|Elevation Gain||938 ft|
|My Time||3 hr 19 min|
|Closest Town||Estes Park|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!
This is such a great winter hike!
I had done it in the summer and loved it but really loved it in the winter. Such a great lake!
Agree, I think most of the Rocky lakes are better in the winter!
This is absolutely one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve seen on your page. Thanks for all the pictures!
It is a pretty amazing place, especially in winter!!!