It was a beautiful winter hike the Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, February 2nd 2020. We arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 4:54am. The golden hour for sunrise was slated to occur around 6:50am; we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to get to The Loch. Snowshoes are occasionally needed to hike to alpine lakes; we brought them but the trail was well packed and they were not needed.
Save Time Hiking to The Loch, Mills Lake, with the Winter Trail
This hike is rated as moderate and clocks in at 5.7 miles round trip. If you are interested in saving time and mileage, there is a short cut that will shave off about 1.8 miles round trip. If you don’t mind missing out on Alberta falls, look for a path to the right approximately a half mile on the Glacier Gorge trail; it will show up on most maps as either the fire trail or winter trail.
Today the trail was well packed and easy to follow. However, this is not always the case; a month ago I hiked this trail and it snowed the day prior. I had to make the trail myself with snowshoes on.
Sunrise Photography at The Loch
Elevation: 10,190 ft
Made it to The Loch at 6:00am, in about an hour, nearly 45 minutes from sunrise. The winds were gusting about 30mph, and the temperature was around 20 degrees. Although the actual temperature was bearable, the windchill on The Loch was cold.
Weathering cold temperatures is sometimes required for landscape photography. Arriving early gave me plenty of opportunity to walk the entire lake to search for interesting compositions. I’m drawn to rocks and cracks in ice to accentuate the foreground of my compositions.
Landscape photography requires some luck; you can arrive at location on time, the weather is manageable, batteries are charged, tripod is on hand and a great composition is ahead of you. You do everything right. Sometimes your photos turn out fantastic; today was one of those days.
The clouds were plentiful and the colors were out of this world facing North. Taylor Peak was austere, but had low hanging clouds obscuring its grandeur.
Winter Hike to Mills Lake from The Loch
After photographing the sunrise for roughly 45 minutes our toes were completely frozen despite wearing snow boots and mountaineering socks. Emily had on toe-warmers but they were useless.
The original plan was to head up to Sky Pond after sunrise, but if winds are brutal at The Loch that means that they most likely worse at Sky Pond. We made a decision to hike to Lake Haiyaha instead.
We attempted the left hand turn to head to Lake Haiyaha, but the snow was knee to waist deep. Neither of us felt like hiking 4 miles with snowshoes; a plan C was formulated to hike to Mills Lake.
Video of our Sunrise Hike to Loch Vale, then Mills and Jewel Lakes
Mills Lake – Elevation: 9,940 ft
It was roughly 1.5 miles to hike from The Loch to Mills Lake. I’m glad that we made the decision to travel to Mills Lake because it is one of my favorite alpine lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve been there 3 times in the last 3 months and every time the frozen lake looks different.
The north end of the lake was bubbly with lots of photo opportunities; the south end of the lake was the smoothest ice on an alpine lake I’ve even witnessed. Really wish I had ice skates, and actually knew how to ice skate 🙂
We spent 30 minutes or so walking on the frozen lake enjoying the scenery; the ice bubbles, the ice cracks, all the amazing things that frozen alpine lakes offer. Once we got to the end we attempted to walk to Jewel Lake by walking on Glacier Creek.
Winter Hike to Jewel Lake
The distance from Mills Lake to Jewel Lake is a 2 minute walk. Judging by the state of Glacier Creek, several hikers had fallen through layers of ice and water.
Be aware that you need to take caution when walking on frozen creeks and lakes. Small creeks are more susceptible to caving in when walking on them. The safety concerns of walking on a frozen creek or lake will be saved for another blog post. This is my advice: have a plan in place if your foot falls through the ice or if you become submerged completely.
Jewel Lake was incredible; there aren’t as many cool cracks and ice bubbles as Mills Lake, but this may have to do with the size of the lake. We walked on the frozen Jewel Lake looking for intriguing ice formations for 10 minutes then decided to head on back to the trail head.
After 4 hours 40 minutes, 7.5 miles, 1,237 ft of elevation gain, we made it back to the trailhead before 10am. At this time the parking lot was pretty much full; although we did not see that many people on these popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. From here we headed back to Denver, stopping at Oskar Blues in Lyons for lunch.
For more details on our winter sunrise hike to The Loch, Mills and Jewel Lakes, you can check out my Alltrails recording here.