One of the first trails I hiked when I moved to Colorado was the Mills Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s about 5 miles round trip with an elevation gain of roughly 700 feet.
Sitting above a glacial gorge, the hike takes you past streams and waterfalls and leads you to the stunningly clear body of water that is Mills Lake, named for Enos Mills, one of the founders of Rocky Mountain National Park.
I was initially drawn to this trail because one of the park rangers told me the scene from Mills lake is featured on the back of Colorado’s state quarter. It’s breathtaking any time of year, but is even more beautiful in the autumn when the Aspen trees are in their full glory, casting splashes of gold across the trails.
The Aspen is the state tree of Colorado and their small leaves shimmer in the wind making them dance with every breeze that passes by.
Mills Lake History
Named for Enos Mills, known as the “The Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” Mills was the area’s first naturalist, and made significant contributions to the professional field that would eventually lead to the creation of park rangers.
Mills Lake is one of the only lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park where you can fish, and the lake is home to brook trout, rainbow trout, and greenback cutthroat trout.
In the early morning, the lake is often calm enough to capture the reflection of the east ridge of the glacial gorge, too, making for an Instagram-worthy snapshot.
The Hike to Mills Lake
What to Know Before You Go
You’ll need a National Parks Pass to access this trail, or you can pay a one-time entrance fee. A timed entry permit may also be required during the busiest season (May – October).
Due to its popularity, parking is limited at the trailhead which sits at approximately 9200 feet of elevation, and is just off Bear Lake Road, about 8 miles from the turn off at Highway 36. Thankfully, the park offers a shuttle service from their Park and Ride locations. I recommend checking the Rocky Mountain National Park website for more information when planning your visit.
The hike to Mills Lake is a steady, uphill climb over rugged conditions which makes this walk a bit more moderate in nature. You can expect the hike to take you somewhere between 2 and 3 hours, and because it’s fairly popular walk you’re likely to encounter others on your journey.
Remember that, like all mountain hikes, the weather can change on you in an instant. Make sure you’re prepared for variable weather conditions by checking the forecast before you start your trek and carrying extra layers in your pack. Watching for storm clouds in the area and be prepared to return to the trailhead as quickly as possible if you should hear thunder.
You’ll have to leave your canine companions at home on this route too, as dogs aren’t allowed on the trail. Fear not, however, you may find animal companionship in other forms, including elk, deer, and marmots.
Making the Trek
The trailhead begins at Glacier Gorge and within the first quarter of a mile you will be surrounded by Aspens, appropriately dressed for the season.
After hiking approximately three quarters of a mile you’ll come across the iconic Alberta Falls. Arguably one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the whole of Rocky Mountain National Park, Alberta Falls can be somewhat crowded as it’s an easy hike for all ages and popular with families.
This 30-foot waterfall crashes down into a small gorge on Glacier Creek and is also a popular spot for picnicking. It’s named for Alberta Sprague, the wife of one of the first settlers in the Estes Park area, Abner Sprague, and one has to think there far worse ways to be memorialised! Interesting fact: Abner Sprague was also the first visitor to pay an entrance fee to the park in 1939.
The trail winds through a canyon where occasionally you’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the valley below.
The sheer magnitude of the rocky canyon makes you appreciate those whose traveled these paths before us.
1.6 miles into the hike, you’ll want to turn right at the North Peak Longs Peak trail junction, and about a half mile up from there you’ll reach Mills Junction. You’ll turn left here and cross over Vale Brook, which is when you’ll find yourself in the beautiful Glacial Gorge.
At around 2.4 miles you’ll cross over Glacier Creek and will find yourself at the base of Glacier Falls.
Mills Lake is not far now but the terrain gets a bit more difficult as you continue upward to the lake.
Your first glimpse of the lake doesn’t come until you’re almost on top of it, around 2.6 miles in. There’s a large boulder that obscures your view, but once you’re over that boulder, the lake will be directly in front of you.
Mills Lake is a subapline lake that sits just below Half Mountain. It’s truly one of the most beautiful mountain lakes I have ever come across. Looking from left to right on the lake’s eastern shore you can see the “Keyboard of the Winds,” Pagoda Mountain, Chief’s Head Peak, and Thatchtop Mountain. It is truly a sight to behold.
Be sure to take some time to enjoy the views before you head back down the way you came. The return trip is much easier because you’ll be walking downhill. I was amazed by the change in perspective on the way back, as well, as it allows you to see some of the sites you may have missed on the way up.
I hope you’ll have the opportunity to discover this amazing place for yourself. Not only are the views superb, but there’s also a lot of national park history wrapped up in this gorgeous spot.
No matter the season, the hike to Mills Lake via Glacial Gorge Trail offers an unforgettable experience for all.