The upper end of Glacier Gorge is arguably the most scenic terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and its little sister, Jewel Lake, are fed by Glacier Creek. This creek is fed by half a dozen named lakes and a multitude of ponds and rivulets cascading down the slopes of some of the highest and steepest mountainsides in the area. The eastern side of the gorge is formed by a monolithic wall that is comprised of Half Mountain, Storm Peak, Longs Peak, and the Keyboard of the Winds. The western side is Thatchtop, Powell Peak, Arrowhead, and McHenrys Peak. Forming the southern end are Chiefs Head Peak, Spearhead, and Pagoda Mountain.
When you arrive at Mills Lake, the peaks to the east and west rise fifteen hundred feet above you. From Mills to Black Lake is about 2.8 miles and a climb of 700 feet or so. At Black Lake, you are surrounded by granite cliffs towering twenty-five hundred feet. It seems that no matter how high you follow these streams, the summits you pass beneath climb even higher.
This is my second trip to Green Lake, my first being back in 2011. That was before I began this blog, so the hike deserves the full treatment here rather than the abbreviated version that other repeat visits generally get.
Saturday, July 27
The weather report warned me that I could be dealing with storms as early as 10am but that didn’t deter me. I had wanted to get out of the house by six but I, as usual, ran a few minutes late. Traffic wasn’t too bad and I was at the Park & Ride by a quarter to eight. My plan was to put boots on the trail at eight o’clock, and I missed this by only ten minutes.
I generally take the Fire Trail, skipping Alberta Falls and the heavy trail traffic that goes along with it, but I got to chatting with a couple from upstate New York and missed the turnoff. Still, I arrived at Mills Lake in less than an hour. It is here, for me, that the hike really begins.
One of the interesting aspects of the trail between Mills Lake and Black Lake is the rather large debris field that was the result of a micro-burst that hit, I believe, in the autumn of 2011. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but the thousands of trees were knocked down by the time I hiked to Black Lake in March of 2012. That first summer it took the Park Service quite some time and a lot of effort to cut through all the tree trunks that blocked the trail for more than half a mile.
A fair section of trail just above Mills Lake passes through some fairly marshy stretches. These sections are made passable by a series of crude bridges each a hundred or two hundred feet long. I’ve crossed these bridges for nearly forty years and now they’re mostly rotten and decaying. This year the Park Service is rebuilding them in an effort that may match that of clearing the path of the downed trees from that micro-burst.
It had started sprinkling at about ten and before long the sprinkles turned to rain, so I donned my rain coat. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the cool of the morning was still lingering, and between the light rain and light breeze, it wasn’t uncomfortable in the rain gear. I ran into a hiker here who had been to Green Lake on another occasion; he said he’d prefer it in the sunshine over this morning’s grey skies and light rain. Perhaps the weather will remain dull and damp, but perhaps it will improve. Besides, even a dull day in the park is a good day.
The last few hundred feet of trail below Black Lake rises beside Ribbon Falls on a series of steps not quite hewn from the living rock, lifting the hiker onto the outlet of the lake and onto a series of large rectangular stepping stones. Even though these stones form the trail itself here, many hikers find them inviting places to sit, and I don’t recall a visit where I didn’t have to step over or around lounging hikers here.
There’s no doubt that the view from these stepping stones is spectacular, but it’s just as spectacular if you go another few hundred feet to the eastern shore of the lake. There, you’ll face the sight that is McHenrys Peak. Water pours off the stark cliffs on all sides here. The main feeder of the lake is behind you, and a crude trail climbs beside it, gaining four hundred feet of elevation in just 1,600 feet of distance. Even late into summer there is snow on the southern slopes here.
At about 11,000′ of elevation, the terrain levels off and you find yourself on a large expanse of granite slabs, clumps of willow, and marshy areas where water flows nearly everywhere. Every time I’ve come up here, I’ve found many elk. Being so high, the wildflowers are much smaller than those lower down. They’re just as colorful and diverse, but are tiny in comparison. The scale is different: you won’t find entire slopes splashed with color, but that color is all around you. You just have to look closer.
Navigation isn’t particularly difficult here. After a while the trail fades away, but hikers have left a multitude of cairns. There are sometimes so many that they’re not helpful on a grand scale, but they often will lead you through the sections of willow.
To get to Green Lake, I kept the main stream on my right until I was nearly to the lake. I had my micro spikes with me, anticipating that I might be crossing some snow. Just below the lake I came across the solitary section I’d need to cross, and it was only a few hundred feet. Arriving at the base of this snow field, I found myself in the midst of a herd of elk. To my left was a large bull, antlers large and velvety. To my right was a cow and two calves, still sporting their youthful spots. The cow had an ear tag and wore a big collar with a large 9. I’m no judge of female elk flesh. Perhaps she was a 9. Or, perhaps, the collar wasn’t intended as an indication of her beauty.
