Length: 1.5 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Why we love it: The geographical anomaly is accessed via a short but quad-engaging trail that ends with flawless views of an alpine lake.
When to go: Late spring through early fall
Restrooms: Outhouses are situated in the parking lots
Dogs: Yes; leashes required
Distance from Denver: About an hour, depending on traffic
In a state filled with diverse terrain, no destination offers quite the juxtaposition as St. Mary’s Glacier. Even in the state’s warmest months, St. Mary’s is peppered with snowshoers, boarders, and backcountry skiers too tempted by its snowcapped summit to resist a summertime run. The glacier—also known as St. Mary’s Alice because it’s not technically a ‘glacier’, but a semi-permanent snowfield—sits just 12 miles from the quaint (and destination-worthy!) town of Idaho Springs and an hour-long drive from Denver. Its short distance, accessible trails, and idyllic views make it a highly traversed hike. It’s also the perfect show-off spot to take out-of-town guests.
Here’s your most useful tip: Bring $5 and a pen. Both parking lots (a large one just south of the trailhead and a smaller one to the north) are self-pay; small envelopes with attached forms are provided. Simply fill out the form, put the $5 into the envelope and drop it into the bin provided, then leave the carbonless paper copy on your dashboard. Lots fill up fast, so head up early and expect to spend several minutes playing a game of parking Tetris.
Once you’re parked, head to the clearly marked trailhead. The hike to the lake is about a half- to three-quarter-mile jaunt—depending on if you stop at the lake or continue to the top of the glacier—but its rocky nature (hiking shoes recommended) and consistent incline means you’ll still break a sweat. The trail itself can seem unclear in places. About halfway up, break to the left for a faster but more strenuous journey. If you’re uncertain where to go, ask someone from your cohort of hikers. And be sure to stay on trail; much of the land surrounding St. Mary’s is privately owned.
About 20 minutes from your start, depending on your pace, you’ll reach the lake and looming glacier. You could hang here, or continue right along the lake’s edge to reach the bridge (pictured above) and pick up the trail to climb up the mountain. You’ll likely spot winter sports enthusiasts venturing to the top of the glacier, as well as tubers and sledders gliding down the hill. Join them at your own risk, but if there’s lots of snow, don ice cleats before climbing. Because of its elevation and conditions, St. Mary’s is not recommended during the winter, or even on particularly cold, snowy, or even rainy spring and summer days. Once you’ve reached as high as you’ll go, turn around for an Instagram-worthy photo opp.
St. Mary’s is a lovely hike to bring a picnic and stay awhile. Take a seat on a rock or the lake’s sandy beach (when the ground is dry), and meditate on your serene surroundings. If you’re in the mood for a half- or full-day trip, make a stop at Idaho Springs. Take a leisurely stroll down Miner Street—the main drag of the Clear Creek County town of about 1,700—and peek into its many stores and galleries. Grab a daily dose of caffeine from The Frothy Cup; a sandwich from Two Brothers Deli; a pint (non-drivers only, please) from Tommyknocker Brewery; or a Colorado pie from Beau Jo’s. And head back to Denver with your literal and outdoorsy appetite satisfied.
Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 West to Exit 238 (Fall River Road). Turn right and follow the winding road 9.2 miles until you reach the St. Mary’s Glacier parking lots and adjacent trailhead.