Thousands of people hike in the Glacier Gorge area of Rocky Mountain National Park each year. Most of them are heading to popular destinations like Alberta Falls, Mills Lake and Black Lake. However, for years, I've wanted to see the lakes above Black Lake -- Blue Lake, Green Lake and Frozen Lake. Because of the distance involved, I decided to try Frozen Lake first.
The hike starts at the Glacier Gorge trailhead (directions below). There is parking here, a bathroom, some benches and a trail information sign.
The hike starts with a few steps down and soon crosses a bridge over a roaring creek. At the first trail split, don't turn left. That trail goes to Sprague Lake and Glacier Basin. Instead, go a short distance until you see the sign directing you to turn left for Alberta Falls, Mills Lake and Loch Vale. Here the trail levels out as it winds through the trees and across a stream.
As hikers approach the canyon of Glacier Creek Gorge, they hear the water before they see it. Look over the edge (just don't get too close) and into the colorful canyon carved out by the river. Continue hiking up the now rockier trail to Alberta Falls.
The 25-foot waterfall at Alberta Falls is a treat in all seasons. Come in the winter and you'll find it mostly frozen. Come in the spring to see it gushing strong with snow melt. Come in the summer to enjoy the refreshing spray. Come in the fall for a picture of the falls with the turning leaves.
From Alberta Falls, it's almost 2 miles to Mills Lake. Here the trail gets rockier and steeper. The trail is moderate so many families enjoy this hike. There are several stream crossings along the way with wood bridges. At each stream crossing, look upstream and downstream to see the various cascades. While not large, the cascades make for pretty pictures.
As hikers approach Mills Lake, many are watching their feet so they don't trip on the rocks. But that first view of the mountains surrounding the lake is wonderful. That mountain range not only features the 14,000-foot peak that's on the Colorado quarter, Longs Peak. The mountain range also has several other peaks over 13,000 feet high. Some say the mountain range is called Keyboard of the Winds because of the sound the wind makes as it moves between the peaks.
After a photo stop at Mills Lake, follow the trail on the east side of the lake. This is a flat trail most of the way to Jewel Lake with one short, steep section that goes up, then back down to Jewel Lake. Many visitors turn around at Mills Lake so Jewel is a quieter, less crowded spot for a snack.
When you're ready it's time to start hiking again. The trail between Jewel Lake and Black Lake gets steeper at times. There's even a section where you'll hike through hundreds of big, downed trees. A micro burst hit this area in late 2011 creating a mess. Workers have cut enough of the trees so hikers can get through this area on the trail without any problems. There are also several sections where you'll find boardwalks through meadows, that's to help you stay out of the marshy areas and protect the wetlands.
It's about two miles from Mills Lake to Black Lake with about 700 feet of elevation gain. The last section is steep and rocky, but the cascade created by the outflow of the lake is a treat. Pause here for a photo of the cascade with the mountain peak (Thatchtop) to the west. Then crest the ridge to the basin holding Black Lake.
Black Lake is a high alpine lake in a rocky bowl. Depending on when you visit, you'll likely see several cascades on the walls, feeding Black Lake. There are no bad pictures of Black Lake. You'll likely be tempted to walk part of the shoreline to see this lake from different angles.
When you're done exploring, you should see a trail on the east side of the lake. Cross the outflow of the lake and take the trail into the forest. You'll only be in the trees for a short distance, before you'll start climbing up the valley above Black Lake. This is a steep, rocky, skinny trail next to a beautiful cascade. Take your time as you climb here. While it's only about 1.4 miles from Black Lake to Frozen Lake, there's 1,000 feet of elevation gain in two steep sections -- this initial climb into the valley and the final climb to the lake.
At the top of the cascade, I read there was an unmarked fork/trail split. Go left for Blue Lake, go right for Green and Frozen. I never saw that trail split. I also read the trail was sporadic and difficult to follow, that was true. Third, I was warned that cairns in the area lead to lakes, climbing routes and camp sites so they can't be trusted. I found a variety of cairns, many helped me get through open places in the willows, but I don't think the cairns led me to my lake. Quite honestly, I knew Frozen Lake was to the west of Spearhead Mountain. So at the top of the valley above Black Lake, I turned right. I headed north to the next ridge, then headed west toward Spearhead. My advice? Look for cairns and the best way you can find through the willows, over the cascades and on the rock formations. You should see a steep rock face (with some tundra/grass) on the southwest side of Spearhead -- you will be climbing that to get to Frozen Lake. While our group split up and tried to find the best way to the top, no one found a good path. And I think the path I took down was even worse. I would tell you to stay to the left side of the rock wall, however, at the top of the rock wall, I figured out I had climbed higher than I needed to.
When you get to the top of the rock wall, you're not at Frozen Lake yet. There's still about 0.2 miles of hiking up and down, over big boulders and small rocks to get to Frozen Lake. But when you arrive, you'll be impressed. Former ranger Lisa Foster says in the Complete Hiking Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park that Frozen Lake is tied with Solitude Lake as the largest high-altitude tarns in the Glacier Gorge valley. The lake sits in a rock basis at 11,600 feet.
Make sure you have plenty of time to enjoy this scenic destination. You may want to hike around the north side of the lake to get a photo of the entire lake. You may want to hike half way around the lake to get a photo of the lake with some of the surrounding mountain peaks. When you're done exploring, find a comfortable rock and just enjoy this incredible place that few people ever see.
When you're done, find the best route you can back to Black Lake and the main trail. As you hike down the rock face, you may see Blue Lake in a rocky bowl on the far side of the valley, just below the mountain range on the east side of the valley. Blue Lake is not that far from the trail back down to Black Lake and looks like it would not be too hard to add on to this hike. I did not attempt to find Green or Italy Lakes because of stormy weather.
If you want more hikes, check out this list of 200+ great hikes in Colorado.
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Details: The hike to Frozen Lake (depending on how direct your route is) is about 6-6.3 miles each way with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.
Directions: From Denver take U.S. 36 through Boulder and Lyons to Estes Park. In Estes Park, turn left on Elkhorn Avenue (still U.S. 36). Drive through part of town. Watch for the signs that says U.S. 34 straight ahead and U.S. 36 turns left (Moraine Avenue) and turn left. Follow Moraine Avenue to the park's entrance. Just past the entrance station, turn left on Bear Lake Road. I recommend taking Bear Lake Road to the shuttle parking lot and riding the shuttle to Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Glacier Gorge Trailhead is the first trailhead to fill up each morning.