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Mills Lake from Bear Lake Trailhead (Winter)

Distance6.67 mi
Elevation Gain938 ft
My Time3 hr 19 min
DifficultyModerate
Closest TownEstes Park
Food NearbyLonigans

Mills Lake from Bear Lake

Mills lake is a very popular lake hike in Rocky Mountain National Park that can be accessed by either the Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake Trailheads. I parked at Bear Lake so this hike will focus on that loop. If you are curious about Mills lake in the summer, you can read about that here.

Getting Started

There are a couple of main differences in starting from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead or the Bear Lake Trailhead on your way to Mills Lake. The first one is that the Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking lot is much smaller so you may, like me, get forced into starting at Bear Lake. From Bear Lake it is only about a tenth of mile longer according to a ranger but you will have to deal with a 300 foot incline to finish your hike if you start at Bear Lake.

The views from the early stages between Bear Lake and Mills lake show deep snow, moderate tree cover and mountains
The trail from the Bear Lake Parking lot towards Mills lake has some outstanding views

A big incline at the end of the hike means that the hike starts downhill! The short distance between the parking lot and the Glacier Gorge trail is pretty spectacular. When you first get on the trail you will want to head to the left away from Bear Lake. The trail will slope downward through some tall pines and then open up to some panoramic views of the mountains and park.

About a half mile down this path you will come to the junction with Glacier Gorge. Make sure you take the Glacier Gorge trail and not the trail to the parking lot with the same name. In the winter you will also want to have some traction. As you can see in the picture above the snow is rather deep so some people used snow shoes. I went with microspikes and tried to stay on the narrow path of hard packed dirt.

Glacier Gorge Trail

From the junction Glacier Gorge will take you the remaining three-ish miles to Mills Lake. The trail is gorgeous and has a great mix of woods and mountain views. The beginning of the trail takes you through mostly wooded areas where the deep snow mixes in with trunks to form a beautiful mix.

The sun above the path to Mills Lake from Bear Lake with pine trees poking out from the snow
The tall pines in the deep snow on the Glacier Gorge section on the way to Mills Lake

Glacier Gorge at this lower level has a pretty consistent 5-7% grade which isn’t usually challenging but remember that everything is a bit harder in the snow. As the trail hits some switchbacks the views will turn to the wider views of the park.

Just under halfway to Mills Lake from Bear Lake the views open up to show the distant mountains of the other side of the park.
The views from the switchbacks on Glacier Gorge show the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park

Alberta Falls

About a half mile down the Glacier Gorge trail is Alberta Falls. In the summers this is a very popular spot for people to be gathered but in the winter it is pretty much non-existent. I kept looking for the falls as a landmark but never saw anything. I was expecting a frozen cascade but I didn’t see that and any signage was also under snow. I only mention it so that those thinking the falls would be a good place to stop aren’t disappointed.

Past where the Falls may or may not have been the trail does get a little narrow. There are points where snowshoes need to be stepped directly in front of each other in a straight line to be able to make it. The views on this section of trail are really impressive as the woods clear a bit and the mountains come back into view.

Deeper snow that looks like it leads to a mountain on the way to Mills Lake from Bear Lake
As the trees thin out the mountains come into better view

Just under a mile on Glacier Gorge from the Falls (that aren’t there in winter), the trail will take a turn and continue down a somewhat narrow trail in a bit of a canyon. The canyon really opens up from a view perspective but also is your first taste of the winds that are common at the park in the winter.

Snow running down a narrow path but the ground around is cleared from winds blowing the snow away in a small canyon on the way to Mills Lake from Bear Lake
Looking down the narrow trail leading through the small canyon reveals the mountains and the wind

This canyon section is mostly flat and lasts about a half mile before heading back towards the woods.

To Mills Lake or the Loch

When you make it back into the woods the wind is blocked a bit by the cover which is a welcome feeling. After a short two-tenths of a mile jaunt you will come to another trail junction. This time you will have to decide on which lake you want to head to, Mills or Loch Vale. To head to Mills make sure you stay on Glacier Gorge.

