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

Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Upper Glacier Gorge Lakes

You know how sometimes you’ve been wanting to do something for so long and you’ve built it up in your head, and then you finally get to do it and it’s not as amazing as you were hoping, and you end up being really disappointed?

This was not that.

It was, however, something I’d been wanting to do for so long.

Backpacking in Rocky requires a permit and permits sell out extremely quickly. The particular permit we needed for this hike is one of the most competitive. I applied at exactly the minute permits went on sale in 2019 and did not get it. I applied again in 2020 and did not get it. Lather, rinse, repeat for 2021. Finally, in 2022, I got it! A lot of excited yelping and jumping up and down ensued.

Anyway.

Our outing began at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, one of the most popular trailheads in Rocky. Parking is absurdly hard to come by, so we left our car at the park-n-ride and took the free shuttle to the trailhead. The Glacier Gorge backcountry campsite — our home for the night — is located about 3.5 miles (5.5 km) up Glacier Gorge Trail, past Alberta and Glacier Falls and Mills and Jewel Lakes. We’ve hiked this section of trail before… for more detailed information, see my previous post. The waterfalls were raging this morning and both lakes were looking particularly beautiful.

Mills Lake
Jewel Lake

The Glacier Gorge backcountry site is spacious, with lots of flat ground, logs and stumps to sit on, and pretty good views. It can see why it’s such a popular site. Due to its popularity, this particular backcountry campsite requires the use of WAG or Restop bags for human waste. Also, hard-sided bear canisters are required in Rocky, and all food, garbage, toiletries, and scented items other than DEET must be stored in the locked canister and placed 70 adult-sized steps away from camp.

Trail to our campsite
Glacier Gorge backcountry site

We arrived at our campsite around 8:30am and, as expected, it was still occupied by the previous night’s campers (the photo above was taken later in the day… don’t worry, I didn’t walk into someone else’s site and take photos of their tent). So we loaded up our day packs, stashed our backpacking packs and bear canister nearby (pro tip: the giant black garbage bags are a great way to keep your pack dry), and continued up the trail for the remaining 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to Black Lake. I’d been to Black Lake twice before, although these previous trips were in winter or semi-winter conditions; things looked a little different this time around.

Black Lake

If you look at a trail map of Rocky, you’ll see that this hike ends at Black Lake. Officially, that is accurate. However, unofficially there are four more lakes that can be reached by following an unmaintained trail into the cirque above Black Lake. The park doesn’t advertise it and there is no signage for these lakes… presumably to prevent unprepared tourists from meandering way into the backcountry and getting lost. But if you do your research and are prepared (we studied the map and photos of the route in advance, used my GPS app for navigation, and packed plenty of layers, food, and water), hiking to these lakes is allowed. And absolutely worth the effort!

To reach these lakes, follow the path along the east shore of Black Lake to the outlet stream. The trail then climbs rather steeply alongside the cascading creek.

Pat navigates the “trail” to the upper gorge. This section of slanted wet rocks was not easy to cross. Fortunately, neither of us slipped into the creek.

Eventually, we reached the top of the hill and found ourselves staring at a vast expanse of tundra. This upper portion of Glacier Gorge is much larger than we were expecting.

Not long after this point, the trail splits. Left leads to Blue Lake. Right leads to Green Lake and Italy Lake. A sharper right leads to Frozen Lake. We took the sharp right first, following the trail to Frozen Lake… the most distant and highest of the four.

In all honestly, I shouldn’t be referring to it as a ‘trail’ at this point. Occasionally there was a visible path, but for the most part we were following cairns through the landscape. The rocky, wet, muddy landscape. The Colorado mountains received so much rain this summer that the ground was completely saturated. Between the creek crossings, wet plants, and endless mud, we soon found ourselves somewhat saturated as well. The air was damp too, and clouds hung low over the mountains. I know we need the rain, but there’s a happy medium between drought and deluge, and it would be nice if we could find it.

