Winter Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park
At the end of March, I flew to Denver, CO to hang out with my amazing PCT friends, Hot Mess & Butters. So of course, we had to do a little hiking since we were reunited. Not knowing much about Colorado or the Rockies, I relinquished my sometimes-crazy planning to Butters. Sometimes its so nice to let others plan things! And it was a good idea in this case, because we had a beautiful hike to Mills Lake, even though the weather was kind of terrible.
We started at the Bear Lake Trailhead (although, the Glacier Gorge Trail head would have been a better option for the hike we were doing - but it was full). Of course, right when we got to the trailhead, the wind and snow picked up, even though it had been relatively nice before we got there. We took our time getting ready, hoping the weather would just blow away, but instead it just started to snow heavier, and we started on the trail towards Alberta Falls. The trail was mostly uphill, with some flat spots along the way, and after about 1 mile, we reached the spot where the falls normally are.
Unfortunately for me, I was exhausted during this hike for multiple reasons. First, I had just flown into Denver the afternoon before - from sea level - and now I was hiking at 10,000 ft, in less than 24 hours. Ooof. Second, we got fear-mongered by the rental shop to bring snowshoes on our hike, instead of microspikes. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem, as I could just carry the snowshoes in my backpack when not using them, but I was using a tiny travel pack that could not fit snowshoes in it (and yes, I tried to shove them in there). So where did the snowshoes end up? On my feet. Did the trail warrant using snowshoes? Of course not. So I was spending quite a bit of unnecessary energy picking my feet up with those monsters on.
After passing Alberta Falls, the trail up got a little steeper, and I was shedding my middle layers, and practically panting due to the altitude. The trail poked out of the trees, and we had some pretty views. I couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed that it was still snowing, and there was no blue sky to be found (I was beginning to think that everyone was lying about how many days of sunshine Colorado sees every year…). But, we were still having fun. And of course, it wouldn’t be a hike without Butters taking a little slip. Butters got her trail name by constantly dropping her trekking poles on the PCT, but she is also prone to falls - the most magnificent of which I witnessed happened right before Walker Pass on the PCT. Thankfully she wasn’t hurt, and we can still laugh about it to this day.
After some moderate, flat trail, we again dipped into the trees and climbed again, passing the junction for the Loch, and continuing up towards Mills Lake. We initially thought about going to the Loch and pressing further to Sky Pond, but after some research beforehand, decided we (especially me) were not equipped with the proper gear to get over a sketchy frozen waterfall. We wanted this to be a fun adventure, not a crazy-intense one. After a little more incline in the forest, we broke above the trees and started seeing the outline of the mountains behind Mills Lake.
And then we finally made it! The lake was frozen solid, and I could tell that this was a gorgeous place, even though clouds and snow were obscuring our views. We took some photos, put our warm layers back on, and ate a couple of snacks. Eventually, the wind started howling, and even though the sun was trying to break through the clouds, we decided it was time to turn around since we were quite cold!
The hike down was pretty breezy since it was all downhill. We got a little lost along the way, and ran into a group of other hikers that were also lost, but thankfully, GaiaGPS came in handy and we were able to get back to the trail. We didn’t know how we managed to lose the trail, but it’s a good reminder that snow travel can be dangerous: you start following tracks that look like they’re the trail, but actually aren’t. GPS becomes really handy in the snow and weather when some landmarks can be obscured by clouds and snow. The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful until we got to the last uphill portion before the parking lot and I was hurting! I definitely messed up my hip along the way (I'm blaming the snowshoes), and going uphill was particularly painful.
Due to my new little injury, we decided we’d do a driving tour of the rest of the park. Which turned out to be an amazing idea since the rest of the park managed to have blue skies and I actually got to see some mountains! We found some pretty mountain and !ELK! views right off the side of the road, and made our way up to the Many Parks Curve, which is where the road through the park closes for the winter. Here we had amazing views of Longs Peak and the valleys of the park. I already can’t wait until I can visit next - maybe in the summer though.
Do It Yourself:
Mills Lake is accessed from the Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake trailheads. It is a 4 mile roundtrip hike with ~1,000 ft of elevation gain, mostly on the hike to the lake. In the winter, you will need microspikes or snowshoes depending on how severe the weather has been before your hike. I’d only use snowshoes if the area recently experienced a heavy snowfall.