Sunday, August 2, 2015

Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

When I'm asked what I enjoy most about living in Colorado, my response is "the endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors." More specifically, I've been falling in love with hiking and (when not injured) trail running. This past Saturday we woke up early and headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park - which is celebrating its 100th anniversary - to get a fix of fresh mountain air and get our hearts beating. 

At the suggestion of a colleague who is working towards hiking every trail in RMNP, we decided to tackle the Mills Lake trail. This one starts at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead not far from the Beaver Meadows entrance which is just outside of Estes Park. By the time we arrived a bit before 9am (it's about an hour and a half drive from our house in Denver), the parking nearest the trailhead was full so we parked at the Park & Ride and took the shuttle - which was very easy and convenient, albeit packed. 

Alberta Falls

Mills Lake Trail

The Mills Lake trail is popular with families because the first section especially is a very easy hike and less than a mile in is Alberta Falls, which is quite beautiful. The trail at the start is fairly wide and we saw many families with young kids to grandparents. As you continue, the trail gets slightly more technical but it's still a moderate hike for the 2.8 miles to Mills Lake. We did lose most of those families at the waterfall, which was just fine with us. We like our space when we hike!

Mills Lake approach

Mills Lake

Mills Lake Trail

When we got to the lake we were blown away by its beauty. It's nestled right up against the mountain and reflects back the clouds in the sky and the rocks and trees along its edges. The edges were perfect for relaxing or enjoying a picnic. We wanted to stop but decided to press on and extend our hike to Black Lake. 

Mills Lake Trail

Past Mills Lake the trail gets more technical but not impossible. The crowds definitely thinned out for this portion. The trail winds through marshy areas, a section where a massive amount of trees had been uprooted during a rare microburst back in 2011, along the Glacier Creek, and across rock. You know you're arriving at Black Lake because you first hear, then see, Ribbon Falls. At the top of the falls are huge boulders that lead to a lake that is even more beautiful than Mills Lake. It was absolutely breathtaking and one of mother nature's great beauties. We lingered for a while on the rocks to take in the enormity of it all.

Ribbon Falls

Black Lake

Black Lake

I briefly talked with a man who had come around the edge on a small trail who suggested we take the trail up higher to see the view as he thought it was an even more incredible perspective, and this was one of his favorite hikes that he's done several times. So, of course, off we went. This section is very steep and being above 10,000 feet it was quite difficult. Woody went farther than I did, but really, I was beyond happy with the view I had. It does look black from above, but it's some of the clearest water we've seen anywhere.

Black Lake from above

After a bit we made our way back down, spent a few more minutes on the rocks then started back towards the trailhead. This is an out and back trail but the perspective going each way is different enough we loved it. We took a break at Mills Lake to dip our feet in the water - which is so cold that it stung - and enjoy the peaceful scenery for a few minutes. Thankfully the cold water gave us a nice energy boost as we continued on. While the sky had been very blue for most of our hike, the clouds had started to roll in as we were leaving Black Lake. Weather conditions can change very quickly in the mountains and afternoon rainstorms are quite frequent during the summer. While we had our rain jackets with us, we didn't have to use them, although I wouldn't be surprised if some hikers did later in the afternoon in some parts of the park.

Cooling Down in Mills Lake

While we've done a number of hikes now in a number of parks, this is my favorite so far. I do like a bit more technicality, but the views are just stunning. Every turn the trail took brought into view something else that was just awesome, and there were so many beautiful wild flowers. I definitely hope to go back, and maybe make it a bit longer of a hike by doing the full Black Lake trail but also adding on a spur to check out The Loch or Lake Haiyaha. If you make your way to Rocky Mountain National Park, I highly recommend this trail - even if you only get to Alberta Falls.

If you've been to Rocky Mountain National Park, what trail did you love most? * With one month left of summer, what do you want to do that you haven't done yet?

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