After another quarter mile hike through the woods you will begin to climb a couple of hills and get into some open air. As the trees fade away the winds will kick back up so be prepared! From the open air area you can see some amazing rock features.

about 6 inches to a foot of snow is balancing ontop of an exposed rock under blue skies on the path to Mills Lake from Bear Lake
A few inches of snow sits on a rock on the Glacier Gorge Trail close to Mills Lake

THe trail continues some moderate inclines as you get closer to the lake before flattening out for the final stretch to the lakes edge. This last flat section takes a big brunt of the wind coming down from the mountains and across the flat lake.

The trail to Mills lake from Bear Lake starts to slope downwords toward the trees with tall mountains on either side.
Right before you can see Mills lake the winds really start to blow but the views are pefect

Mills Lake

Mills lake is one of my favorite places at Rocky Mountain National Park. I don’t think it is as crowded as some of the other lakes like Sky Pond and Dream Lake. It is a longer more narrow lake which sits perfectly framed by the mountains on either side.

A frozen Mills lake with different colored ice in different parts of the lake.  The sun is reflecting off the middle of the lake.
Mills Lake in a frozen state nestled in among the mountains

The lake sits just under 10,000 feet of elevation and will freeze in the winter. I of course will never suggest walking on a frozen lake unless you are 100% sure as to how frozen the water actually is! The wind was pretty harsh at the lake but there were spots to be found that blocked the wind a bit.

Mills lake frozen surrounded on three sides by mountains and pine trees.
A frozen Mills Lake

The trail does continue on past Mills lake but that is as far as I took it on this trip. If you do this hike remember that all the uphill on the way gets a little slick going downhill in the snow. Also if you parked at Bear Lake you are going to have a big incline waiting before finishing so save those legs!

Video of Mills Lake via Glacier Gorge

Distance and Elevation

If you don’t have the AllTrails app you might want to check it out, I really love mine. It records your progress and is a great way to search for hikes that are nearby and gives you difficulty measurements. According to AllTrails today’s hike was around 6.67 miles and had a total elevation gain of about 938 feet including undulations. That put the high point at around 9,955 feet. I was also moving for a total of 3 hours and 19 minutes.

Effort

Any time you hike in the snow it is going to be a little more effort. The hardpacked version of the trail is there but it is very narrow and if you step off of the the hardpack you can sink into a couple of feet of loose snow. Couple that with a few steep inclines and it makes for quite a bit of extra effort. Choosing between snowshoes and spikes can also change the effort level.

Terrain

There was about three to five feet of snow down on the ground around the park but there was a decent amount of hardpack in the middle. As soon as you stepped an inch to either side though you were going to sink in. The lakes were frozen very solid and there a ton of wind at the lakes and higher elevations so make sure you have a good wind break and face and head coverings. Eye protection for the wind is a good idea too!

Access

Rocky Mountain National Park has gone to a ticketing system during the summer. There are several time slots during the season available for each day that allow access to certain parts of the park. Check out Recreation.gov for tickets and more information.

This particular hike was started from the Bear Lake Trailhead which is located at the end of Bear Lake Road in the park. There is a big parking lot for probably over 100 cars but it fills up very quick. There are pit toilets available at the trailhead.

Wrapping up Mills Lake From Bear Lake

Mills Lake is one of my favorite hikes at Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake is absolutely stunning. It is also a little less crowded than some of the more popular hikes in the Bear Lake area.  While challenging, the hike is also something that can be accomplished.

Hiking in the winter comes with its own set of challenges. If you are going to try make sure you have the proper clothing and traction gear to complete the hike.  It is a wonderful time to hike if you are prepared and a wonderful hike to enjoy.

I have added this hike and all of my hikes to my interactive map page that you can find here. If you have a suggestion or comment you can email me at fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com. Or follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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