The final day of our 4 day vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park marked our return to colorful Glacier Gorge – and I mean this literally as we were planning a visit to Black Lake, Green Lake and Blue Lake. It was also on the agenda to extend our hike to encompass Frozen Lake and unofficially named “Italy Lake.” All of these alpine lakes are located in the upper Glacier Gorge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mills Lake and Jewel Lake were also tallied, despite our frequent visits.
Hiking the Upper Glacier Gorge
Video of our hike in the upper Glacier Gorge of Rocky Mountain National Park
Dave and Emily record their journey to 6 named Lakes in the upper Glacier Gorge of Rocky Mountain National Park, the ultimate video guide to seeing and preparing for the upper lakes of the Glacier Gorge.
August 15th 2020 – Early Wake up Call for a Big Day
With seven lakes, a sunrise at Mills Lake, and roughly 15 miles of hiking ahead of us, an early wake up at the Estes Park KOA was essential. A nosy bear had been intruding into camp recently, and although we didn’t meet him we made precautions to pack all our gear the night before. We made quick work of packing up the tent and were soon on our way to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. I can’t stress this enough – get to this trailhead early; even at 4:45AM the parking lot was ¾ full!
Mills Lake Sunrise
We set off with headlamps to our first destination: Mills Lake. We opted for the Fire Trail in order to save time and mileage and in two miles we arrived at the shores. Memorializing the gentleman responsible for the existence of Rocky Mountain National Park, Mills Lake is praised as one of the most beautiful within the park – and for good reason. The last in a string of “Pater Noster,” Mills Lake is rimmed by Longs Peak, Pagoda Mountain and a jagged stretch aptly named Keyboard of the Winds.
On the day of our hike, there were wildfires spread across Colorado and other parts of the United States. On this particular morning the sky was covered with a smoky haze and it was impossible to capture a sunrise – in fact, we could even smell traces of smoke in the air. Sometimes local fires can create vibrant sunrises, but today we were not so lucky. At any rate, Mills Lake still exuded beauty and was quite peaceful at the break of dawn.
Quick stop by Jewel Lake
Our route continued another 0.5 miles to see Jewel Lake, a shallow but remarkable lake adjacent to Mills. We stopped to snap some pictures but hurried on our way to Black Lake, approximately 1.7 miles one way from the end of Jewel Lake. It was quite a change from the last time we attempted Black Lake – there was no clambering over fallen trees and navigating off trail today; the trail running parallel to Glacier Creek was pleasant and lovely. It was further exemplified by the fact that we had encountered only two other hikers thus far.
Ribbon Falls in the Glacier Gorge
Woods filled with wildflowers eventually gave way to Ribbon Falls, a picturesque landmark that indicates your proximity to Black Lake. Ribbon Falls tumbles over some large boulders to start, then glides down a flat rock – it was fun to walk a bit off the beaten path along the water for a stretch. After climbing some stairs, we had arrived at Black Lake.
Arriving at Black Lake
On our last visit, Black Lake was completely frozen which made it difficult to discern the color, but true to form Black Lake is indeed darker in color. The name is derived from the sable hued granite coating the bottom and sides of the lake. While the color is curious, the real beauty of Black Lake (in my opinion) stems from the soaring cliffs of McHenrys Peak and a cascade pouring from Frozen Lake above.
At this point, the “official” trail comes to an end, but after crossing the mouth of Black Lake, a clear path cuts to the left along the bank. The trail circles the lake, then veers up and left to follow a creek that originates at Green Lake – a future destination of ours today. Our plan was to first hit the most distant lake first, Frozen Lake, cut over to Green Lake, push a tad further to “Italy Lake” and cap the whole thing off by retracing our steps to Blue Lake.
Hiking to Frozen Lake
Climbing up boulders framing the creek was exceedingly beautiful – it presents a dramatic birds’ eye view of Black Lake, and there are small cascades no matter which way your head is turned. As icing on the cake, the weather was ideal and we were blissfully alone. Upon entering the Upper Glacier Gorge, we were surrounded by peaks on all sides – it was a wondrous sight to behold.
Dispersed cairns lead the way to Frozen Lake but despite our best efforts we found ourselves off trail a few times. On this particular stretch I thought there were too many cairns and at times it was misleading. Though the path to Frozen Lake is considered an “unofficial trail,” it was much easier to navigate than other less visited lakes in the park due to the general lack of bushwhacking.
The Spearhead is a good landmark to use navigating to Frozen Lake, but steep uphill jaunts and a few “false lake summits” created the illusion of a hike longer than a mile and a half. Nonetheless, after climbing a final outcropping and double-checking our maps we had arrived at Frozen Lake.
