Colorado, Colorado Hikes, Rocky Mountain National Park, US National Parks

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Sky Pond (the winter version)

Frozen alpine lakes have become one of my favorite things since moving to Colorado. I just love the icy winter scenery so much. It’s already become an annual thing for us to hike to some of the more easily accessible lakes in Rocky every winter. But this winter, my friend Savannah and I had a more challenging destination in mind: Sky Pond.

It only takes a few minutes of research to uncover the highly popular Sky Pond hike in Rocky. It’s pretty iconic, and if you ask someone for recommendations this one will probably end up on the list. We hiked it once before, in the summer. But winter at Sky Pond is a whole different ball game. In addition to the snow, this trail ascends alongside Timberline Falls, which turns to ice in the winter and can be a dangerous, slippery mess. There’s also one section of trail that passes below a potentially avalanchable (is that a word?) slope. Understandably, we were hesitant to attempt this one.

But winter 2020 was… well, not winter. At least, not initially. It was the day after Christmas and snowpack was well below normal. Which – while terrible from a climate perspective – was great for a relatively safe hike to Sky Pond. So Pat and I dragged ourselves out of bed way too early the morning after the holiday, geared up, and headed out to meet up with Savannah and her husband Blake for this hopefully epic winter adventure.

(Spoiler alert: it was indeed pretty epic. I also took way too many photos, so prepare to be inundated.)

(Update: we loved this hike so much that Pat and I have decided to make it an annual tradition. We hiked it again in February 2022 and it was just as amazing the second time around. I’ll be sharing photos from this outing in a future post.)

Sunrise at the park entrance; photo taken through the rear window, hence the poor quality

Since I’ve written about this hike before I won’t talk too many details now (but you can find more trail info here). In summary: from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, follow signs for Loch Vale. There’s the main route and an alternate (shorter but steeper) winter route; we took the main route this time, which led us past the frozen Alberta Falls.

Hiking above Alberta Falls; notice the severe lack of snow

Loch Vale in winter is one of my favorite places, and today was no exception. The lake was frozen solid so we walked right across it, stopping briefly to chat with a guy who was ice skating on the lake. Obviously there is inherent danger in standing on a frozen lake, but we could see that the ice was plenty thick and solid, and we know from past hikes that these lakes are safe to walk on once winter settles in. We also spread out across the ice and avoided stepping close to rocks, the edge, and the flowing inlet and outlet streams – all places where water does not freeze as solidly.

Loch Vale

The route to Loch Vale is well travelled; unless it just snowed, the trail will most likely be packed down and easy to follow. Beyond Loch Vale, this becomes a more intense winter hike. So let’s talk safety. Microspikes are a must; climbing the side of an icy waterfall without them is extremely dangerous – and, honestly, probably not possible.

You may also need snowshoes. We didn’t, but only because of the unseasonable weather (though we brought them with us just in case). In a normal winter, there would be more snow to contend with. With more snow comes more risk for avalanches. Avalanches along this trail are extremely rare… but they’re theoretically possible. I personally wouldn’t do this hike during times of high avalanche danger. The CAIC releases regular avalanche forecasts; danger in the area was low the day we did this hike.

Okay, important safety info has been addressed. Now let’s get back to the hike. After crossing Loch Vale, we picked up the trail on the opposite shore. From here, the path meanders through the trees and begins to steadily gain elevation. It was in this section of trail that we encountered something very odd: a hovering tree. Or so it appeared from a distance. From up close, our best guess is that it broke off an adjacent trunk and got stuck in a neighboring tree as it fell. I have no idea how that was even possible, but we can’t think of a better explanation.

The last section of trail below Timberline Falls climbs steeply across a snow-covered rock field before arriving at the base of the frozen waterfall. Timberline Falls was one of the best frozen waterfalls I’ve ever seen. The entire pool of water at the base was frozen solid, as was the falls itself. The ice was so smooth; we even took our gloves off to touch it and it was like running our fingers over wavy glass.

Looking back at Loch Vale from the base of Timberline Falls

After admiring the ice and taking way too many photos, our next hurdle was the most challenging part of the hike… climbing up the side of the falls. This was the part I was most nervous about. Truthfully, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. The bottom section was a little icy, but we were able to avoid the worst of it and safely navigate the rest with our microspikes. That being said, we’re moderately experienced winter hikers and a little bit of scrambling and exposure doesn’t bother us. If you aren’t super comfortable with these things, this section might be trickier.

