Most lists of “best hikes near Denver” include St. Mary’s Glacier. And with good reason. For a round-trip total of two hours of driving and 1.8 miles (2.9 km) of hiking, you can see a pretty subalpine lake, bristlecone pines, and stand on a glacier.
Well… sort of.
As it turns out, St. Mary’s Glacier isn’t actually a glacier. It’s a semi-permanent snowfield. Sometimes it never completely melts in the summer. But it isn’t a thick sheet of ice that moves down the mountainside. Thus, it doesn’t meet the geological definition of a glacier.
Regardless, it’s a pretty destination and one that’s fairly accessible. It’s a steep hike, gaining nearly 500 feet (150 m) of elevation in the 0.9 mile (1.5 km) distance, and the starting altitude is over 10,000 feet (3050 m). But even someone not acclimated to the elevation could probably make it if they took it slow.
Parking for St. Mary’s Glacier is in a dirt lot off Fall River Road in Alice, Colorado. It’s $5 cash for the day and the lot fills quickly. We did this hike in April and even in the off-season there were many more people than we expected at 7:30am. Turns out it’s a popular backcountry skiing and mountaineering destination too, in addition to being an access point for other trails into the James Peak Wilderness. Long story short, arrive early.
From the parking lot, you have to walk along the shoulder of the road for a short distance to reach the actual trailhead. While it appears that there’s a shortcut trail, this path goes through someone’s private land – please respect the “no trespassing” signs and use the road.
From here, we strapped on our microspikes and began a steady and somewhat icy ascent to St. Mary’s Lake. It was absurdly windy – not unusual for the Colorado mountains – but most of the trail was in the trees. It wasn’t until we reached the lake that we really began to get buffeted around. It’s easy to see why bristlecone pines make up the majority of the forest up here… it’s certainly not the most welcoming environment. But these hearty trees are well equipped for life in such an unforgiving place.
Since the ground was covered in snow, the “glacier” itself wasn’t clearly visible. But using my GPS hiking app, we were able to follow the trail around the lake to stand on the base of the snowfield. We opted not to go any higher due to the wind.
And that’s St. Mary’s Glacier. Since we’d driven this far for such a short hike, we planned to make it worth the trip by doing some more exploring… which I’ll talk all about some other time. There are numerous options in the area. Loch Lomond – a hike we’d done about 6 months earlier – would be a great addition, as it’s fairly short and easy and the trailhead is only about 10 minutes away.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the parking area is off Fall River Road, 9 miles (14.5 km) north of the Fall River exit on I-70; it’s marked with a blue sign and will be obvious due to all the cars
- Fees and passes: $5 cash to park; place cash in the envelope, tear off the flap to stick to your windshield, and deposit the envelope in the slot (located near the porta-potties)
- Hiking: round-trip stats are 1.8 miles (2.9 km) with 480 feet (146 m) of elevation gain; short but steep, with a starting elevation of 10,300 feet (3140 m)
- Where to stay: some of the land surrounding the trail is privately owned and not open to public use; however, backpacking does appear to be allowed on the National Forest land surrounding the lake. This is also easily doable as a day hike from the Denver metro area or any of the towns along I-70 in Clear Creek County
- Other: For summer visits, prepare for crowds and afternoon thunderstorms. In winter, be ready for snow, ice, and wind, and keep in mind that some of the slopes surrounding the lake are prime avalanche terrain