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Alberta Falls and Mills Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park

July 1st, 2008

5.6 miles
930 vertical feet
Total Time: 5:18

Starting elevation
9203 feet
Max elevation
9971 feet

Rating: 7/10

Directions: From Estes Park, take Highway 36 into the park. Turn left onto Bear Lake road. Follow it uphill to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead on the left. Alternatively, park in the Park and Ride and take the shuttle bus up.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

When we approached the Park and Ride, signs told us that both the Glacier Gorge and Bear Lake parking lots were full. We parked and took the shuttle bus up (about a 10 minute trip). The parking lot at Glacier Gorge is much smaller than the one at Bear Lake, so it's likely to be full unless you arrive early. There's also an alternative trail which you can take from the Bear Lake trailhead which is roughly the same distance, and joins the same trail after about 0.3 or 0.4 miles.

The nice thing about starting from Glacier Gorge is that there aren't nearly as many people. At least, when we started there were just a handful of people getting off the bus. We started off down the trail, which quickly levels off and then starts climbing on some steps braced by logs. As we walked, we enjoyed the sight of aspens and some views of the mountains to the south.

View of aspens and mountains

After 0.3 miles, we came to a trail intersection. To the right is the Bear Lake trailhead, so we turned left to head toward Alberta Falls. Shortly after this intersection is a very nice aspen grove. It is true that many of the aspens have been carved with initials, although I didn't find this as disturbing as the author of the hiking book I was using. Still, it is unfortunate.

Aspen grove

We continued on the steady uphill climb and shortly came to Alberta Falls, after only about 45 minutes from the trailhead. The falls are situated at a bend in the trail and it's hard to get a full straight-on view of the falls. I mostly did so by walking down to the water and stepping onto a large rock jutting out into the river.

Alberta Falls

Alberta Falls

Since the falls are so close to the main trailheads, and people seem to love waterfalls, it was a complete zoo here. There must have been 100 people stopped at the falls at once. I'm much more of a lake person than a falls person. So after we took our lunch break off to the side (away from the crowds), we continued on the trail past the falls. I wasn't convinced we could make it all the way to Mills Lake, since Nathan had only ever hiked 3 miles by himself at once (and this would be more than 5 miles), but it was too soon to stop hiking so we'd at least continue a bit further before heading back.

Hikers taking a break at Alberta Falls

As we started up the trail, we felt a few rain drops, and the clouds began to move in. But the drops stopped shortly and we continued up the trail, which climbs steeply above the falls. We were rewarded with better and better views of the surrounding mountains and forests. This is the toughest part of the hike, and it seemed like forever before we reached the next trail intersection. But we did make it and were rewarded with the best views yet.

Well, since we'd come this far (about 1.7 miles into the hike), what was another 1.1 miles to reach the lake? We met someone else on the trail here and they said they thought most of the climbing was over, so we went ahead and hiked on toward Mills Lake. The trail indeed does flatten out for a while, heading on the trail through talus with a few sprinkled wildflowers. Though the slope above is strewn with rocks, the trail itself is in pretty good condition, mostly free of rocks.

View from the trail about a mile from Mills Lake

Trail through the steep talus

After this section, we shortly reached the next trail intersection (0.5 miles from the last one). There are three choices here, and we took the leftmost one, which heads toward Mills Lake. Unfortunately, it's not flat. It climbs, steeply at times, on a series of rock and log steps. There are also a couple stream crossings over wooden logs. We also encountered a snow patch or two.

Crossing a footbridge over Glacier Creek

Near the end, the trail crosses over large rocks before reaching the edge. By this time it had started to sprinkle again, and it really started to rain harder when we finally reached the edge of Mills Lake. It had actually only taken us about 35-40 minutes to cover the last 1.1 miles. Unfortunately, because of the rain and distant thunder, we couldn't stay long.

Mills Lake

Mills Lake

A large group of hikers packed up and put on their rain gear as we arrived. A duck swam in the lake. We took a short break, trying to enjoy the lake in the rain. It would be a great place for a lunch break or extended stay, but because of the weather we packed up shortly and headed back the way we came. We made good time heading back downhill, reaching Alberta Falls in just over an hour. Along the way, the rain stopped. When we reached the falls, the weather was pleasant and it was packed with people again.

Enjoying the view on the way back

Wild flowers at base of aspens at Alberta Falls

After all that hiking without much stopping, we were hungry, so we took a break to eat, then made the easy hike back to the trailhead. Jared, much to my surprise, walked all the way back to the trailhead from the falls by himself (he is only 2 1/2). I guess he didn't appreciate being carried the whole time from the falls to the lake and back. This would just be a precursor of what would follow two days later, though. Kids can amaze you sometimes.

We arrived at the trailhead just as a bus was leaving, so we had to wait about 10 minutes to take the next one. After a long day of hiking, though, it was nice to just sit and relax at the quiet bus stop.

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