Day Hike to Shelf Lake and Solitude Lake in the Glacier Gorge
Nearby wildfires in Cameron, Colorado had us worried about the hiking conditions in Rocky Mountain National Park, but recent rains put our trepidation’s to rest. We decided to push for the two remaining lakes we haven’t visited yet in the Glacier Gorge area: Shelf Lake and Solitude Lake.
We arrived at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead at 5:15AM, well before the timed reservation system takes effect; however the parking lot was already 3/4 full. It seems almost like a tradition now to be at Mills Lake by sunrise, so we donned our headlamps for the first 2 miles of hiking.
Video of our Day Hike to Shelf Lake and Solitude Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park must have seen some precipitation in the last few days; cold temperatures overnight edged the trees with frost which created a curious illumination beneath the headlamps. The trail itself had changed consistency as well, the well-packed dusty dirt trail was ridden with puddles and in some places a bit spongy. It was important to tread carefully today to avoid slipping in the mud.
To avoid extra mileage, we detoured off Glacier Gorge Trail onto the Fire Trail that omits Alberta Falls and passes along the other side of Glacier Knob. The Fire Trail rejoins just before the four way intersection of Glacier Gorge Trail, the Loch, Lake Haiyaha and Mills Lake – the latter was our destination today.
Mills Lake was exceptionally quiet and peaceful before sunrise. No ripples marred the surface of the lake, but there was an odd mist rising from the water and surrounding trees which gave the scenery a spooky feel. At first, due to the considerable cloud cover we thought that the sunrise would be a wash, but suddenly the sun broke through and gave the sky an orange glow.
A customary visit was paid to Jewel Lake before we set off to conquer Shelf and Solitude Lakes. If this hike is on your bucket list, be warned that the trail branching off is easy to miss.
A half mile separates Glacier Gorge Campsite and the turn-off for Shelf and Solitude; we were sure to have our maps handy during this time. To the right, a cascade along Shelf Creek is visible – this is a good landmark indicating proximity to the junction. After spotting the waterfall, there is a large log cut in half to the right; through the opening lies the unmaintained trail to the lakes.
Once we passed through the severed log, it was clear that a path continued on across Glacier Creek which gave us confidence in our direction. In order to continue, we boulder hopped over two large, flat rocks to reach the other bank. From here the real work starts. Prior to our hike we read reviews warning of the extreme elevation gain in order to reach Shelf Lake – after crossing Glacier Creek the trail did not waste any time before winding in a steep uphill trend.
The 0.7 miles to Shelf Lake doesn’t seem daunting, but in that distance lurks 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The trail crosses through a predominantly wooded area, but we also found ourselves boulder hopping and using our hands on the uneven terrain.
The damp ground added a layer of difficulty to the climb, compromising our traction in places. The weather was unpleasant, but at least the canopy of trees protected us from rain and harsh winds. There are intermittent cairns along the trail, but it was easy enough to stay true to the trail without them.
The break in the trees was a welcome sight, denoting our juxtaposition to the destination. During this stretch, make sure to look behind at the valley below – it makes for a beautiful view of surrounding peaks. A few small bushwhacks later and we found ourselves atop a large boulder overlooking Shelf Lake.
Wind rippled the surface and the water embodied the greyness of the sky above. Even at 11,220 feet, the bulky shape of Thatchtop rims the right side of the lake while the Arrowhead forms a wall on the right. Directly across Shelf Lake is an unnamed waterfall that connects Shelf and Solitude; it made for a lovely background.
From Shelf Lake we traveled in the southwest direction and crossed over a gorgeous section of Shelf Creek flowing downwards. The trail is still visible in places until it tapers off near the cascade, though it’s plain to see in which direction to travel. From here, we ascended the flat rock slabs adjacent to the waterfall an additional 200 feet to Solitude Lake. During this time, the weather began to change for the worse; both rain and wind intensified.
Solitude Lake dwarfs Shelf Lake in total area and both the Arrowhead and Thatchtop Mountain are sharp profiles in the sky. Coincidentally, there are two Solitude Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park but they could not be more different. The Solitude Lake on the West Side is a small, shallow meadow pond, while the Solitude before our eyes today is the 11,420 ft rocky alpine tarn.
We hunkered down along the banks to grab some footage but the rain and cold were unavoidable. Though we both agreed that Shelf and Solitude Lakes look amazing in any weather, we would have much preferred to see them under a Colorado bluebird sky. After several moments spent marveling at the lake, we were ready to head back. By this time the rocks had become increasingly slippery in the falling rain, and we were sure to place our feet carefully.
Now that we were below Shelf Lake once more the conditions were much improved with trees protecting us from wind and rain. We had both lakes to ourselves, though on our descent we did pass a pair of hikers. Our cautious footfalls proved unsuccessful in some instances, we slipped a few times going down. We took an accidental detour and happened upon two hidden waterfalls on Shelf Creek – a great place for a photography break.
Soon we had returned to Glacier Creek and hopped back over to rejoin Black Lake Trail. Foot traffic on the trail had escalated and we passed several others en route to the Fire Trail. Despite our frequent trips to the Glacier Gorge, we had missed Glacier Falls, a hidden waterfall near Mills Lake.
A narrow bridge crosses Glacier Creek, which indicates the unmarked turnoff to visit the falls. We walked along the creek for 60 feet or so before getting a peek of the cascade. We couldn’t find a suitable way to get to the base of the falls, and it was partially hidden beneath downed trees. With a time restraint to be back to the trailhead by noon we bid goodbye to Glacier Falls with the idea to try to find a better route in the future.
Forty minutes later we found ourselves back at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Surprisingly there were 5 parking spots open – uncharacteristic for this lot. We figured the crap weather was deterring hikers from venturing out.
The round trip mileage to Shelf and Solitude Lakes measured 9.4 miles with an elevation gain of 2,400 feet. All eight named lakes in the Glacier Gorge are now checked off the list, though I’m certain this area of the park hasn’t seen the last of us!