Length: 5 miles roundtrip and 800 vertical feet
Difficulty: Hard
Why we love it: Amazing views of the park’s rugged peaks that begin a short distance from the trailhead
Pre-hike buzz: Try Estes Park’s Notchtop Cafe for locally inspired breakfasts such Rocky Mountain Trout and Eggs
When to go: December through April
Restrooms: Vault toilets at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: 80 miles from Denver
Dogs: Not allowed

Rocky Mountain National Park, though traditionally more of a summer hiking destination, also boasts many wonderful snowshoeing routes, with trails that are well marked and generally well trodden. One of the most scenic areas in the park is the aptly named Glacier Gorge. The valley’s steep walls frame great vistas of Longs Peak, the national park’s highest mountain, as well as up-close views of Thatchtop and Half mountains along the way. A great winter destination is Mills Lake, whose polished surface reflects the craggy summits of the encircling peaks.

The Glacier Gorge trailhead is located on the west side of the parking lot. Begin by following the signs for Alberta Falls, whose frozen features you reach in just over half a mile. From here, the trail begins to climb in earnest, quickly ascending a series of switchbacks situated below imposing cliffs.

About 1.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach the first of two junctions whose signs clearly point towards Mills Lake. As you near the second junction, the aspect changes from north to south (and back again), leading to dramatic differences in snowpack, so it’s helpful to have a pack that you can strap your showshoes to if the snow cover becomes too thin.

About two miles from the trailhead, the route reaches Glacier Gorge, where you’re immediately rewarded with a spectacular view of Long Peak’s North Ridge on the left, and the impressive Thatchtop mountain on the right. In another half mile, you’ll reach Mills Lake, which has ample granite outcrops for sitting and, if the weather permits, a winter picnic.

From here, you can carefully retrace your steps back to your car or continue up the trail a couple miles further to Black Lake and its dramatic views of Arrowhead and Spearhead mountains. As always in winter, make sure to check Colorado’s Avalanche Information Center or call the Park Rangers at 970-586-1206 before leaving to make sure the conditions are safe.

Getting there: From Denver, take US 36 through Boulder and up to Estes Park. Head west through town, following the signs to the national park’s Beaver Meadows entrance ($25 per day or $70 for an annual pass). A short distance down the road, turn left and follow the Bear Lake Road nearly 11 miles to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead, located just before Bear Lake.

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.