The weather definitely could have been better for this trip. It also could have been worse, so I can’t complain too much. But some sunshine would have been nice, if only to dry out the ground and the many many wet rocks we had to navigate. Between slippery slabs and puddles of mud, this hike required more acrobatics than we were expecting.

But with careful route-finding and navigation, we eventually made it all the way up and over to Frozen Lake, at an elevation of about 11,700 feet (3566 m). Based on my research, I went into this hike expecting Frozen Lake to be my favorite of the four, and it was. Between the deep turquoise color, the crystal clear depths, and the way it’s tucked back into a nook surrounded by sheer rocks… it was so gorgeous!

First glimpse of Frozen Lake

I wish we’d spent more time here, but it started sprinkling, and the sky was overall not looking promising, and we still had three more lakes to visit, so after about 15 minutes we headed off. The official route to Green Lake involves retracing your steps back to the main “trail” and then following the middle branch back to Green Lake. We decided to just cut across, wrapping around the base of The Spearhead and traversing the talus field to reach Green Lake. Walking across talus is never the most pleasant thing to do, but this route was much shorter and we didn’t have to lose and regain as much elevation, so I stand by it. However, I’d only recommend doing this if you’re comfortable with scrambling. Also, as this is tundra, try to step on rocks whenever possible to avoid crushing the fragile alpine plants.

Our route to Green Lake
As we crossed to Green Lake, we could see back down Glacier Gorge. Also, slightly right of center in the distance is Blue Lake, which would be our final destination of the day.

This route brought us to Green Lake from above. From this vantage point, we could see that Green Lake is accurately named.

Green Lake, with Italy Lake just barely visible above it on the right

It’s not labeled on some maps, but just behind and above Green Lake is Italy Lake… so named because it’s shaped somewhat like the nation of Italy. It’s a tiny lake that sits right in front of a very tall and sheer mountainside… it wasn’t easy to capture in photos.

Green Lake
Green Lake

From here, we descended back to Green Lake and then made our way over to the outlet stream, which is the approximate location of the “trail.” We did find cairns, but there wasn’t much of a path. Nonetheless, the cairns led us straight back toward the main trail – across some creeks and through some mud, of course – and to our final lake of the day: Blue Lake. Rather than being tucked in a nook, Blue Lake sits on top of a bench overlooking lower Glacier Gorge.

Blue Lake is on top of the small hill in the center of this photo
Getting closer… we just had to climb the hill on the right

Blue Lake was, in fact, the bluest lake we’d seen all day. Whoever initially stumbled upon these lakes clearly decided to just name all of them based on appearance.

Blue Lake
Blue Lake sits at the base of Longs Peak (upper left corner) and the Keyboard of the Winds (jagged ridgeline left of center)

Much to our surprise, the fog finally began to lift and the sun made an appearance, so we decided to hang out at Blue Lake for a while.

Looking across Upper Glacier Gorge from Blue Lake. The sharp peak in the center is The Spearhead. Green and Italy Lakes sit to the left of it, just below the small snowfield. Frozen Lake sits in the bowl to the right. Black Lake is out-of-frame, sharply downhill to the right.

But eventually it was time to head back down. It was already after 1:00pm and we hadn’t set up our campsite yet. So we made our way back to the main trail, coming to a stop when we encountered five elk grazing on both sides of the path. This included two mothers and two babies, and we weren’t about to walk between them, so we had to wait for them to move away before we could descend along the inlet stream to Black Lake. From this vantage point, it was clear that Black Lake is also accurately named. The dark color of the granite lakebed is responsible for the dark color of the lake.

Black Lake… with a little less fog this time

Our campsite was empty when we returned, so we grabbed our stashed gear and quickly got set up. Much to our delight, the weather had held and we were able to set up the tent and cook some food without getting wet. It did rain later in the evening, but by that point we were nice and dry in our tent.

