What strange times these are.
I don’t know about you all, but I’m definitely missing the mountains and my usual weekend warrior adventure schedule. I know I’m doing a lot of vicarious living right now through everyone else’s adventure posts, and I hope that I can provide the same for all of you. I have a backlog of posts queued up so, unless something changes, I plan to keep on with my weekly posting schedule.
A couple months back, I devoted an entire post to the Sky Pond hike that departs from Glacier Gorge trailhead, passes Alberta Falls, and then travels many miles into the backcountry. But about 2 miles from the trailhead, the trail forks and the other branch leads to Mills, Jewel, and Black Lakes. This is the (somewhat) less popular half of the trail, and it’s a hike I really enjoyed.
I completed this hike with my mom in June 2019; I’ve complained a couple times already about the endless winter we experienced last year, and this was yet another instance in which we were forced to navigate snow. For anyone who’s never experienced this, hiking on snow is not easy. At all.
Since I discussed the first section of this hike in the previous post, I’ll just summarize here. Past Alberta Falls, take the right fork at the first junction and the leftmost fork at the 3-way junction. This will put you on the path to Black Lake.
Alberta Falls was absolutely raging thanks to all the snowmelt, and we made it to Mills Lake without encountering much snow. There was a lot of mud, however.
Mills Lake was fully thawed and looked beautiful with the backdrop of Longs Peak and Keyboard of the Winds. There are many large rocks that extend out into Mills Lake, so you have your choice of picnic spots!
From Mills Lake, the trail continues along the shore toward the inlet stream, which very shortly connects to Jewel Lake. Jewel Lake is much smaller and marshier than Mills Lake, but it’s still a pretty location.
Beyond Jewel Lake, the trail passes through a marshy area on wooden planks that aren’t in very good shape… hopefully they will be replaced soon. Past this point, the trail gets much steeper and more rugged. There were patches of snow, and we spent a good amount of time hiking through the remnants of a huge wind storm from 2011. There are downed trees everywhere; according to my RMNP hiking book, the storm pretty well destroyed the trail. Fortunately it’s been cleared and is easy to navigate now.
The last 1.5 miles (2.4 km) were pretty well obscured by snow, so I’m not certain we were actually on the trail the entire time. This is common with winter hiking, so navigation skills are important to avoid following a random set of footprints or otherwise becoming lost or disoriented.
We eventually linked back up with the trail alongside Ribbon Falls, which just might be one of the neatest waterfalls I’ve ever seen!
Beyond Ribbon Falls, the trail continued steeply up and around a rock ridge, behind which is Black Lake. This last section was definitely the steepest, most challenging part of the hike.
Black Lake was partially thawed and we found a nice large boulder near the lake to eat lunch, enjoy the view, and take a million photos, before retracing our steps through the endless snow. It was a wet and slippery trek; our microspikes mostly kept us from sliding around or falling, but my hiking boots were not nearly waterproof enough to keep my feet dry.
I’ve also hiked as far as Mills Lake in the winter (twice) and it was easily doable in just boots and microspikes. Even though the trail was packed solid both times, one step off the trail to let someone pass resulted in near certain post-holing. Pat sunk in up to his hips at one point (photo at left)!
This is a challenging winter hike as it follows a shorter but steeper winter trail up to the 3-way junction, bypassing Alberta Falls. However, it’s also one of the more well traveled winter trails in the park, so with microspikes and a basic navigation system it should be manageable.
If you’re ever looking for a hike into Glacier Gorge that avoids some of the Sky Pond crowds while still leading to beautiful backcountry lakes, this would be my hiking recommendation for you!
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: summertime round-trip distances and elevation gains along the Glacier Gorge to Black Lake trail are as follows: Alberta Falls 1.6 miles (2.6 km) and 200 feet (61 m), Mills Lake 5.6 miles (9 km) and 800 feet (244 m), Black Lake 10-11 miles (16-17.7 km) and 1500 feet (457 m)
- Other: My mom and I are acclimated and experienced hikers and the hike to Black Lake took us 8 hours to complete. It rained and snowed on us (in late June), we navigated lots of snow, and we were exhausted. It’s a beautiful and worthwhile hike but definitely prepare for an all-day excursion, especially if there’s snow on the trail.