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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to October you will also need to purchase a timed entry permit in advance to allow entry to the park
- 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