Ask someone from Denver what the must-do hike is in Rocky Mountain and a vast majority will probably say Sky Pond. The jagged mountain ridge lines above this high mountain lake are pretty iconic. And it’s just a neat hike.
The Sky Pond hike begins at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, whose small parking lot fills notoriously early, especially on summer weekends. However, the aforementioned free shuttle stops here, and I highly recommend taking advantage of this. Unless you feel like arriving at 6:00 am, you won’t find a parking spot at the trailhead.
We arrived fairly early in the morning via the shuttle and set off, following signs toward Alberta Falls. The falls is about 0.8 miles (1.3 km) and 200 vertical feet (61 m) from the trailhead, and tumbles 25 feet (7.6 m) down Glacier Gorge. As with most waterfalls, Alberta Falls is at its peak in early summer when the snow is melting.
Beyond the falls, the trail continues its upward climb to a junction; veer right toward Loch Vale, also sometimes called Loch Lake or The Loch. At a second junction 2 miles (3.2 km) from the trailhead take the middle fork, continuing toward Loch Vale.
From this junction, the trail climbs up a hillside above Icy Brook before curving around to Loch Vale at about 2.8 miles (4.5 km) from the trailhead.
Many people turn around here, and Loch Vale is well worth the hike on its own, but for those looking for a longer, more challenging hike, you can press on to Timberline Falls, Lake of Glass, and Sky Pond. The trail traverses the northern shore of Loch Vale, maintaining a fairly steady elevation until it once again rises alongside Icy Brook towards Timberline Falls.
The falls itself can be seen from the trail, and as you stand at the base of the falls and gaze upwards, you’ll be staring at the next section of the trail as well. This is the most difficult section of the hike, as you’ll essentially be climbing up the right side of Timberline Falls. Climbing gear isn’t required, but you will sometimes need to use your hands and you’ll likely be navigating wet rocks.
Once you reach the top of Timberline Falls, you’ll be in the hanging valley containing the small, clear Lake of Glass. It’s worth stopping here and glancing back over your shoulder at the expansive view below, including Loch Vale.
From here, it’s just a final short walk up and over a low ridge to reach Sky Pond. As soon as you crest the ridge, it will become obvious why this is such an iconic hike. Photos from every angle are amazing, but for a shot of the most recognizable and jagged ridge line, turn left when you reach the lake and walk about ¼ of the way around the shore.
I’ve also done two winter hikes to Loch Vale. The winter trail follows a shorter and much steeper route than the main trail, ignoring Alberta Falls and heading directly to the 3-way trail junction mentioned above. From here, the summer trail zigzags up to the top of the right bank of Icy Brook (left photo below). In the winter, the trail goes straight up Icy Brook (right photo below).
On my first winter hike, the wind gusts at the lake were probably the strongest I’d ever experienced – one of them blew me completely off balance but fortunately right into Pat – so we didn’t spend much time there. The second time around, it was perfectly calm and my mom and I were able to thoroughly enjoy the frozen lake.
I haven’t yet decided if Loch Vale is prettier in the summer or the winter. Either way, it’s quite possibly the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen!
Sky Pond can be reached in the winter, but the terrain beyond Loch Vale can be highly avalanche prone so we opted not to continue. If you do plan to do a winter hike to Sky Pond, appropriate avalanche gear (beacon, shovel, probe) should be part of your packing list. You will also likely need snowshoes.
I know the crowds can be off-putting for many people, but I promise this is a hike that’s well worth it. The only bottleneck was at Timberline Falls since that section of trail is extremely narrow; aside from that, we were always able to hike at our own pace and find our own space. And, as is always the case in Colorado, the earlier you begin your hike, the less crowded it will be.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: this hike departs from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road; consider leaving your car at the park-n-ride in the summer and taking the free shuttle to the trailhead
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency annual passes are accepted
- Hiking: Round-trip distances and elevation gains along the Glacier Gorge to Sky Pond trail are as follows: Alberta Falls 1.6 miles (2.6 km) and 200 feet (61 m), Loch Vale 5.6 miles (9 km) and 1040 feet (317 m), Sky Pond 9 miles (14.5 km) and 1780 feet (543 m)
- Other: We encountered an extremely friendly marmot at Lake of Glass, who was clearly accustomed to humans feeding him. He even attempted to get into someone’s backpack. We always see signs about how feeding wildlife can be harmful, but I learned something recently about why this is and I feel it’s worth sharing: when animals that hibernate – such as marmots or squirrels – receive food that isn’t part of their normal diet, their bodies don’t process it in the same way and it doesn’t end up getting stored as fat. Then when winter comes along, they don’t have enough fat stored up and they die during hibernation.