Ice on the trail at the base of the falls

Just beyond the top of Timberline Falls is Lake of Glass. Many people mistakenly think they’ve made it to Sky Pond and turn around here, but this is not it. It’s a pretty lake though, and the patterns in the ice were really neat.

Lake of Glass
Ice ripples on Lake of Glass
Ice patterns on Lake of Glass

The trail beyond Lake of Glass wasn’t well defined, but we managed to find our way across the rocks and over the final small hill to Sky Pond.

Finding our way to Sky Pond
First glimpse of Sky Pond

Sky Pond is iconic for a reason. But after hiking it in the summer, I actually thought it was a little overhyped… probably because the views and photos I got were far less cool than what I’d seen online. It’s actually kind of difficult to get a good photo of the jagged ridgeline because you’re so close to it and there isn’t a trail all the way around the lake. But in the winter we could simply walk across the lake to the best views… which is exactly what we did.

Sky Pond doesn’t get much sun in the winter. It was 11:00am and the sun had yet to reach the lake. It was chilly. In fact, when we’d arrived at the trailhead that morning and stepped out of the car to cold gusty winds, my enthusiasm for this hike vanished in an instant. If it was that windy down low, what would it be like at 11,000 feet? But for whatever reason, the wind up there was actually no worse than at the parking lot… a pleasant surprise. It was still windy. I could only last about 30 seconds before having to put my camera away and my gloves back on. But it wasn’t nearly as brutal as I was expecting.

Taken from Loch Vale on the way back down. Note the snow blowing off the ridge in the background; Sky Pond is up in that basin. Fortunately the wind wasn’t quite that bad when we were up there

As much as I enjoy hiking in summer – you know, when it’s warm and there’s sunlight and you don’t have to wear 5 layers – Colorado constantly reminds me that some places are prettier in the winter than they are in the summer. In my opinion, Sky Pond is one such place.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the Sky Pond trail leaves from Glacier Gorge trailhead along Bear Lake Road; parking fills before dawn in the summer and by 8:00-9:00am in the winter. You can also start from Bear Lake, which has more parking (but also fills by 7:00am in the summer and 9:00am in the winter) – add 0.2 miles (0.3 km) roundtrip to all distances from there
  • Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency passes are accepted. From May-October, you will also need to purchase a timed entry permit in advance to access this trailhead
  • Hiking: roundtrip distance is 7.8 miles (12.6 km) via the winter route or 9.8 miles (15.8 km) via the summer route with about 1750 feet (535 m) of elevation gain
  • Where to stay: there are 5 campgrounds in the park (only 1 is open in winter) and dozens of lodging options just outside in Estes Park; while backpacking (permit required) is also an option for many parts of the park, there is only 1 backcountry site along this trail and the permit is extremely competitive
  • Other: I really can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is to properly pack and prepare for this hike in the winter. If anything happens, you’re a long way back in the mountains with no phone service and unpredictable winter weather. At minimum, you’ll need food and water, lots of layers (I was wearing 4 on top and 2 on bottom), hat, gloves, warm socks, neck gaiter, microspikes, waterproof winter boots, gaiters, and the 10 Essentials

16 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Sky Pond (the winter version)”

  1. I think I did this trail many years ago, but not in winter. I’m not really a cold weather person, even though I’ve hiked and photographed in temperatures as low as 17degF.

    Keep up the good work of documenting your outdoor adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your beautiful post on the Loch Vale/ Sky Pond hike. I’ve never done it in the winter, but I lived in Estes Park for 2 summers in my early twenties, and that hike was my favorite hike in the park. Thanks for the memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Diana, this may be my favourite of your great hiking posts. I share your enthusiasm for frozen lakes and agree that some hikes just look better in their winter coats. I was drooling over the awesome scenery. Microspike are a great invention. I’ve never used mine to climb up the side of a frozen waterfall but I’m glad to hear this is doable. That hovering tree is very cool.
    I echo Lexie’s comments. It’s a pleasure to read your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Colorado tourism board really should hire you! You do such an excellent job of writing about hiking – you are informative and clear (and you write well – such a rarity) but you also make things sound fun. I love your appreciation of nature, your focus on safety and preparation, and your excitement about your outings. This one looks so great, and if I can drag myself out of bed some morning when we are out there in the winter and psych myself up for the cold, we’ll try it ourselves!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Awww thank you SO MUCH! That’s such a nice thing to say, and I’m so glad you’re enjoying my posts so much. I hope you guys are able to visit Sky Pond at some point… or Rocky in general, it’s all amazing in the winter!

      Liked by 1 person

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