Rocky Mountain National Park: Glacier Gorge to Black Lake

Waterfalls, alpine lakes, and mind-blowing scenery. It's all included on this 9.1-mile out-and-back hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
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Waterfalls, alpine lakes, and mind-blowing scenery. It's all included on this 9.1-mile out-and-back hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

This hike follows the Mills Lake Trail along the forested floor from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. The well-traveled path crosses pristine creeks winding through thick pine and fir. After the thundering cascade of Alberta Falls (mile 0.6), the crowds thin and the trail climbs around wind-scoured boulders to a rocky point high above Glacier Creek. Look north for craggy mountain peaks guarding Glacier Gorge and Loch Vale.

Continue downhill before turning left toward Mills and Black lakes: a sharp ridge rises east to Longs Peak (the tallest peak in the park at 14,259 ft.). Above is Thatchtop rising to 12,668 feet. Near mile 2.4, you’ll skirt the eastern shores of Mills Lake—one of the park's most scenic year-round dayhike destinations—to a marsh on its far side before continuing through shady subalpine fir for another mile.

Climb the moraine below wind-whipped Black Lake and if you’re not being blown from the shores, stop to take in the full panorama: the pointy Spearhead pierces the sky from the opposite shore; 13,579-foot Cheifs Head Peak looms behind; 13,327-foot McHenrys Peak rises to the southwest and the sentinel of the Arrowhead stands to the far right.

Note on winter hiking: The ice floes on the southwestern shore make Black Lake a worthwhile winter trip, but it's a tough snowshoe and 50 mph winds (or more) can tear across alpine lakes. Plan snack breaks in sheltered areas below moraines, and stay alert about navigation: wind can quickly cover new tracks with snow.

INFO For information on permits, current trail and camp conditions, and wilderness guidelines, go to nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm

PERMIT A wilderness permit is required for all overnight camping in the backcountry. Reservations accepted ($20 administrative fee for permits during peak season). nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/backcntry_guide.htm

CONTACT Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206; nps.gov/romo

-Mapped by Jenn Fields

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 14.6

Waypoints

BLK001

Location: 40.310405, -105.640224

Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Parking fills up quickly here in the summer. If it' full when you arrive, depart from Bear Lake, or use the park's free shuttle.

BLK002

Location: 40.307681, -105.64292

Go straight at this 3-way junction following signs for Mills Lake.

BLK003

Location: 40.307607, -105.643402

Turn left at the T-junction, again following signs for Mills Lake.

BLK004

Location: 40.303955, -105.638121

Less than a mile from the trailhead Alberta Falls is a popular destination. Don't let the crowds deter you, they thin above the overlook.

BLK005

Location: 40.301096, -105.63919

On a rocky outcrop, the forest opens to reveal the Mummy Range to the north.

BLK006

Location: 40.299712, -105.639827

Stay right at the Y-junction. The trail flattens out as it heads south and east above the drainage for Loch Valle.

BLK007

Location: 40.297283, -105.646153

Stay to the left at the Y-junction, continuing toward Mills and Black lakes. Mills Lake is about 0.3 miles from here.

BLK008

Location: 40.296063, -105.646997

Hitching post for horses

BLK009

Location: 40.294297, -105.645787

Cross this bridge just below Glacier Falls. The trail climbs southeast out of the drainage.

BLK010

Location: 40.291754, -105.64285

Mills Lake: Trail follows the eastern shore for 0.3 miles as it heads south. Jewel Lake is up ahead.

BLK011

Location: 40.28473, -105.639061

Cross this marsh near mile 3. Breaks in the trees reveal dramatic spires on the skyline.

BLK012

Location: 40.281875, -105.639003

Turn left at the Y-junction: Follow the sign for Black Lake (backcountry campground on right).

BLK013

Location: 40.273159, -105.636664

Pass a small waterfall on your left.

BLK014

Location: 40.266471, -105.640528

Black Lake: Pull out the map to identify the Spearhead, Chiefs Head Peak, and McHenrys Peak.

Glacier Gorge

Location: 40.298368, -105.6398

Craggy peaks flanking the mouth of Glacier Gorge. © Jenn Fields

Spearhead

Location: 40.266238, -105.640476

© Jenn Fields

McHenrys Peak

Location: 40.266173, -105.640991

© Jenn Fields

Kite flying at Mills Lake

Location: 40.291416, -105.642664

Mills Lake is often quite windy, this kite flier takes advantage of the gusts. © Jenn Fields

Mills Lake

Location: 40.292431, -105.64348

Follow cairns across bare rock to the shore of Mills Lake. Black Lake lies at the far end of the cirque. © Jenn Fields

Aspens

Location: 40.306105, -105.640154

The lower reaches of the trail pass through several aspen groves, green in the summer, gold in October and bare, when this winter shot was taken. © Jenn Fields

Trail above Jewel Lake

Location: 40.281791, -105.638802

Even above Jewel Lake, the trail is well marked and easy to follow. © Jenn Fields

The Arrowhead

Location: 40.274555, -105.637214

The monolithic Arrowhead--at 12,642-feet--towers more than 2,000 feet above Black Lake. © Jenn Fields

Trail Junction

Location: 40.307516, -105.643254

Junctions on this well-traveled trail are well marked. © Jenn Fields

Bridge

Location: 40.308488, -105.641994

This sturdy footbridge just 300 yards from the trailhead crosses above Glacier creek. © Jenn Fields

Alberta Falls

Location: 40.303916, -105.638212

Alberta Falls, a popular destination less than 1 mile from the trailhead rushes with meltwater in spring and summer and slows to a frozen cascade in winter. © Kristy Holland

Marsh

Location: 40.284476, -105.638802

A wooden path keeps hikers from getting muddy and damaging the delicate marshland above Mills and Jewel lakes. © Jenn Fields

Trailhead

Location: 40.310525, -105.640277

Follow signs from the busy trailhead at Glacier Gorge. © Jenn Fields

Trail sign

Location: 40.299628, -105.639778

This sign marks the Y-junction toward Loch Valle. The left-leading path turns toward Longs Peak. © Jenn Fields

Branch to Mills Lake

Location: 40.297111, -105.646312

The trail levels periodically before reaching the lakes. © Jenn Fields

Final Climb

Location: 40.26728, -105.639596

The rocky edge of the moraine hill marks the final climb to the lake. © Jenn Fields

Mummy Range

Location: 40.30115, -105.63877

Catch 10-mile views of the Mummy Range to the north. © Jenn Fields