Mills Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park

9,940 Feet

Glacier Gorge Trail via the Glacier Gorge Trailhead (9,200 Feet)
January 19th, 2008
4.7 Miles Roundtrip
Greenhouseguy and Carolyn

 

Ice Ice Baby

 

Icy creeks. Icy waterfalls. Icy lakes. Icy cold. It was another cold and windy day in Rocky Mountain National Park. Carolyn is a novice snowshoer, and she wanted to find a short and relatively easy hike that would help her gain some experience. RMNP has many scenic trails to choose from; I chose the Mills Lake hike because, in addition to the previously-stated criteria, it is also avalanche safe. Mills Lake was named for Enos Mills, who was an innkeeper, naturalist, and mountain guide on Longs Peak. He is credited with leading the effort to create Rocky Mountain National Park. I read a couple of route descriptions,[1],[2] loaded the appropriate map in my GPS, and prepared for a blustery day on the trail.

 

Carolyn and I drove up to Estes Park, and proceeded to RMNP’s Beaver Meadows Entrance. Admission for the day is $20, but a season’s pass is only $35. At 0.2 miles past the gate, I turned left on Bear Lake Road. The Glacier Gorge Trailhead is about 8.2 miles down the Bear Lake Road. There is ample parking at the trailhead, but the lot may fill up by mid-to-late morning. The Glacier Gorge Trailhead, by the way, is a fine place to start a Longs Peak expedition via the Trough Route.

 

 

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The Glacier Gorge Trailhead

 

The wind made its presence known as soon as we exited the vehicle. We had to hang on tight to our equipment while we geared up, because the wind was strong enough to blow gloves, trekking poles, and snowshoes across the parking lot. I was not too concerned, because most of this route is in the relative shelter of the forest. I could see that the first part of the trail was well packed, so we started with our snowshoes stowed on our backpacks.

 

 

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Starting out on the Glacier Gorge Trail

 

At the first trail junction, a sign directed us back towards Sprague Lake in one direction, and towards Alberta Falls, Mills Lake, and Loch Vale in the other direction. The 2.5 miles given for the distance to Mills Lake was a bit pessimistic; it was actually about two miles. The short (0.4-mile) trail to Bear Lake was nearby.

 

 

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Sign at the first trail junction

 

Although there was a crowd at the trailhead, we quickly spread out and it seemed like we had the trail to ourselves. We plunged into the forest and out of the full force of the wind. The trail was packed and easy to follow. Moving over the rolling terrain was not difficult, and the scenery was pretty nice.

 

 

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Descending a snowy stretch of trail

 

As we switchbacked up a section of the trail, we caught a good view of Glacier Creek as it passed through a small gorge. We stopped for a moment to appreciate the sheer cliffs.

 

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Carolyn posing in front of the cliffs above Glacier Creek

 

Alberta Falls is reportedly one of the most-photographed spots in Rocky Mountain National Park. It takes on an entirely different countenance in winter; the falls were frozen and entirely concealed beneath deep snowdrifts. It looked very much like any other hillside along the trail.

 

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The famed Alberta Falls

 

We lost the trail at one point above Alberta Falls. I followed a social trail that people had been using to reach a scenic overlook, and the trail disappeared in a spot that was exposed to the brutal winds. The trail took us up and over a small ridge, and the snow started to get pretty deep. We had to put our snowshoes on to get through the deep stuff. A pair of hikers who had apparently been following us made the same mistake. My GPS got us back on route, and the hikers joined us for the next half-mile or so until they turned off at the junction with the trail to Lake Haiyaha.

 

At about the 1.2-mile mark, we passed the junction with the North Longs Peak Trail. This trail goes past Granite Pass and up to the Boulderfield. This is a scenic and less frequently traveled route for climbing Longs Peak, but it is a bit longer than the Keyhole Route, which is long enough for most people. The sign indicated that it was 1.7 miles back to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, but it was actually closer to 1.2 miles.

 

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Sign at the junction of the Glacier Gorge Trail and the North Longs Peak Trail

 

At about the 1.5-mile mark, we reached another trail junction. The right-hand branch went towards Loch Vale, Sky Pond, Lake Haiyaha, and the Andrews Glacier. All of these points would be interesting hiking destinations. We stayed on the Glacier Gorge Trail, which passes Mills Lake and terminates just past Black Lake. The terminus of this trail is about 0.8 miles due west of the Trough on Longs Peak. Longs Peak via this Trough Route would be an excellent hike, but it might make a better backpacking trip.

