard to follow and it’s likely that no one will be around in case of an accident.
Despite the added risk, a little precaution can make full-moon snowshoeing just as safe as heading out during the day. Don’t snowshoe alone at night. Even if a short trip is the plan, bring an extra hat, socks, gloves, water and food. There’s no telling when things won’t go according to plan.
Watch the weather and add a flashlight to your pack. A partially full moon can be enough to light the trail on a clear night, but a few winter clouds can change everything. To keep water from freezing on longer trips, add powdered sports drink and store bottles upside down. Since the bottoms will ice first, the lid won’t freeze shut.
Though open space and county parks are great for close-to-home day trips, most have curfews. Check open/close hours before exploring at night. Popular daytime destinations are a good nighttime option, as the trails are usually packed down and obvious.
Heavily-trafficked beginner trails curl around Echo Lake, 14 miles south of Idaho Springs on Colorado 103. The Chicago Lakes trail branches off at the southwest corner of the lake and is a good option for those seeking a longer trip.
In places, the Chicago Lakes trail follows a ledge where drop-offs are steep and, depending on snow conditions, footing can be awkward for beginners. The trail switchbacks about 400 feet down through wooded hillside to a log bridge across Chicago Creek. At about 1½ miles, this is a good nighttime turnaround point. If you decide to continue, remember the 400 feet of elevation gain on the return trip.
Another option from Echo Lake is to snowshoe straight up the closed-for-winter Mount Evans Road. Though it’s all uphill, it’s pretty tough to get lost on a wide road, and you don’t need to go far for sweeping views of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.Just north of Ward off Colorado 119, the Red Rock Lake trailhead at Brainard Lake Recreation Area is a great starting point for full-moon snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The routes are clearly marked and well-traveled, so it’s easy to stay on trail. The snowshoe-only trail is a basic, rolling route that winds through the forest and intersects with cross-country trails and Brainard Lake Road.
Full Moon Group Events
If you’re not comfortable bringing the family into the backcountry after dark, relax in the familiar territory of a ski resort; many host group snowshoe and cross-country ski tours.
The Crested Butte Nordic Center offers guided full-moon ski and snowshoe tours for $15. The basic trip is between 2-3 miles on beginner terrain and heads out to a tepee where guides serve hot drinks and snacks.
Extra staff is usually available to take faster groups on longer routes, and the center is even willing to organize a custom tour. Rentals are available for an additional $15. Visit www.cbnordic.org/other-activities/backcountry-tours/ or call (970) 349-1707 (ext. 3) for more information.
The Ouray County Nordic Council and the City of Ouray host a full-moon cross-country ski and soak. More of a casual meeting than an official tour, the trip is intermediate and climbs to a miners hut near the ghost town of Ironton. Afterward, warm up and relax with a dip in the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, which stays open late especially for the event. Rent any needed equipment ahead of time. For more information call (800) 228-1876.
Both snowshoers and Nordic skiers are welcome at the Snowmass Cross Country Center’s full-moon tour. Groups split according to pace and experience, but the tours last about an hour. Tours are free but rentals run $10; hot drinks and small snacks are provided. For more information, call (970) 923-5700.Ten minutes from Winter Park, Devil’s Thumb Ranch hosts a full-moon ski, skate and snowshoe night. The ranch doesn’t offer guided nighttime tours, but groomed trails of all levels are open for full-moon fun. Close out the evening with a bonfire, marshmallows and hot chocolate. Call the Nordic Center at (970) 726-8231 for more information.
A last word of advice: No matter where you decide to snowshoe, don’t forget the hot chocolate.
If You Go
Call ahead to confirm group tours. The resorts usually offer rentals, but local ski shops are often cheaper. Many rental shops allow clients to pick up gear the evening before the rental date, and return it the morning after. Some shops offer discounts for advance reservations.
Crested Butte Sports, Emmons Loop, Crested Butte (970) 349-7516
Crystal Ski Shop, 3216 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder (303) 449-7669
Maison De Ski, 2804 Colorado Blvd., Idaho Springs (800) 228-8915
Ouray Mountain Sports, 732 Main St., Ouray (970) 325-4284
Viking Ski Shop, 78966 Highway 40 (at the intersection with Vasquez Road ) Winter Park, (970)281-7220
Content Courtesy of Rachel Barbara. Rachel Barbara enjoys exploring Colorado’s adventurous side.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.