And that was it. The next morning, we packed up our (very wet) gear and headed back to the trailhead. From there, it was back home. And then, for me, back to work the next day for the start of fall semester. I’m so glad I finally secured the backpacking permit that allowed us to do this trip. It was the perfect way to wrap up a pretty amazing summer!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: This trail departs from Glacier Gorge trailhead along Bear Lake Road; parking fills well before dawn in the summer. I highly recommend taking the free park shuttle from the park-n-ride instead. It’s so much easier.
  • Fees and passes: There is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency passes are accepted. In addition, if you plan to backpack as we did, you must have a permit. They are highly competitive and cost $36.
  • Timed entry: If you plan to do this as a day hike and are not camping in the park, you will need a Bear Lake corridor timed entry permit to access this trailhead.
  • Hiking: Our total roundtrip distance for this hike was 15.3 miles (24.6 km) with 2900 feet (884 m) of elevation gain. Exact statistics will vary depending on the routes you take through the upper gorge. Regardless, this would be a very long day hike, especially considering that the terrain in the upper gorge is not conducive to a rapid pace. From the trailhead to all the lakes and back to our campsite was 11.8 miles (19 km) and took us 8 hours.
  • Where to stay: The Glacier Gorge backcountry site is the only option for overnight stays along this trail, and a permit is required.
  • Other: If you plan to go beyond Black Lake, proper preparation is key. The route is not obvious, the terrain is rugged, you will be above tree line and exposed to weather, and there is no phone service. You’re also not likely to see many people. Bring plenty of food, water, layers, sun protection, the ten essentials, etc. I also recommend hiking poles and a satellite SOS device. Study the route in advance, bring a navigation system, and pick a day with a good weather forecast. You can’t see the incoming weather from Glacier Gorge, so you won’t really know if a storm is coming until it’s practically on top of you.

28 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain National Park Hikes: Upper Glacier Gorge Lakes”

  1. Very impressive adventure, Diana, I applaud you both for the tenacity to keep applying for the permit and all the planning, studying and preparing you did. The hike is beyond impressive, it is almost super human! I liked seeing the “trails,” and of course each photo of these majestic vistas was thoroughly appreciated. Great to see the handstand too. Many thanks for taking us up into this Rocky Mountain splendor.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe how beautiful it is, those lakes look like something out of a film. Such a faff (is that word even used anywhere but England? – who knows) with the permits but looks so worth it. Your hikes are incredible as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely worth the wait! It’s a shame that it’s so difficult to get permits, but understandable since so many people want in. Lovely photos of so many waterfalls and lakes. The wispy clouds add to the atmosphere and fortunately didn’t obscure the peaks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I always have mixed feelings on permits. It’s nice that it protects things from getting crowded and damaged, but it’s frustrating when you can’t get the permits you want.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for sharing your adventure! Looks like very rugged and gorgeous terrain. The lake reflections are stunning. I didn’t realize a permit was needed for these back country trails 🤷‍♀️, so really appreciate the detailed info!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. After several years of trying and trying, it’s great you finally got to hike RMNP, especially in this particular part of it! You really took part in the off-the-beaten-path trail, and the views of the lakes were well-worth it. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Perfect end-of-summer outing (well, except for the weather). You are certainly tenacious, both with the permit and the route-finding in sub-optimal conditions. Looks like it was worth it! Every post you write on RMNP reinforces my need to get there next season.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Congrats on finally getting a permit to backpack in Rocky Mountain. It’s a bit of a bummer about the weather, but it sounds like you made the most of it and still managed to explore the additional lakes. It’s never fun to pack up a wet tent, but at least you didn’t have to set up in the rain!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, stunning reflection over Mills- and Jewel Lakes. The ‘not advertised’ part of the trail looks more like rock climbing than actual hiking! I can see why this is such a popular hiking destination … it’s truly beautiful! Your photos of all the (colourful) lakes are lovely – indeed a splendid way of ending your summer hiking!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.