They were really quite close, twenty or thirty feet. I’ve been close to elk fairly often. I’ve never felt threatened by them, but just the same I didn’t want to put myself between the cow and her calves. I also didn’t want to be closer to the calves than I was to the cow or bull. But to continue on the last few hundred yards to my destination, I’d have to walk right through them.
I sort of yelled at them, “I want to go that way!”, pointing across the snow. They looked at me quizzically. They clearly weren’t getting my drift. After further hollering and gesticulation I clapped my hands loudly. This got the calves to move to my right, on the other side of their mother, and I finally felt it was okay to proceed.
Had there been no elk there, I probably would have put on the spikes. I carried them all this way, so why not use them? But I didn’t want to sit there in the middle of the herd any longer than necessary so I proceeded without them. I didn’t need them, and on the way back down I again didn’t bother with them.
The rain had stopped some time ago, and the small breaks in the clouds had turned to mostly bright blue sky. There were still clouds, but they were white and fluffy and (as always) relatively fast moving. It would be hard to expect much better weather for a picnic beside an alpine lake than I was having.
There’s a snow field that sits on the eastern shore of Green Lake. I think it’s always there. Today, there were two little icebergs (or would they be snowbergs?) that were floating freely in the lake, recently broken off the main field. It might have been interesting to have the time lapse camera recording them, but instead I had it aimed at Spearhead and the clouds behind it. I would have liked to sit on the eastern shore, but there wasn’t a lot of shoreline there free of snow, and the flow out of the lake was running a few inches too high for me to cross without risking getting wet feet, so I stayed on the northern end.
On the way up from Black Lake I encountered a couple of climbers who had spent two nights on a bivy permit on Spearhead. I came across another couple of climbers on their way down at about the point where the route to Frozen Lake diverges from my route. So I kept an eye out for climbers on Spearhead. I don’t really know what interests climbers, so I didn’t know where to look. But I did see somebody wearing a pink jacket or shirt who hadn’t very far up the cliff.
After half an hour I headed down. My herd of elk was still there, but they’d moved a bit to the east and I didn’t have to split them to make my exit. On the way up, you’re facing the stark cliffs in the immediate vicinity. Heading down, you get a nice view of the Mummy Range in the distance. The clouds there were no longer white and fluffy, but steel colored and menacing. With the divide just a few hundred meters to the west, you can’t see what sort of weather is headed your way, but it was obvious that on the way down I’d likely get more than the light rain I encountered on the way up.
I’d kept the rain coat on through my lunch and only packed it away when I refilled my water bottle on the descent to Black Lake. My shirtsleeved hiking was short lived, though, as the clouds opened up by the time I got to the bridge leading to the Glacier Gorge campsite. The thunder that was rumbling in the distance was now crashing in the immediate vicinity, so I kept my pace up.
Usually there’s a fair crowd on the slabs that form the Mills Lake shoreline but not now. Nobody wanted to sit in the rain. It wasn’t heavy enough to entirely obscure the view to the south, but certainly heavy enough to make the view less pleasant. Between here and the trail junction I ran into a young couple on their way up to Mills: she wearing sandals and a jacket, he shirtless and smiling. Even with my jacket on and hiking a brisk pace, I found it slightly chilly.
A bit farther down I found a solo hiker standing in the shelter of a tree, assessing the skies. I told him it would quit eventually, but no telling how long that might be. He was going to wait it out. That turned out to be a short wait for him, as the rain stopped when I was half way down the Fire Trail, and the sun was again shining brightly. It was about here that I realized I’d probably left the passenger window of the car open an inch or two. Oh well.
Traffic down the mountain was heavier than last week, but what I’d call more or less the new normal. Until I got to about mile marker 10, where we came to a complete stop. At about mile 4 an ambulance had passed me going towards Estes, lights and siren on. It should have been obvious to me that I’d run into the scene of an accident but it didn’t click until we were stopped. It took nearly half an hour to get going again. They had the road down to one lane, letting a few dozen cars pass first in one direction then the other. When I passed the scene, I didn’t see any damaged vehicles. Had they already cleared the wreckage, or was it off the road, down the slope? I suspect the latter.
I can’t help but say that it was a very enjoyable day. A hike to the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge is always rewarding and satisfying.
|Trailhead||8:10 am||3:31 pm|
|Mills Lake||9:06 am||2:42 pm|
|Black Lake||10:25 am||1:30 pm|
|Green Lake||11:55 am||12:30 pm|