Length: 5.2 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Challenging
Trailhead: Glacier Gorge (40.31053, -105.64033)
Why we love it: This quiet winter hike avoids the Bear Lake throngs while still delivering the same stop-in-your-tracks alpine views—including Longs Peak—for hardy snowshoers.
Pre-hike fuel: Near the main junction in Estes, hit up Notchtop Café for locally inspired, diner-style meals like Rocky Mountain trout and eggs or a cowboy breakfast shellacked in green pork chili.
Post-hike buzz: After a wind-whipped, wintry adventure, margaritas and chips are in order at local hangout Ed’s Cantina and Grill. Or pit stop in Lyons at the original Oskar Blues taphouse to replenish lost calories with a beer and a burger.
Restrooms: Find a bank of vault toilets at the Glacier Gorge trailhead.
Dogs: Not allowed

Ready to bust out of your winter slumber for epic alpine views and, yes, a little bit of elbowroom? Snow and subfreezing temps leave the Glacier Gorge parking lot—a veritable zoo in summertime—virtually empty this time of year, so strap on your ’shoes and hike out to Mills Lake, a frozen smear, squeezed between ramparts on either side.

To get there, begin from the Glacier Gorge trailhead, in the same area of the park as Bear Lake, but a few hairpin turns below (bonus for cautious drivers). From the can’t-miss parking lot, venture south on the main trail, bypassing any user paths, to the icy tendrils of Alberta Falls near mile 0.7. From here, begin ascending the valley by way of steep switchbacks that wind beneath craggy rocks.

Near mile 1.6, veer hiker’s right (or southwest) to stay on the path toward Mills, which twists below the Glacier Knobs, rounded peaks that formed when the area’s last glaciers receded. After a half mile or so, split south onto the final straightaway to Mills Lake. Spy the north spine of 14,259-foot Longs Peak to the south and the broad shoulders of 12,668-foot Thatchtop to the west. Continue another 0.6 mile to the northernmost edge of Mills Lake, which is framed by the steep walls of Glacier Gorge. On clear days, see the massif reflected on Mills’ polished surface.

Pick a wind-protected granite outcrop for a picnic and a photo op before returning the way you came. (Feeling sprightly? Continue a few more miles to Black Lake, which nestles below the Continental Divide with a panoply of mountain views.)

Getting there: From Denver, follow I-25 North to Exit 243. Turn left here and follow CO 66 west for 16 miles to the town of Lyons. Just past 4th Street, veer right onto U.S. 36 and follow it for 20 miles to Estes Park. Turn left onto East Elkhorn Avenue/U.S. 36 West, then left again after 0.4 mile onto Moraine Avenue/U.S. 36 West and follow this to the national park entrance. After paying the fee, continue west on U.S. 36 to the junction with the Bear Lake Road. Turn left here and follow this road 8.4 miles to the Glacier Gorge parking lot.

Before you go: Always check winter conditions, including the local avalanche report and weather. It’s OK (and fun!) to hike in snow, but wind can make your outing miserable. Gusts up to 20 mph are perfectly manageable with the right gear.

Winter Packing List
  • Snowshoes
  • Trekking poles
  • Waterproof boots
  • Waterproof shell
  • Insulating midlayer, like a puffy jacket or fleece
  • Sunglasses or other eye protection
  • Gloves
  • In your backpack: water, food, sunblock, and extra layers. For more intrepid treks, consider packing the Ten Essentials and/or avalanche equipment.

Maren Horjus
Maren Horjus
Maren is 5280’s digital director.
Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.