• A translucent blanket of clouds hangs over the snowy continental divide above Bear Lake Road. NPS Photo by VIP Olsen

    Rocky Mountain

    National Park Colorado

Winter Solstice

The beginning of winter is marked by the winter solstice. Winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Because of the often cold temperatures at this time of year, many people do not realize that the earth is actually about three million miles nearer the sun in the Northern Hemisphere's winter than during the summer. Winter conditions are a result of the earth's tilted orbit and short day length. Also because of the earth's tilted orbit, the winter solstice marks the time when the sun is lowest in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. At the latitude of the park (about 40.3 degrees north) the altitude of the sun at noon is only about 26.2 degrees above the horizon. This gives the impression to many that the winter light is weaker or has a different "quality" than in summer. Certainly the oblique light, especially when combined with windy and/or snowy conditions, provides some unique opportunities for photographers and outdoors enthusiasts.

Many cultures view the winter solstice as a time of rebirth and most celebrate a mid-winter holiday as a result. They often draw comparisons between rebirth of light (longer day lengths) and rebirth of life or the earth's processes (movement toward spring growth). Veteran visitors to Rocky Mountain Park know that life processes go on for the hearty animals and plants in the park all winter, but that it will be several months before wintry conditions give way to spring. In spite of longer day lengths, the coldest and snowiest months are still ahead. Nevertheless, longer day lengths provide a cause for celebration because they encourage more outdoor activities.

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