Distance: 10.6 miles (out and back and exploration)
Elevation Gain: 2,367 ft (total gain) Max Elevation: 11,007 ft Min. Elevation: 9,224 ft
The map on the left is our route from TH to Black Lake. The map on the right shows our route past Black Lake and displays relative locations of Green Lake and Frozen Lake with respect to the waterfall and The infamous Spearhead.
Rocky Mountain National Park is the quintessential mountain playground of the summer. After just renewing our annual RMNP park pass for the year, we couldn’t resist spending our second weekend in a row at adventureland. The work week had taken quite a bit out of us so we lounged around in the morning longer than usual for a Saturday and then hit the road about 10:00 am. The forecast called for perfect weather, and our planned hike would keep us under treeline for the majority of the day just in case a sneaky thunderstorm came through. Traffic proved to be very difficult in getting to the park. When we finally approached the Beaver Meadows entrance station, there was a long line of cars waiting to pay and get in. Luckily, they have an express lane for pass-holders, in which a quick swipe of a card allows access of the park and hence, no waiting in line. We breezed through. As we drove toward Glacier Gorge TH and Bear Lake, numerous signs said all parking lots were full (even shuttle routes) and to turn around and come back after 2:00 pm. We continued on to Bear Lake anyways, and for the second time in a week we got lucky. Someone was leaving as we pulled up, and we got a spot! If you plan to go to Rocky Mountain National Park in late July or August on a weekend, be prepared for this craziness. Ideally, you should arrive at the park around 8:00 am or earlier to secure a spot or a least by 10:00 am to get a spot in the shuttle lot. We really just took our chances. (Wild Basin fills up by 7:30-8:30 am most summer weekends and there is no shuttle service).
We quickly set off on the trail that heads to Alberta Falls in order to connect up with the trail to take us towards Mills and Black Lakes. Thus, the first portion of this hike was a repeater from last weekend (the normal trailhead is the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, but the Glacier Gorge parking lot is small and there was no chance of parking there). We powered through the first two miles of the trail, averaging 15 min. miles mostly uphill. Quickly we reached the trail junction that splits, optioning this time for the southeast trail towards these new lakes. Seen below are overlooks, waterfalls, and foot bridges that led us to Mills Lake.
Mills lake is about 2.8 miles from Glacier Gorge TH but we started at Bear Lake which made the distance about 3 miles. It feels like a very quick hike with all the visual delights along the way. The only downside was people dodging until we reached the trail junction. After this point, the trail thinned out a bit, and we very quickly reached Mills Lake. It was a fabulous lake to visit, and we were quite surprised we had not made an effort to get here before (the lake is almost half a mile long). Interestingly, Mills Lake is named after Enos Mills, “the father of Rocky Mountain National Park.” He spent years lobbying Congress to help create this park in 1915. In addition, this September begins the 100 year anniversary celebration of the park. All year long there will be special events and programs commemorating RMNP. The trail turns to granite slab as it reaches the lake and disappears for a moment. It then reappears and skirts the eastern shoreline, providing many adequate spots along the way to set up a picnic on rocky outcroppings. We paused for a moment to relax. Chipmunk friends quickly came over to scope the area and our bags for food. Unfortunately, two hikers near us thought it would be a good idea to feed the critters. This resulted in one member of the party subsequently getting bitten by the “cute” rodent. Working with rodents had already taught this lesson for our group. Needless to say, don’t feed the wildlife. Seen below are photographs of Mills Lake with the majestic cirque off in the background; a preview of where we were heading. The peaks in the background are Chiefs Head, Pagoda and Thatchtop Peaks.
As you continue on along Mills Lake it eventually thins, disappears, and then a smaller lake, Jewel Lake, appears. The trail continues to follow close to the shoreline of Jewel Lake. Everything is so green in the area in August. Plants and flowers are abundant. Several wooden planks connect on the trail, elevating hikers a few feet above a green marsh. We weren’t touched by mud here, but the vibrant blue and yellow flowers dusted our sleeves as we walked by. If only words or still images could truly capture the moment. It is a hope and dream of ours and mission of this site that everyone makes the effort to go out and have these experiences outdoors. We continued to follow Glacier Creek fairly closely on the trail and steadily gained elevation (well sometimes not so steadily). After about 4.8 miles, we reached the amazingly beautiful Ribbon Falls which spills from Black Lake. Seen below are photos of Glacier Creek and the Falls. Notice what a great slip n slide Ribbon Falls would make…
A series of rocky steps on her eastern side led us upward until we reached a small boulder field and the first signs of Black Lake. A few skips and hops over and we were at her northeast bank. The water was a dark green matching the name quite well. We sat on a rock and admired the trout splashing around. Unfortunately mosquitos the size of dragonflys began to attack, and we had to get on the move again. Seen below is a pano from the shores of Black Lake.
We then headed east and followed the trail into a thick forest. It quickly opens up and heads sharply east and up along side Black Lake’s primary inlet. The trail here is very uneven and abundant in loose rock. It climbs straight up until opening up to wild tundra and several unmaintained routes leading various ways to Green Lake, Frozen Lake or many of the surrounding peaks. Since we got such a late start, we didn’t continue on to Frozen Lake and simply used our time here to explore and scramble a little on some nearby rock. We crossed the creek and headed south. Seen below are photos looking back down at Black Lake and of our exploration.
With the sun giving the first hints of retiring, we reluctantly turned around and headed back down the gully and the route upon which we came. The area has some excellent off trail routes to explore and nice climbing options. We can’t wait to come back here with more time. The trip back was relatively quiet and calm. Mills Lake was still and peaceful as we enjoyed water and a snack on her rocky bank. We reached the car famished and ready for dinner. The night concluded with a delicious Mexican Dinner in Estes Park and a little window shopping.
Side notes, stories and closing remarks from this hike:
1. During the hike, a funny remark from an older hiking couple on the trail encouraged and resulted in our record speeds reaching and returning from Black Lake. Just past Jewel Lake, a lady says “I wouldn’t go further if I were you! It’s only one more mile, but it took us an hour to get here and that’s going down!” We politely asked what was wrong with the trail and why we shouldn’t continue. She looked flustered and said that it was simply a rough trail and to think hard before continuing. She shook her head at us as we continued on anyway. Well, the trail isn’t a perfectly smooth path, but it was pretty good in our opinion. There were some steep sections, some roots, and mud in areas but nothing out of the ordinary. From that point, we made it to the Lake in about 32 min. 😉 We got all the way back to Mills lake in about 45 mins. Just for completeness, it took 1 hour and 57 minutes to get from Black Lake to Bear Lake (but that was us). So, take others advice on the trail with a grain of salt, know your own abilities and be confident in them. It would have been a shame not to see the gorgeous lake and cirque.
2. Get an early start so you won’t be disappointed when you don’t have enough time to get to Frozen Lake or climb more. Also, bring a helmet. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our helmets, thus we didn’t feel comfortable completing a couple of moves with loose rock around.
3. Bring some bugspray. The mosquitos were huge and scary at Black Lake.
Allyson & Thomas