Frozen Lake (11,578′)
Although we had read the night previous that Frozen Lake is the largest tarn in the Glacier Gorge area, we were not prepared for how massive it was! It was quite a chore finding a route down to the bank. We came at an opportune time of year, Frozen Lake was remarkably not frozen at all! There was however a good deal of snow piled on the bank and the water was probably the coldest I’ve felt in the park.
One major perk of our excursion to Frozen Lake was the White-tailed Ptarmigans, they were everywhere! Though they were not sporting the traditional white colored plumage coveted by bird enthusiasts, they had adorable summer freckles on display and they were rather vocal with us when we got near their nests. It was all we could do to tiptoe around them as best we could as we started in the direction of Green Lake.
Hiking to Green Lake from Frozen Lake
The one way distance from Black Lake to Frozen Lake measured 1.5 miles, and we tacked an additional 1.3 miles trekking over to Green Lake. After passing an unnamed pond close to the Frozen Lake Trail, we veered right and eventually spotted a rainbow shaped cairn indicating the path to Green Lake. Though the mileage was comparable, the incline was much less severe to Green Lake, though we did have to hop over several streams that boasted pint-sized waterfalls. A final rocky incline landed us on the bank of Green Lake.
Arriving at Green Lake (11,540′)
Green Lake serves as the initial lake of the “Pater Noster,” a Latin term that refers to the string of beads used when reciting the Roman Catholic Rosary prayers. In Rocky Mountain National Park it denotes a string of lakes along a connecting creek. Again true to its name, Green Lake emitted a shimmery blue-green color in the sunlight. A much needed photography break was taken, then came the final push to “Italy Lake” just above.
Clockwise or counter-clockwise direction around Green Lake is irrelevant – both courses are equally as difficult to reach “Italy Lake“. We tried our hand on both banks for the record, and the entire walking distance there and back was 0.5 miles.
“Italy Lake” (11,620′)
Italy Lake was unlike any we had encountered; there was a general hush around the lake which made the mountains echo around us. What’s more, if we listened carefully, we could hear chattering hikers on Longs Peak above us. Though it was tricky to determine the true boot-like shape of Italy Lake up close and personal, the tell-tale silhouette is easily identified from the ledges portion of the Longs Peak keyhole route.
With six lakes under our belt we were ready to tackle the final destination of the morning: Blue Lake. This required us to backtrack through the Upper Glacier Gorge to the point where we could see Black Lake from above. It was 0.7 miles back to the rendezvous location, then a bonus 0.3 miles one way to Blue Lake.
Despite the short mileage, we both agreed that Blue Lake was the most difficult to get to. There are no cairns to speak of and the trail is non-existent. We found ourselves bushwhacking and using our hands to scramble up rocks for the first time that day. Even checking our maps frequently proved useless trying to locate Blue Lake, and we overshot the “trail” several times before crashing through some final shrubs to reach our target.
Blue Lake (11,140′)
The effort was well worth the destination: Blue Lake is a gorgeous sapphire with striking 360 views of the park. The haze of the morning had dissipated and we could see clear across the park to the Mummy Range. It was the best way to end our arduous journey.
We spent about 30 minutes exploring around Blue Lake. Dave went to the northern most part of the lake to get a better photograph of the lake and to snag some GoPro footage.
Out of the 40+ lakes we’ve visited so far, Dave thinks that Blue Lake is one of the best lakes to photograph in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Returning Back to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead
After soaking in the splendor and reveling in our accomplishments, we headed back down toward Black Lake. On our descent we met a few other hikers, our first of the day despite the late morning hour. The crowds increased as we neared Mills Lake, but as soon as we turned on the Fire Trail shortcut, we were hiking solo once more.
Altogether, our hike amounted to 14.5 miles, with 3,200 feet of elevation gain – a trip that took us roughly 8 hours. Hiking to all of these lakes required lots of ascending and descending, and good route finding skills can be extremely helpful. The area above Black Lake is a very remote area of Rocky Mountain National Park and other hikers are scarce. A topography map, compass, knowledge of landmarks, GPS and emergency SOS device are highly recommended if you plan to pursue this hike. There is no cell phone service in the Upper Glacier Gorge.
This was a poignant hike for me personally; the first hike Dave and I did together was Black Lake in November 2019. Now, nine months later with countless lakes and peaks behind us, we still find ourselves stepping along a trail to pursue that flighty temptress: Adventure.
Have you Hiked the upper Glacier Gorge Before? Any Questions?
Have you hiked any of these lakes before or climbed the surrounding destinations? We would love to hear your experience. Looking to hike the upper Glacier Gorge and have questions? Photo, video advice? Please leave a comment below, we love discussion!