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

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Black Lake (the winter version)

Exactly one week after hiking to Sky Pond in the winter – my last hike of 2020 – I found myself back at Glacier Gorge trailhead, this time with my friend Kaylyn, for my first hike of 2021! We were fighting cold gusty winds as we readied ourselves to head up the other half of the Glacier Gorge trail to Mills, Jewel, and Black Lakes. This is another hike I’ve written about before so I’ll once again skip over most of the details (but you can read them here). It’s a well-marked and well-traveled trail even in winter, so simply follow signs for Mills Lake.

The weather forecast said chilly, partly cloudy, and not too windy. As it turned out it was warmer, sunnier, and much windier than predicted, so clearly I need to find a different mountain weather app. Nevertheless, we braced ourselves for the wind and set off.

Much of the trail is in the trees, which did a decent job of sheltering us from the wind. It wasn’t until just before Mills Lake, as the trail crosses Glacier Creek, that we really started getting buffeted. And once we were out in the open at the lake, we quite frequently found ourselves turning our backs to the wind and bracing ourselves against an onslaught of flying snow. Despite being almost fully covered, my face got pretty windburned.

We admired the frozen lake for as long as we could handle the wind before escaping to the trail, which travels all the way along the east shore of the lake and is pretty well sheltered.

Mills Lake

Just beyond Mills Lake is the much smaller Jewel Lake. The trail simply went right across the ice so we followed suit (as I mentioned last week, we know from past experience that these lakes freeze solid from late November to early March and we could see that the ice was plenty thick).

Jewel Lake

Past Jewel Lake the trail enters an area that, in the summer, is very marshy. When I wrote about this hike previously, I mentioned that the boardwalks here were falling apart. As of 2020, they have been replaced and are built much more sturdily. We followed the trail through the snow-covered marsh and past the extensive area of downed trees en route to the back of Glacier Gorge. This section gains elevation fairly gradually and was nicely sheltered from the wind, so we enjoyed the reprieve. Fewer people go beyond Mills Lake in the winter, but on this particular day the trail was packed down and easy to follow.

Snack spot!
That’s blowing snow, not clouds

The last half mile (0.8 km) of the hike is where things start to get steep. Really steep in a couple places. The first climb is adjacent to Ribbon Falls, which was frozen solid.

The waterfall was the least of our worries, however. Our challenge was the soft snow covering the trail on both this hill and the one above, which marks the final ascent to Black Lake. We were post holing like crazy on the way up and slipping and sliding the whole way down. At one point on the descent I gave up and just sat down and sledded on my butt (which I promptly regretted, as my pants were not quite that waterproof).

Ribbon Falls (left of center), with McHenrys Peak and The Arrowhead in the background
Descending from Black Lake

But we did it! And to reward our efforts, the wind decided it would try to blow us right back down the hillside. The terrain right at the mouth of Black Lake must be some sort of wind tunnel because these were the strongest gusts of the entire hike. Once we actually got around to the lake it was much calmer.

The wind tunnel (taken during a brief lull)

We were the only people at the lake so we took advantage of the solitude to walk around and across it and admire the winter decor. The wall above the inlet stream was covered in ice and the lake itself was very smooth, which is actually pretty unusual for alpine lakes. Usually they freeze in rough wavelike textures.

Ice at the back of Black Lake
Black Lake, with McHenrys Peak and The Arrowhead in the background

But even with some shelter it was still windy, and the sun hadn’t quite reached the lake. It was cold and we only lasted 10-15 minutes before it was time to brave the wind tunnel once more and head back down. That’s the one thing I dislike about winter hiking; you work so hard to reach your destination and then it’s often too cold to just sit there and enjoy it.

By the time we made it back to Mills Lake, the wind had calmed enough for us to walk straight across the lake. This gave us a chance to admire the mountain views in all directions and the neat patterns in the ice. One wind gust nudged us about 5 feet to the left, but aside from that it was much more manageable.

Mills Lake

And I guess that’s about it this time around. One day soon though, we will hike to Black Lake in summer conditions. Backpacking permits for this area are highly competitive but once we are lucky enough to secure one, we will be returning to explore this area much more thoroughly. I’m looking forward to seeing the area covered in green rather than white and sharing photos and stories from whenever we finally get to go on this adventure.

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the Black Lake 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 7:30am in the summer and 10:00am 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 annual passes are accepted. From May-Oct, if you arrive after 5:00am you will also need a timed entry permit to access this trailhead.
  • Hiking: roundtrip distance is 8 miles (12.9 km) on the winter route with about 1600 feet (488 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 Grand Lake and Estes Park; while backpacking (permit required) is also an option for many parts of the park, there is only one backcountry site along this trail and the permit is extremely competitive
  • Other: past Mills Lakes this becomes a more challenging winter excursion. Expect less sun, more snow and ice, and worse weather as you gain elevation. Very few people go this far meaning the trail is less packed and snowshoes may be required. We did have ours and we could have put them on for those two steep parts, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort for such short sections of trail

24 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Black Lake (the winter version)”

  1. I will be in Colorado soon. Although I live in the planes of Ontario now, but I hail from Pakistan, a country of tallest mountain peaks of the world. However, I have been living in the USA and now in Canada for most of my life. I loved this blog. I am sure my daughter and son would love to accompany me. I have a question. Do the US western national parks allow dogs on leash at least on some trails?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh wow, what amazing scenery to grow up with! I really want to visit the Himalayas one day.

      Glad you enjoyed my post! US national parks are pretty consistent in that dogs are not allowed on trails. They may be allowed in parking lots and campgrounds and other paved areas, but in most parks they are not allowed to come on hikes. However, many state parks and other sites do allow dogs if they are leashed.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has shimmied down part of a trail on their butt!! The views of the mountains and frozen lake look beautiful, especially with those blue skies. The wind in the winter can be killer though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely. I guess the one saving grace is that it isn’t a humid wind like you probably get in Ontario (I’m assuming, based on proximity to the Great Lakes). With the drier climate here, the wind doesn’t slice right through you in quite the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your photos are stunning and so is Jewel Lake. It’s easy to lose motivation to get outside when the days are shorter and the weather gets colder, but hiking in the winter is actually a really fun way to combat cabin fever. Although we didn’t get much snow last winter, we still made a conscious effort to hit the trails when the snow was forecasted. We would dress appropriately, bring a warm drink in a thermos and make the most of the great outdoors. Thanks for sharing and happy trails 🙂 Aiva xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a struggle to pull myself out of bed in the morning when it’s cold and dark and windy outside, but once we’re bundled up and exploring I’m always glad I did. I need to make a habit of leaving a thermos in the car for afterwards… what’s your hot drink of choice?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The trailhead and parking area are within the boundaries of the national park and you have to pay to enter. So yes to both of your questions… $25 to park at the trailhead and hike the trail. But most of us locals who frequent the park simply purchase an annual pass for $80 and that gets us access to the entire park for the entire year.


  4. To hike steep hills is one thing, but to do so when there’s snow is another! I’ve done hikes in the snow before, but never as thick as at RMNP, at least from your photos! I would be scared stiff trying to brave it, as I’m afraid of slipping and sliding all over the place. But the views are incredibly rewarding, and I’m sure your photography skills warrant plenty of beautiful computer home screens to ogle at later down the line! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I really should set my computer screen on shuffle… that’s a good idea!

      If you ever come visit RMNP in the winter, there are lots of trails that get nice and packed down so you don’t have to dig your way through the snow. Just strap on some microspikes to keep from slipping and start walking!

      Liked by 2 people

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