 

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Sign at the Glacier Gorge Trail’s junction with the Loch Vale Trail

 

There were several stream crossings along the trail. Some of them were traditional wooden footbridges, while others were single logs with handrails. The trail guides warned that these logs would be difficult to cross on skis or snowshoes. It appeared that nobody had used these log bridges recently. The creeks were frozen solid and drifted over with snow, so it was much easier to walk directly across the frozen creek beds. We crossed the aptly-named Icy Brook, and a few minutes later we crossed Glacier Creek.

 

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Log footbridge over Glacier Creek

 

After we crossed Glacier Creek, the trail followed the creek on the east side for the rest of the journey to Mills Lake. There are some waterfalls below the lake, but they were frozen and drifted over. The trail got steeper and the snow got deeper, so we had to use our snowshoes for the final stretch. We skirted some exposed bedrock along the trail to prevent damage to our snowshoes. The north shore of the lake was exposed to the wind, so the wind-driven snow pelted us as we enjoyed the view of the frozen Mills Lake.

 

 

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Mills Lake in all its icy glory. Glacier Gorge, in the background, is concealed by spindrift blowing off of the surrounding mountains.

 

The 11,482-foot Half Mountain towers over the east side of Mills Lake. It appears to be part of the same ridge that forms Storm Peak, which is approximately 1.8 miles to the south.

 

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Half Mountain viewed from Mills Lake

 

Thatchtop Mountain (12,668 feet) and Arrowhead Mountain (12,387 feet) are southwest of Mills Lake. It was difficult to see the summit of either mountain because of the tremendous amount of snow that was blowing around. Thatchtop Mountain has a well-known ice-climbing route called “All Mixed Up” that has been responsible for several injuries and at least one fatality. These rugged peaks look like they would be worth visiting in better weather conditions.

 

 

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Thatchtop Mountain as seen from the north shoreline of Mills Lake

 

I tried to use my timer and tripod to take our picture at the lake, but the wind blew my camera over with an expensive-sounding thud. A trail runner came along at just the right moment, and offered to take the picture.

 

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Greenhouseguy and Greenhouse Spouse at Mills Lake. Photo credit: Guy With Frozen Moustache.

 

When we turned north to return to the trailhead, we had a good view of the Glacier Knobs. The Glacier Knobs are roches moutonées, which are rocky hills that are rounded on one side and cliffed on the opposite side as a result of glacial action. The trail passed by the cliffs on one of the Glacier Knobs, and I had to stop and stare at the sheer face of the rock.

 

 

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The Glacier Knobs, seen from the south

 

There is a shelf trail on the southeast slope of the eastern Glacier Knob. We were exposed to the wind on this quarter-mile section of trail, and we had to dig in our trekking poles a couple of times to brace ourselves.

 

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Shelf trail on the southeast slope of the eastern Glacier Knob

 

We managed to stay on-route for the remainder of the hike, and had very few problems on the way back. We had to pass over a few small bumps on the way back, but it was mostly downhill. There were plenty of late risers on the trail, and people were arriving at the trailhead even as we were leaving.

 

We got back to the Jeep and geared down. My trekking poles skittered across the parking lot as I was taking my backpack off. I’d had about enough of the wind! As we were driving back towards the entrance, I noticed a few cars beside the road. People were outside of their vehicles, and were obviously looking at something. I slowed down to have a look, and saw that they were watching a mother moose and her two calves. I had to stop and take a few frames. It was the first moose that Carolyn and I had ever seen in nature. One woman got perilously close to the moose, and Mother Moose looked a little bit uneasy. I kept a safe distance because of the moose’s reputed cantankerous disposition. I’ve seen a number of moose warning signs at trailheads.

 

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Cow moose and her two calves (note one calf’s head near the cow’s right front leg, and the other calf’s ear sticking up above the cow’s rump).

 

This trail is heavily traveled year-round, yet we found plenty of solitude. It was easy enough for a beginner, but fun enough to interest a more experienced hiker. The scenery was exceptional. The Mills Lake hike is definitely an excellent winter hike.

 

 

 

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[1] Alan Apt, Snowshoe Routes: Colorado’s Front Range (Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers Books, 2001), 134-135.

[2] Lisa Foster, Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide (Englewood, Colorado: Westcliffe Publishers, Inc., 2005), 49.