Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mills Lake

Distance: 5 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,240 ft-9,940 ft
Elevation Gain: 700 ft
Critters: Hordes of Tourists

Mills Lake

I often neglect poor Mills Lake as I blow past it on my way to Black Lake. It is a destination in and of itself for many of the tourists who visit Rocky Mountain National Park every year. At five miles it is not a killer but it provides some level of bragging rights for the hordes of Texans and other flatlanders that descend on the park every year.

(On the left: Typical Trail Segment). This year we ended up at Mills Lake by default because the trail to Black Lake was still covered in snow. I am beginning to sound like a broken record every time I say that this season…sigh.

The trail to Mills Lake begins at the park’s shuttle park-n-ride across from the Glacier Gorge Campground. Don’t even bother heading up to the trailhead yourself unless you are willing to fight for a spot and be situated by 6 AM. This shuttle park-n-ride is a significant improvement to the park. Its expansion was completed sometime back in 2004 along with an 8.2M rework of Bear Lake Road. The one downside of the park-n-ride is that there is no water, so fill up before you come. If you start early enough, the wait time for a shuttle will be less. Due to some folks who got lost on their way to the park, we ended up getting on the shuttle an hour later than expected (around 11 AM). The hordes had arrived and there was a very long line of tourists waiting for their glimpse of Alberta Falls. Be prepared to embrace, literally, your fellow man if you arrive late.

Ok, I am snobbish about Rocky Mountain National Park. Hike more than 3 miles up a trail and the number of people you will see falls off exponentially. Most visitors never make it to Black Lake, Sky Pond, Flat Top, Hallet Peak, or Andrew’s Tarn. These are all worthy destinations if you can stand being part of the herd at the beginning.

(On the right: Entering Glacier Gorge). Once at the Glacier Gorge trailhead, the route to Mills Lake climbs quickly on a wide National Park-like trail. If you are only going to Mills be sure to spend a little time at Alberta Falls. Again, I tend to blow past it on my way up and this time was the first time I had actually climbed up the rocks near the falls. This year’s runoff is amazing and the falls are spectacular, albeit at an angle so you never get a full frontal view of them.

Beyond Alberta Falls the trail continues upwards with some expansive views down the valley. It then enters Glacier Gorge itself, which on this trip felt like a line at Disney Land there were so many people plodding up its narrow shelf. Take a moment to stop watching the rocks at your feet here. The gorge is something to remark.

The trail will come to a junction a mere 0.5 miles from the lake. You can pop up to the Loch Vale from here or continue to Mills. Doing both in one day would certainly be doable. From this junction, the trail is relatively flat on its way to the lake.

View from the far end of Mills Lake

There are several things to note at Mills Lake. On the right just as you come up is a sheer wall of rock that drips with water, stains, and mosses. Nearby is a field of dead trees, which make a stark landmark for the lake in winter. A little farther on is a very large flat rock suitable for a large group lunch. One would think the ever-industrious Park Service put this rock there but alas it was the far more industrious Mother Nature. In the distance you will see a large boulder perched near the water. This glacial remnant seems to have a magnetic quality. You will see a swarm of anglers and small children orbiting its sphere of influence.

The trail continues around the left side of the lake and a stroll to its end will reveal the plateau that holds Black Lake. Unless you are just looking for the quintessential picnic spot, do wander along the lake. Your legs will enjoy the additional exercise and the views will be rewarding.

Looking down on Bear Lake Road

I gained a new appreciation for Mills Lake on this trip. It is amazing how your perspective can change when you stop to linger and admire what is around you instead of viewing all these million dollar views as just a means to an end.

1 comment:

Sarah C. said...

So I know I'm four years late in commenting, but thank you for this post! We are getting ready to go to Colorado next week, a friend told me briefly about Mill's Lake, and this information was very helpful and informative in deciding to go. Thanks!