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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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