Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 9.0 miles (round trip)Walking time: 5 3/4 hours
Elevations: 1,380 ft. gain/loss
Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead (start): 9,240 ft.
Mills Lake: 9,940 ft.
Black Lake: 10,620 ft.
Trail: Well maintained, easy to follow
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from November through early July.
Vicinity: Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park
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The Rocky Mountains are a consequence of a little understood subterranean force that began pushing up the earthís crust in western North America some 65 million years ago-about the same time the age of the dinosaurs was coming to an end. The land continued to rise for the next 60 million years before reaching its present height, but the initial uplift marked only the first phase in the formation of the Colorado Rockies. Natureís real artistry began about 3 million years ago with the onset of the Ice Age. Since that time the Rocky Mountains have been encased in ice at least a half dozen times, and a succession of glaciations have gouged out valleys, cleaved off peaks, and excavated alpine lakes throughout the range. This sculpting process came to an end when the glaciers subsided some 10,000 years ago, and today a fine example of natureís handiwork is preserved in the 409 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Glacier Gorge is an example of a U-shaped canyon that was carved by the Pleistocene glaciers. Again and again over the past 3 million years the gorge has been filled with rivers of ice that slowly flowed from Black Lake, to Glacier Gorge Junction and Moraine Park. At its deepest point the ice was probably in excess of 1,500 feet thick, entirely sufficient to carve the valley into its present form. Like giant, slow motion bulldozers the glaciers excavated rock from the canyon bottom and deposited it into tills and moraines further down the valley.
From Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead the trail proceeds into the woods in a general southerly direction. Within a few feet of the trailhead you will see a junction where the trail to Bear Lake branches to the right. Keep to the left at this point, following the signs to Mills Lake and Black Lake. There is another junction 0.4 miles from the trailhead where the trail to Glacier Basin branches off to the left. Here you should bear right.
Thirty minutes after leaving the parking lot you should arrive at Alberta Falls, the first point of interest on this hike. Here Glacier Creek tumbles down a series of cascades, including a continuous drop of about 25 feet. It is not a particularly high waterfall, but it is very pretty. Also, the trail passes by a perfect vantage point for photographing the fall. You probably saw a lot of hikers on the trail up to this point, but most of them will turn around at Alberta Falls so you can expect less company from here on.
I might mention that about 150 yards before reaching Alberta Falls the trail passes directly over the Adams Tunnel, a 13-mile-long irrigation tunnel that was dug under the Continental Divide at the end of the Great Depression to bring water to the eastern slopes of the Rockies. When the tunnel was completed in 1946 it was considered an engineering marvel. Adams tunnel is still in use, but donít bother to listen for the water. At this point the tunnel is 1,200 feet underground.
In the next 1.2 miles beyond Alberta Falls you will first see the North Longs Peak Trail branching off to the left (bear right here), and then you will come to a 4-way junction with trails leading to Sky Pond and Lake Haiyaha. Bear left at the second junction, following the signs to Mills Lake. The trail becomes slightly more primitive at this point, but it is still an easy walk. Within ten minutes the trail crosses Glacier Creek just below Glacier Falls. Donít expect too much from Glacier Falls, however. It is just a small cascade-not nearly as impressive as Alberta Falls.
0.6 mile after leaving the Lake Haiyaha/Sky Pond junction the trail opens up to a magnificent view of Mills Lake with Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park, almost directly behind it. The panorama is particularly fine in the morning when the water usually reflects a mirror smooth image of the famous peak. If you want to take a photograph, however, you had better have a wide-angle lens for your camera.
The trail continues along the east side of Mills Lake and nearby Jewel Lake, finally ending 2.1 miles later in the large glacial cirque that contains Black Lake. The cirque, about a mile across, has been gouged from the eastern side of the Continental Divide with a large promontory of land called the Arrowhead defining its north side and another high ridge, the Spearhead, forming its southern boundary. If you are lucky enough to be there in early July, or after a rain, the dramatic scene will be accented with distant waterfalls crashing down the surrounding cliffs high above the lake. Another lake, appropriately called Frozen Lake, lies 960 feet higher than Black Lake near the base of the Spearhead, but it canít be seen from below. To reach it would require some rock climbing ability.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Glacier Gorge area
Rocky Mountain National Park (Trails Illustrated, map #200)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS